Bruce Nauman

London, Ontario

Bruce Nauman: Audio/Video Piece for London, Ontario (1969-70): Installation view, 2010. Photo: Julia Beltrano. Courtesy Donald Young. © Bruce Nauman/SODRAC, 2011.Bruce Nauman: Audio/Video Piece for London, Ontario (1969-70): Installation view, 2010. Photo: Julia Beltrano. Courtesy Donald Young. © Bruce Nauman/SODRAC, 2011.

By Patrick Howlett

Bruce Nauman
Forest City Gallery
January 7 - February 19, 2010

Visitors familiar with the layout of the Forest City Gallery walk into the main gallery and find that a room has been built in the second half of the long storefront space. To the right, a monitor sits in the corner, showing an inverted view of a corner with the same floorboards and runner, which are presumably somewhere else in the gallery. A chair is placed against the adjacent wall. Contemplating the situation, one hears a quiet banging coming from behind a wall, presumably the new room. Visitors here on this particular day may have also heard someone practising tunes on a saxophone in the apartment above – Happy Birthday, the Alphabet Song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas (even though it was February). If one didn’t know better, a visitor could easily imagine this was also part of the audio of Bruce Nauman’s Audio/Video Piece for London, Ontario.

This is not a new work commissioned by the gallery by the senior American artist. But, as it name indicates, it is a piece that Nauman did make for London in 1970 for the artist-run 20/20 Gallery. At the time, Nauman had entered Leo Castelli’s roster and, for undocumented reasons, was asked by local artist Greg Curnoe to show at 20/20, which was known more for its exhibitions of young, mainly local, Canadian artists. Nauman responded positively to the request and, since its first incarnation in London, the work has been subsequently shown in a number of prominent exhibitions. Back in its city of origin, the work’s installation adheres as closely as possible to its original incarnation, ‘correcting’ some modifications made in previous exhibits, the result of research and organization by curator Christopher Régimbal, who was a student in London and has a specific, art-historical interest in the ‘re-staging’ of site-specific, or dematerialized, works. Although not really site-specific or dematerialized, this seminal work’s origins in a small, prototypical artist-run centre in a city known for regionalism, peaked the curator’s archival interests.

These art-historical concerns are also evidenced by an accompanying display of ephemera from the 20/20 and Curnoe archives, including a stamped sign Curnoe made for 20/20, a copy of 20cents magazine, in which there is a review of the show by David Rabinovitch, and a press release announcing the gallery’s closing.

In the exhibition text, Régimbal’s assertion that this particular (original) exhibition “calls into question the regionalist and nationalist narratives that are often told about Canada’s artist-run galleries” might be true, especially given the overwhelming influence regionalism had in the London area. But the ‘wow’ fact that a well-known international artist showed in London shouldn’t eclipse the national and international exposure that the the city’s scene in the 60s attracted, including an article in the Sept/Oct.1969 issue of Art in America titled “What London, Ontario has that Everywhere Else Needs”. It seems likely that Nauman would have seen this article while communicating with Curnoe. As often seems the case, Canadians look to international successes to validate our own sense of relevance. But, this tendency should not take away from the history lesson this exhibition provides. It could be an excellent model for restaging important exhibitions by artists who have not achieved Nauman’s status, as well as a reminder of the role these galleries have and still can play in their communities.

As for the work, it is easy to appreciate the research and resulting attention to detail that went into restaging this show. On the whole, it is a somewhat banal and absurd experience (in a good way) and I agree with the artist as quoted in Rabinovitch’s review from 1970: “ Bruce Nauman said it was something like a Zen contemplative experience”.

Patrick HowlettPatrick Howlett is an artist currently living in London, Ontario, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in exhibitions across Canada and internationally. He is represented by Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto.