Blazing the words Eat Death, this neon from 1972 shouts out its enigmatic message in electric light. The words sound straight from the pages of a comic book, and we imagine figures from Lichtenstein paintings calling them out against the rattle of their machinegun - 'Eat death!'
The overlapping letters in Eat Death illustrate the interest in words and wordplay that has characterized many of Nauman's greatest works. This appears to have grown from the same source that gave him such a thirst, in the early days, for mathematics and philosophy: 'I didn't become [a mathematician], but I think there was a certain thinking process which was very similar and which carried over into art. This investigative activity is necessary' (Nauman, 1979, quoted in N. Benezra, 'Surveying Nauman', pp.13-46, exh. cat., Bruce Nauman, ed. Joan Simon, Minneapolis, 1994, p.15). He takes words to pieces like mathematical rules, constructs and formulae, reassembling and rearranging them in jarring ways that force us to confront them anew. Puns litter his early creations, for instance Bound to Fail and From Hand to Mouth. A deceptive playfulness allowed Nauman to present self-analyzing, self-deprecating themes under the cover of humor. Nauman was exploring language's potential, and indeed its fallibility, in these explorations of meaning. His signs tend to focus on the strange and arbitrary nature of words, and their interrelationships. What chance placed the word EAT within the word DEATH, or made WAR the reverse of RAW? These words, simple labels for vast human concepts, seem all the more ridiculous when emblazoned in bright neon. This shows the extended legacy within Nauman's thinking of artists such as Man Ray and Duchamp and writers such as the ultimate wordsmith, Nabokov, and the master of logic, Wittgenstein.
This last was the most important catalyst in the development of Nauman's art during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, Nauman was marked by Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, as well as his earlier statement that 'What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent' (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden, London, 2002, p. 27). It is precisely this area, where the clarity of language finds itself muddied, in which Nauman revels in his art. He finds and exploits the ambiguity of words and word combinations, playing with the letters like a cryptologist, or a crossword setter. Nauman's Eat Death is a word puzzle without a solution, an undeniable, unmoveable conundrum reinforced by the juxtaposition of two words that seem so opposed to each other. Eating is taking sustenance - we fuel ourselves to live - while DEATH is the end of life. The superimposed EAT in this work attempts to take precedence, but cannot avoid being enveloped by DEATH. This is thus an enigma of concepts as well as words, juxtaposing two known words to highlight an unfamiliar zone of understanding:
'I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs. Roland Barthes has written about the pleasure that is derived from reading when what is known rubs up against what is unknown... If you only deal with what is known, you'll have redundancy; on the other hand, if you only deal with the unknown, you cannot communicate at all. There is always some combination of the two, and it is how they touch each other that makes communication interesting' (Nauman, in R Storr, 'Beyond Words', pp.47-66, Simon (ed.), loc.cit., 1994, p.55).
So in Eat Death, these common words combine in an uncommon union, making us confront their individual meanings in a new light, and puzzling through their joint meaning. This neon is therefore the bastard spawn of the memento mori in Dutch still life paintings featuring skulls and fruit, explicitly linking ingestion and expiration with such force that we cannot help but seek some connection between the two. We cannot avoid pondering the reasons for this artwork, for this link in Nauman's mind, and in the English language.
Already at college Nauman had experimented with neon as a medium for his art, but it was only really in the late 1960s that he began to use it to display words. These were sometimes sentences, sometimes word puzzles like this one, sometimes static, sometimes flashing in particular sequences. Like so much of his art, this medium allowed Nauman to create an 'Art that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn't give you any trace of whether you're going to like it or not' (Nauman, quoted in Joan Simon, 'Breaking the Silence', interview with the artist, pp.106-115, Bruce Nauman, ed. C. van Assche, exh. cat., London, 1998, p.107). This is the medium of shop frontages, of consumerism, of advertising, and Nauman has hijacked it. Into an everyday medium associated with sales and commerce, Nauman has smuggled an existential, philosophical puzzle, and in so doing has lent it more force. The openness of signs, explored in Pop art and in Ruscha's paintings, is here twisted to new effect. There is a brazen yet honest all-American quality attached to signage that we trust, and Nauman uses this to add weight to his artistic conundrum.
Perhaps Nauman's most famous neon was The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign). This brave and assertive slogan shone, luminous and earnest, from the window of his studio, a converted shop. Discussing this work, and this statement, Nauman readily admits that he was unsure about its truth. However, converting it into a neon, enshrining it in his art, and placing it on public display, 'was a kind of test - like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it' (Nauman, quoted in Storr, op.cit., 1994, p. 62). The same is true of Eat Death: milling over the words and their interrelationship in one's mind is a wholly different experience from emblazoning it on a wall, or seeing it so emblazoned. At the same time, Eat Death reveals Nauman's own continued adherence to the concept of the artist as the revealer of mystic truths: in taking these words and forcing the viewer to mull them over, to truly consider them and their relationship, he is guiding us along a path of understanding. He himself does not know what the mystic truth is. He is not interested in the solution of the puzzle. Instead, he reveals its location and invites us to seek out our own mystique truths, Eat Death serving as the portal and the catalyst to our deeper understanding of language, and life.