While teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, Bruce Nauman teamed up with Robert Nelson and William Allen to probe the transitional realm between film and video: he produced his first videotapes in 1968. Nauman explored the boundaries of everyday situations with his body, using video as a medium like a theatre stage or a surveillance device in an installation context. He was influenced in this by the experimental approaches of his contemporaries Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass. Nauman continues to work in a participatory, process-oriented way as he explores time, space and light. He pilots both artist and viewer out of their traditional roles, steering them in unexpected directions.
Flesh to White to Black to Flesh is an exploratory performance piece about and with the human body. Nauman concentrates here on the process of self-discovery and transformation, while also examining the relationship between light, shadow and colour. The viewers’ gaze is guided straight to the human torso, which seems to be engulfed by its white surroundings. Viewers can discover the reflective characteristics of the colour white for themselves. Nauman presents his naked upper body to the camera as he meticulously applies white and black layers of pigment to his face, arms and chest, then removes them again. He cleans himself in black, as if taking on a new identity, before ending this journey by returning to his naked skin, all traces of colour having been removed. Nauman himself gave this explanation: “If you can manipulate clay and end up with art, you can manipulate yourself in it as well. It has to do with using the body as a tool, an object to manipulate.”1 Beyond the connection to body art and the idea of treating the human body as an artistic subject and material, Nauman stages a process of self-transformation – a mask that is applied and removed – in an endless loop.
1 Quoted in Neal Benezra, “Surveying Nauman”, in Bruce Nauman, exh. cat. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis et al., Minneapolis, 1994, p. 16.
In the exhibition:
Bruce Nauman Flesh to White to Black to Flesh, 1968 Betacam SP, mono, black and white 51:52 min Video Data Bank
f.l.t.r.: Bruce Nauman, Flesh to White to Black to Flesh, 1968 / Timm Ulrichs, Die weißen Flecken meiner Körper-Landschaft. Kenn-Zeichnung der mir niemals direkt sichtbaren Bereiche meines Körpers (Brust und Rückenaufnahme), 1968
Exhibition view: NOTHINGTOSEENESS, Akademie der Künste, 2021.
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