Hong Kong Bruce Nauman retrospective traces the American multimedia artist’s work over 6 decades – and it’s no easy show

One of his most cited quotes underlines this: “Sunsets, flowers, landscapes – these kind of things don’t move me to do anything. I just want to leave them alone. My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition, and how people refuse to understand each other, and how people can be cruel to each other.”

The first piece visitors to the Bruce Nauman retrospective at Tai Kwun Contemporary see is a neon spiral with the words: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”, from 1967. Photo: Tai Kwun Contemporary
Nauman, who was born in the United States in 1941, is still producing groundbreaking video art and sculpture that show a strong use of the body (whether his own, other people’s or those of animals), and work under one of his main themes: words as art.

At the Tai Kwun Contemporary exhibition in Central, called simply “Bruce Nauman”, a towering sculpture titled Animal Pyramid (1989) features polymer taxidermy moulds of foxes arranged upside down on top of rows of deer and caribou.

Bruce Nauman,’s Animal Pyramid (1989). Photo: Tai Kwun Contemporary

It is a macabre work that invites reflection on the violence humans inflict on other living creatures.

Pi Li, the exhibition’s curator, who recently became head of art at Tai Kwun after many years curating the M+ Sigg Collection at Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture in West Kowloon, says: “Now that Hong Kong’s artistic landscape has been transformed, with many new venues and the growth of contemporary art, it is time to bring to a wider public knowledge of the work of influential contemporary artists from across the world.

“More and more, Hong Kong will become a destination for Asian tourists to fly here just to see art shows.”

The Tai Kwun show comprises 35 works spanning media from video and sound art to neon, sculpture and drawings.

The diversity of the pieces on show required a lot of heavy lifting by the curatorial team, which, as well as Li, includes Caroline Bourgeois, chief curator of the Pinault Collection, and Carlos Basualdo, chief curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The works have been assembled from a wide range of collections and museums including the Pinault Collection, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dia Art Foundation and the Sonnabend Collection Foundation.

It is not an easy show, but Hong Kong artists and the Hong Kong public are ready to see this kind of art

Pi Li, curator of Tai Kwun Contemporary’s Bruce Nauman retrospective

The exhibition is in part a re-elaboration of a 2021 show that was held at Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

Some of the pieces on show, such as Nauman’s neon works, resonate with the urban landscape of Hong Kong.

The first work encountered upon entering the show is a winding spiral with the words: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” in pale blue and red.

Further in, a Vietnam war-era neon work titled WAR/RAW (1971) feels all too contemporary given the armed conflicts taking place around the world today.

Bruce Nauman’s WAR/RAW (1971). Photo: Tai Kwun Contemporary
One of Nauman’s most interesting series is “Contrapposto, which, true to form, features works related to the body. The title is a classical Italian term used to describe statues in which much of the figure’s weight falls on one leg, creating two non-parallel lines between the hips and the shoulders (think Michelangelo’s David).

As part of the series, a video piece from 1968 called Walk with Contrapposto shows a young Nauman walking down a narrow corridor while holding a contrapposto pose, in a simple reflection on classical art that also highlights the suppleness of youth.

Newer explorations in this lifelong series appear in Contrapposto Studies, and include videos from 2017 of an older Nauman spliced at the waist with a less athletic body.

The images are best viewed wearing 3D glasses, and provide a reflection on age and our relationship with classical art and its glorification of eternal youth.

Bruce Nauman’s Thank You (1992) is one of several video pieces by the artist on display at the exhibition. Photo: Tai Kwun Contemporary

Words are another obsession for Nauman. From strategically positioned speakers at the exhibition, words and phrases, such as “thank you”, play over and over, making them lose meaning and feel almost threatening or disquietingly absurd.

Pi says that Nauman has been a highly influential artist in the contemporary Chinese art scene.

He recalls how Chinese artist Zhang Peili “did some of his works without knowing Bruce Nauman, in China, in the 80s and 90s – like when he washed a chicken for one full hour, a video that is now at the Chicago Institute of Art, or in another instance when he broke a piece of glass, and glued it together, then broke it again and glued it and so on.

Bruce Nauman’s Washing Hands Normal (1996) video piece featured at the exhibition. Photo: Tai Kwun Contemporary

“But when he saw Bruce Nauman’s work his feelings got very complicated; he felt what he was trying to do had already been made! He got really interested in Bruce Nauman after that.”

According to Pi, the impact Nauman had in China was significant, even before he became known by his Chinese contemporaries.

Hong Kong artists Ellen Pau and Samson Young say Pi has also been inspired by Nauman’s body of work – especially in his experiments in sound and video art.

As Pi himself says: “That’s why I thought now is the time to present Bruce Nauman in Hong Kong. It is not an easy show, but Hong Kong artists and the Hong Kong public are ready to see this kind of art.”

“Bruce Nauman”, JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central, Tue-Sun, closed on Monday except for public holidays, 11am-7pm. Until August 18.


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