Why did Nauman turn to neon?
This is Fun/This is the Good Life. In this 1985 piece, Bruce Nauman renders these simple sentiments in pulsating pink and yellow neon. While he uses a medium that suggests Las Vegas glitz, the artist employs this form of signage as a pun-like metaphor for the complex experience of contemporary art making. The idea comes across in Nauman’s use of an electrified medium. Robert Riley is former Media Arts Curator at this museum.
This piece buzzes, it snaps, it spits, it glows. When the entire piece is illuminated and flashes, it has that high tone electrical snap and buzz that we often don’t hear with electrical signs because we’re so far away from them. But this becomes an emotional component to the piece, which makes me understand it as something glib, and something sarcastic.
Fun may not be the first thing you think of when you enter a museum, and neither is it necessarily the experience the artist has in the studio. Nauman, who has explored this idea in a wide variety of media, here gives it a curled, sardonic twist.
He’s accentuating the hilarity of the situation, that here’s all the optimism, here’s all the excitement, here’s all the blinking signs, telling us this is fun, this is the good life, when we know that art making is anything but. It’s financially speculative, it’s isolating, it’s lonely, it’s artists working in the studio, and then the personal work they make in the studio takes this garish carnivalesque public profile in the museums and the galleries, so he’s exploiting this, and making it as public as possible.
With such a strategy, Nauman inserts an element of personal expression into the coolness of minimalism, a movement characterized by the use of similarly industrial materials. With more than a hint of irony, Nauman imbues the stylistic merger with something that just might be confused with fun.
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