Bruce Nauman is an uncompromising, physical, and confrontational artist and Eat/War is a characteristic political challenge that alternates staccato flashes in vivid neon colors of green and red. The irony is thick; the aesthetic charge is dazzling as Nauman sets up a rhythmic counterpoint that in its insistence challenges you and forces you to attend to the large issues. Dynamic in its expression and catalytic in its effect, Eat/War is not a precise binary; rather, the relationship between eating and warring is oblique. Yet the excitation and its “message” reside in such friction. Needless to say, both actions—eating and warring—are acts of devouring. The overlap its set-up mimes the culture of spectacle and consumption, the advertisements, the sound bites, the desire for immediate gratification, and instant information.
Nauman began working with neon in the 1960s, creating unusual, off-kilter works that mocked the seriality and literalness of Minimalism—replication, repetition, and hard-edged elemental geometric forms—for example in Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals (1966) or My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically (1967). Over the next years, he would take on Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light work with a video work titled Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube (1967). While exploring ideas on language and meaning and their linguistic construction, Nauman hit on the idea of disjunction and simultaneity as crosscurrents that would catalyze meaning. “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” (B. Nauman, in R. Storr, “Beyond Words,” in K. Halbreich and N. Benezra, Bruce Nauman, Minneapolis, 1994, p. 55). The “touching” Nauman effects in his image-works form the 1970s with their slight shifting of letters, split meaning. This is achieved rearrangement and palindrome, creating doubling images, as in None Sing Neon Sign (1970) and Run from Fear Fun from Rear (1972), and the now-canonical Raw/War from 1968. The viewer is left in a liminal mental space not knowing when legibility will return from disrupted intervallic relationships. The affect is even more menacing in Eat/War, as repeating moments of illegibility challenge sense. On a conceptual level, the notion that consumption produces destruction plays with the materialized, appearing/disappearing image interchange. Laconic, yet glutted with meaning, Eat/War is a powerful visceral experience and an exhilarating, knowing, brilliant work of art.
The idea of tension inhering in word play and disrupted synchrony came to Nauman when, in the later 1960s he created a video series based on an earlier set of screen prints entitled Studies for Holograms. “When I did the holograms, I was practicing making faces while I worked in front of a mirror. Later, in 1968 and 69, I made a series of videotapes in which I used the camera as a mirror by watching myself in the monitor. There was one tape called Lip Sync, 1969, that had the image upside-down and the sound of the repeated text and the lip sync, going alternately in and out of synchronization with the lip movement. That particular video was directly related to Raw/War” (B. Nauman “Talking with Bruce Nauman: An Interview, 1989,” in J. Kraynak, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews, Cambridge, Mass, 2005, pp. 356-57). By the 1980s, Nauman returned to neon tubing with a vengeance, creating significant, now iconic works, among them Eat/War (1986). Provocative and exploding in blazes of color, Violins Violence Silence (1981-12) and the monumental, billboard-size neon One Hundred Live and Die (1984), for example, are unabashedly aggressive and, as the art historian Neil Benezra asserts, “too dynamic to ignore.” The 1980s brought forward stunningly belligerent work from the artist that attracted an extraordinary large public, numerous gallery shows, and many museum exhibitions. Benezra suggests Nauman was categorized at the time as a Neo-Expressionist at the height of appropriation art. However well this can be argued, Eat/War is a consummate example of the highly charged explosive narrative, theatrical, and political art of the time (N. Benezra, “Surveying Nauman,” ibid., p. 37). Yet the underlying seriousness of Nauman’s political and social critique cannot be doubted. Even as he couches his outrage in paradox and spectacle, it is all the more powerful in its universal application. If nothing else predicted Nauman’s involvement with word play, his early art training surely did. His teacher was the Funk-artist William Wiley, known for his intricate, yet elaborate, often jokey canvases describe an idiosyncratic visual vocabulary rife with wit and a sense of the absurd. Of course, recent artists also used texts into their work—artists involved with the international Fluxus network, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Ed Ruscha. But of all the influences on Nauman, art historian Robert Storr writes that it was modernist literature that incited the artist’s word play: “Nauman’s initial involvement with linguistic gamesmanship was prompted instead by reading Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, in whose work repetition, syntactic slippage, and unexpected changes of word order have primary functions” (R. Storr, “Beyond Words,” ibid., p. 50). An early example of Nauman’s syntactic reversals as well as his out-of-sync letter rearrangements comes from a work on paper entitled Love Me Tender, Move Te Lender, 1966. One can see here not only the dissolution of legibility, but also Nauman’s willful rearrangements that contribute to its demise.
The pairing of a verb with a noun, the ability to transform both into gerunds (eating, warring), signals a syntactical operation as well as a conceptual one. The power of Eat/War comes from its formal elements, neon light, color, and the syncopated flashing. The separation of the two words as well as their collusion, or embedding, in this rhythmic “dance” points up their affinities, a relationship marked by the expressive charge of its imagery. By juxtaposition and overlap, Nauman implicitly asks the viewer to unravel this seeming doubling of unrelated language. Nauman traffics in doublings; he does this with words and with actions. Throughout his oeuvre, Nauman has transcribed doubling into various media—drawing, sound installations, sculpture, and the neons. As Storr argues, “the essential product of Nauman’s exercises is “new sense” rather than “non-sense.” Eat/War’s eccentric, oblique relationship to meaning challenges the viewer to create sense out of apparent no sense. Eat/War is among Nauman’s most provoking masterworks.
The artist once compared his neons to that of the modernist writer/philosopher he so admired. “I think it is almost like reading Robbe-Grillet: you come to a point where he has repeated what he said earlier, but it means something altogether different, because even though he has changed only two words, they have changed the whole meaning (R. Storr, ibid., p. 54). In 1967, Nauman created a neon spiral coil that read The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign). Although this could be read as bald irony or arcane mockery, for those close to him, Nauman’s seriousness made itself felt. “I thought he didn’t take himself all that seriously, but I found out later that he did—very seriously” (J. Govan, in “Western Disturbances: Bruce Nauman’s Singular Influence,” The New Yorker, June 1, 2009, online). As Storr counsels, “[Nauman] sticks to a familiar idiom that by simple displacements he makes unfamiliar, thereby obliging us to confront the world as if our habitual means of contact with it needed to be relearned” (Storr, “Beyond Words,” loc. cit., p. 63). The present example is among the most forceful. Two words: Eat/War – dynamic in their juxtaposition, stunning in their aesthetic presentation, angry and smart in Nauman’s formulation, and ultimately, “revealing of a mystic truth.”