October 7, 2009
Poor judgment in curatorial practice abounds but occasionally an error in curatorial decision-making becomes so glaringly obvious that it must be pointed out so that other curators can avoid the same mistake. Such is the case with the Chicago Art Institute’s poor choice of situating Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture” video installation 20 feet from Robert Ryman’s “The Elliott Room (Charter Series)” and sharing Gallery 295B in the Modern Wing.
The Rymans are gorgeous “oils” in his characteristic fetish whites on anodized aluminum panels, some as large as eight feet. The installation itself is clearly about one’s perceptual encounter with the panels; experiencing the pristine and exacting beauty of minimal art. Presumably a viewer could spend some quality time with these panels as the Art Institute has thoughtfully provided a large bench squarely in the center of the Ryman room.
This is where I seated myself in a recent visit to the Art Institute, to commune a bit with the Rymans. However, it was immediately apparent that my visual interaction with the wide expanse of luscious whites would not be peaceful, for the audio cacophony of Nauman’s “Clown Torture” spills over into the Ryman space. And when I say “spill” I do not mean just a trickle of sound.
“Clown Torture” is a disturbing work by any estimation, consisting of six channels running Nauman’s video:
The monitors play four narrative sequences in perpetual loops, each chronicling an absurd misadventure of a clown, who is played to brilliant effect by the actor Walter Stevens. According to the artist, distinctions may be made among the clown protagonists; one is the “Emmett Kelly dumb clown; one is the old French Baroque clown; one is a sort of traditional polka-dot, red-haired, oversized show clown; and one is a jester.” In “No, No, No, No (Walter),” the clown incessantly screams “No!” while jumping, kicking, or lying down; in “Clown with Goldfish,” he struggles to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling with the handle of a broom; in “Clown with Water Bucket,” he repeatedly opens a door that is booby-trapped with a bucket of water, which falls on his head; and finally, in “Pete and Repeat,” he succumbs to the terror of a seemingly inescapable nursery rhyme: “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat.”
I can appreciate the absurdity, the unhinged madness of Nauman’s work. Certainly it is as much a perceptual experience, albeit a more disturbing one, as the Ryman room just around the corner. But why would the curators place these works in such close proximity to one another? Surely they had a trial run with the Nauman video to check and establish sound levels and video quality. Wouldn’t someone, even an intern, have noted then that the sound from the Nauman installation, which the museum describes as “an assault on viewers’ aural and visual perception,” invades and disrupts the ostensibly contemplative experience of the Ryman paintings in the next room?
Surely it was not the intention of the Art Institute for my contemplation of the Rymans to have the unintentional “soundtrack” of Walter Stevens screaming at the top of his lungs, “No, no, no!”
But then again, stranger things have occurred in museums of late. Perhaps the curators were after some kind of ironic intervention to mock the idea of “contemplation.” If they wanted to pair the subdued minimalist beauty of the Rymans with distracting noise they should have rented storefront space down on Wabash under “The El.” There the viewer’s appreciation of those Ryman “whites” would have been as effectively destroyed by the randomly thundering rattle of the train overhead.