'What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.'
(L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden, London, 2002, p.27).
Words, the building blocks of language, are clumsy tools, making communication a treacherous endeavor. Wittgenstein's statement was concerned with the fact that the minute clarity is lost, communication becomes booby-trapped. Changes of tone, context and spelling can conjure new or hidden meanings as though from thin air, completely transforming the original message. Bruce Nauman has always occupied himself with these grey areas of language, the minefield where the subtlest of changes can illuminate the arbitrary nature of words.
Run From Fear Fun From Rear explores precisely this territory, swapping only two letters to convert a sentence from being an ominous order to being a bawdy joke. This neon seems to single-handedly point at the fallibility of language, where such a simple swap of R and F can have such a devastating result on the message displayed. Likewise, **BST*TU**, executed in 1967-68, is a design for a work relating to Nauman's neons involving the words 'Suite Substitute', a phonetic pun ('Sweet Substitute') where the letters of the whole word 'Substitute' appear in one colour, 'Suite' superimposed in another colour. As this drawing suggests, **BST*TU** benefits not only from the irony of missing letters needing to be substituted in order to see the 'true' word and to form another word in their own right, but also from the remaining letters, resembling a phonetic shorthand for 'Best to you' or even 'Bullshit to you'. Nauman's works deliberately lower the tone in order to show the immense chasm that can exist between the meanings the same letters can be forced to make. In this work, as well as in Run From Fear Fun From Rear, there is a puerile glee in the simplicity with which Nauman has subverted, and even perverted, a simple sentence. In the latter piece, the evocative nature of the words involved means that the two phrases, with their completely different implications, conjure up completely different atmospheres. Where one invokes a spirit of menace, or even panic, the other has a throwaway sense of smutty fun. By willfully ignoring Wittgenstein's advice, Nauman shows to what extent the Pandora's box of language can lead to chaos and misunderstanding.
In fact, there is nothing overt in either of those works to lead the viewer to the conclusion that any obscenity is involved, and yet it seems obvious. Nauman deliberately forces his viewer to be aware of the mind's whimsical interpretative processes. 'Fun from rear' might mean many things, and yet we take it for granted that Nauman is confronting us with an obscenity. Nauman maneuvers the viewer into a corner, deftly controlling exactly what conclusion the viewer is going to leap to.
Nauman's later works often avoid such subtleties. In returning to various media he had not used for some time, especially neons and video, Nauman began to create images that held no ambiguity but jolted the viewer with their immediacy. The designs for these works, for instance Masturbating Man of 1985, show Nauman avoiding subtle word-plays and instead inventing images that are designed to shock outright. In fact the neon medium became a strange foil to the content--people are so used to advertisements and shop signs using flashing neon that the shock on seeing the sight of a masturbating man is heightened. The neons have something clinical about them--they appear sterile, controlled and manufactured. Nauman uses these qualities to emphasise the shock of his work in a manner much more effective (and probably mocking them) the neo-expressionism that was so prevalent at the time.
This eschewal of expressionism reflects Nauman's constant preoccupation with the role of the artist. The opacity or immediacy of his works is a part of his constant attempt to explore, and control the role of the artist. In the earlier works, Nauman deliberately uses words which the viewer will decode in a certain manner. This relates also to his installations, the Corridor Pieces, in which he gave no information, but by placing the viewer within the narrow space of his artwork, completely controlled the sense of confinement induced in the work. There is no biographical content to clutter the relationship between artist and viewer, but instead a game of puppet and puppeteer. Nauman believes that the artist holds a position of immense responsibility. As he himself recorded in one of his earliest neons, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. While this may sound hyperbolic, it summarises the almost alchemical role that the artist can play. Nauman's early performance art was in part inspired by his realisation that even walking around his studio became art through his role. An early example was his graduation work, 28 Positions Piece, where he adopted 28 positions relative to a wall. It is with this in mind that Nauman included shapes and measurements deriving from his body, his signature and his name in his works. Double Size Head on Hand is a design for a neon with a strange sense of self-portrait and self-parody, light-heartedly invoking his earlier performance works while turning our preconceptions about the positions of our body literally on their heads.
Nauman believes in the intense privilege and responsibility in the role of the artist, but he is also acutely aware of the vulnerability that position holds. Each work involves his exposing himself in some way, and as a naturally shy man, this can be a process of slow torture. This is one of the reasons for his desire to control exactly how much information the viewer can obtain from his works. This concept of the artist's exposure is perfectly ironised in Hand Circle. Many of Nauman's recent works have involved casts either of taxidermists' models, or of people. In this work, a decorative chandelier is created from disjointed linking arms, each hand clutching another impossible hand by its fingers. These fragilely linked hands, hanging like the sword of Damocles from the ceiling, represent the extent to which Nauman feels he is under constant scrutiny, the constant object of inspection and investigation, his life and soul the mere decorative playthings for the world around him.