Shadow Puppet Spinning Head


Bruce Nauman ( American, 1941 )

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General Description

Shadow Puppet Spinning Head dates from the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when Bruce Nauman created what were to that point his most ambitious multimedia installations. These works, with their moving images and sound that surround viewers like sculpture, proclaimed a new range for video installation in intensity and effect. This installation fills a medium-sized space and comprises several elements: a wax head suspended from the ceiling by a cable; a simple bed sheet acting as a translucent screen for the projection of the head's rotating, upside-down shadow; and a television monitor on which a video of the upright, wax head plays. The head on the television and the shadow head spin at the same time, while the actual, "real" waxhead remains relatively stationary. The three versions of the head, one on the screen, one in real space, and the projected shadow confound cause and effect. Accompanying the action of the spinning heads is a soundtrack of a grinding, indeterminate noise. Described as sounds merely picked up from the studio, the noise sets the pitch for Nauman's exploration of unease.

Like much art of the early 1990s, Shadow Puppet Spinning Head makes overt reference to the body. More characteristically for Nauman, the work covertly involves the physical and mental presence of the viewer with a gamesmanship that tests our powers of perception. While hardly comical, Shadow Puppet Spinning Head has its moments of discovery, even play, along with eeriness and void, as it challenges us to square up various versions of the same thing. The game here, in the end, is to unravel the relationship of the heads, one to the other. Confusion creeps up as inconsistencies pile on, one after the other, until one is left searching for any real thing caught between light, shadow, sound, and material.

Adapted from

  • Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, 2004.

  • Anna Katherine Brodbeck, ed., TWO X TWO X TWENTY: Two Decades Supporting Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art), 2018.