PROPERTY FROM THE DONALD AND SHIRLEY WEESE YOUNG COLLECTION WITH PROCEEDS INTENDED TO BENEFIT ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS
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Representing an enchanting marriage of formal beauty and masterful artistry, Bruce Nauman’s Fish Fountain is a rhapsodic indulgence of the senses. Cast in bronze and copper, the fountain consists of a swirling column of seven fish, elegantly arranged at the center of a pond-like basin. Arrested mid-turn, the fish cut smooth arcs through the air, and their gentle curves and circular orientation echo the form of the pool below. The calming sounds of trickling water envelop the viewer as streams of water splash into the basin before rippling out in sparkling, undulating waves, while dappled sunlight reveals the lustrous patinated sheen of the bronze and copper and elicits sensations of warmth and liveliness.
Each fish in this topographical formation rises slightly higher than the one before it, with the lowest fish appearing to rest just on top of the water and the highest one standing over four feet tall. Staggered thus, the fish are separated from one another, making it possible to see the different sides of each fish and leaving blocks of empty space between them. Underscoring the artist’s renown as a celebrated sculptor, Nauman’s adept manipulation of positive and negative space in Fish Fountain is an instrumental factor in the sculpture’s captivating presence. Depressed into the earth, the space of the basin is filled with water while the fish ascend into the empty space above, producing a sophisticated inversion of the usual relationship between fish, air and water. This dynamic also creates the illusion that the fish are floating in an aquarium, a visual that gains vibrancy as the viewer walks around the sculpture.
With the fish motif, Nauman taps into the storied tradition of using fish as symbols in mythology, folklore and more that dates back to the earliest days of human civilization and appears in many of the world’s great religions and faiths. In Western traditions, the fish’s status in the Christian faith has its origins in the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (the only miracle to appear in all four Gospels) in which Jesus fed a large crowd of people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. In the East, the fish is a symbol of unity, harmony, abundance and overcoming obstacles, since fish, particularly koi, swim in pairs, produce many eggs, and must battle opposing currents to reach spawning grounds. Fish are also one of the eight sacred Buddhist symbols, meaning happiness, good fortune and freedom, and, linked to the idea that water is the giver of life, the fish has become associated with sustenance, nourishment, health, wealth and prosperity. The word for “carp” in the Chinese language is a homophone, moreover, and shares the same pronunciation with words that mean “abundance,” “affluence,” “strength” and “power.” Given that word play as an artistic strategy appears frequently in Nauman’s art, with examples including the 1981–2 neon work Violins Violence Silence and his cast iron sculpture of a bound male torso, Henry Moore Bound to Fail, this doubling of language lends another layer of nuance to Fish Fountain.
Bruce Nauman is known for his groundbreaking work that provokes physical, emotional and intellectual responses from his viewers. As such, Nauman has included in Fish Fountain several elements that hint at something slightly awry beneath the surface. Beyond the visual incongruity of fish floating in air, Fish Fountain also recalls the popular idiom “a fish out of water,” a term used to describe someone who feels uncomfortable in a given situation. Certainly, upon closer inspection there does appear to be something rather unsettling about fish riddled with holes from which water spurts, gushes and sometimes dribbles. Furthermore, similar to his iconic sculptures of heads, hands and such animals as foxes, caribou and deer made with molds, Nauman has left some of the details of the fountain’s creation, like seams in the fish, visible. Another common theme in Nauman’s work, the concept of failure, can also be linked to this idea of the discomforting and the uncanny. As a mechanical work, Fish Fountain relies on all of its parts to function so that it can produce streams of water. If any of its parts were to fail and the fountain was denied this function, it would become some other type of object entirely.
The theme of an object removed from its function is part of a rich art historical legacy that began with Marcel Duchamp’s seminal work Fountain, which was a great influence on Bruce Nauman’s conceptual-based practice as well as a work that he quoted years later in Self-Portrait as a Fountain. In Duchamp’s work as well as Nauman’s, commonplace objects and actions take on the identity and aura of artworks through the actions of the artist. Anything can be art, in other words, if the artist intends it to be presented and interpreted as such. In 1964, when Nauman graduated college, where he studied mathematics, physics and art, the world was dominated by Pop Art and Minimalism, and there was a seeming dearth of possible artistic practices available to a driven young artist. Nauman created his last painting in 1965, after which he began a restless investigation into the possibilities of sculpture, performance, installations, film, video, photography and neon. Nauman is especially lauded for his sculptures, which synthesize formal excellence with philosophical acuity, and his most popular themes include animals, control over life or art, and communication with the audience. In the present work, for example, Nauman’s sculpture shows animals defying expectations and acting out of accordance with the laws of nature.
Sitting squarely within Nauman’s oeuvre, Fish Fountain continues to plumb the depths of how we separate what is art from what is not.
Cast in 2003, Fish Fountain is a critical work in Nauman’s oeuvre, and it foreshadows his well-known large-scale installation One Hundred Fish Fountain that was realized two years later. Similar to One Hundred Fish Fountain, the fish in the present work are all based on real fish found near Washington Island in the Great Lakes, and they represent different species of fish. Although Nauman largely rejects biographical interpretations of his work, he has noted that he selected fish indigenous to the Midwest because that was where he had fished as a boy with his father. The sculpture also references Nauman’s friendship with prominent Chicago dealer Donald Young, who caught the fish modeled in the sculpture.
In yet other readings of Nauman’s fountains, the works have garnered attention for the way they resemble a Dutch or Flemish still life, only cast in metal instead of rendered in paint. In a visual sense, the fish certainly evoke the nature morte paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries; however, there are conceptual similarities as well, particularly in both works’ suggestions of mortality. In Fish Fountain, the fish are removed from their natural habitat, and their glide through the water has been arrested. Yet even though they are not submerged, they still make sounds and movement in the water as they pump rivulets of it into the pool below. This removal from the water, this purposeful space between the fish and the source of life, echoes the total removal from the world represented by death. Just as still lifes point out the viewer’s mortality with short-lived food, flowers or candles, Fish Fountain exemplifies Nauman’s defining investigations into human nature and the boundaries of art, highlighting why he is one of the most enigmatic and crystallizing artists of the contemporary era.