Clown Torture – Bruce Nauman (1987)

Clown Torture – the very title of this work marks the beginning of a viewers’ complicated interaction with Bruce Nauman’s spectacular video installation piece. As a result, before one has even entered the closed dark space, two seemingly juxtaposing words – clown and torture – force ambiguous contemplation; who is being tortured? Are the clowns themselves participating in the torture? What is meant by torture? Inside the dark room, an incessant and indiscernible noise, or ‘sound bleed,’ interrupts all chain of thought. 

In the blackened room, viewers are confronted with two pairs of screens stacked on top of each other atop pedestals, and two larger projections facing each other on opposite walls. One of these monitors is upside down, another on its side. Playing on these screens and projections are six confusing and rather eerie looped videos. One shows a clown reciting a nursery rhyme; “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat.” A second video simply titled ‘No!’ depicts a clown screaming the word incessantly, whilst kicking and stomping on the ground. A third, as if through the lens of a security camera, shows a clown on the lavatory. The fourth – a struggling clown trying to balance a goldfish bowl on a ceiling with broom stick. The fifth – a clown repeatedly opens a door, triggering the fall of a bucket of water on his head. The last, is a clown screaming at someone of camera we cannot see.

The work is loud, intolerably loud, as all six videos blare out their discord. The clowns are ugly, and deliberately exaggerated in their attire and make-up. The videos themselves are raw, and electrical cords, lights, and microphones, can be seen left on set. However, in the midst of this confusion and turmoil, one must notice that no clown here is actually being tortured. Of course, the videos depict clowns in distinctly uncommon ways, behaving in an erratic and mundane manner that contrasts with their typical professional demeanour, but surely this cannot constitute torture? 

Who then, is being tortured? We, the audience, are Nauman’s target. For not only are our senses being harassed by this carnival of noise, but we are forced to confront the most uncomfortable of realities. In a darkened room, noisy and unfamiliar, the artist forces his audience to become self-conscious participants. One becomes conscious, that is to say, of their response to what they are watching. Are we disgusted? Do we laugh? Do we, even, refuse to see ‘art’ in a spectacle that is not beautiful or sane? Just as the eccentric appearance of the clowns implies an artifice or facade, so Nauman seems to attempt to deconstruct the facade of viewers as they admire and indeed, experience art.  

To watch the installation, click here

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