In Focus

Bruce Nauman, Shadow Puppet Spinning Head

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, and which have come to be seen by some as among the most important of his career. These works, revolutionary for their moving images and sound that surround their viewers like sculpture, proclaimed a new range for the video installation in intensity and effect.

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, all within a room that seems thrown together by a mad scientist in a Frankensteinian funhouse. 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 suspended wax head in the physical space of the gallery, the shadow it casts on the wall above the television, the filmed head on the television screen, and the shadow world of the projected image on the bed sheet. The precedent for the accompanying soundtrack is Nauman's interest in the work of the American composer John Cage (1912-1992). Cage considered chance ambient sound as worthy as any instrumentation and incorporated it into his compositions.

The game here, in the end, is to unravel the relationship of the heads, one to the other: is the shadow on the bed sheet really a shadow or a projection (since one can see the projector's lights behind the curtain)? What is filming the head on the screen, and why is it not moving in sync with the head hanging from the wall? Why is the head on the bed sheet upside down? If this is so, then maybe the "real" head has nothing to do with anything else in the room, with the shadow on the far wall cast by the pinpointed light fixture on the near wall merely causing more disruption. Confusion creeps up as inconsistencies pile on, one after the other, until one is left searching for a, or any, real thing caught between light, shadow, sound, and material.

Adapted from

Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, February 10, 2004.