What makes Bruce Nauman’s Clown torture so controversial?
Bruce Nauman - Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
Bruce Nauman - Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Bruce Nauman – Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Published on: Monday September 30, 2019

Introduction

As you look at Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture, what you see is the wildness and relentlessness of his work. A deeper examination of this masterpiece also reveals the work of a person who wishes to explore a few issues that affect human life. Among these are boredom, confusion, and entrapment. On top of that, Nauman’s artwork also examines the themes of anxiety and failure. In this review of that piece, we will look at the reasons that make Clown Torture one of Nauman’s most outstanding, memorable, and controversial creations ever.

Videos

Video installation, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2010
5 min 58 sec
Video installation, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy, 2012
20 sec

Oxymoron

The decision by Bruce Nauman to title his work “Clown Torture” was always bound to raise questions. After all, a clown is meant to create happiness, laughter, and leave smiling faces behind. As you can imagine, there’s nothing torturous about any of that. For that reason, putting the word ‘torture’ next to ‘clown’ doesn’t seem to make much sense. Nevertheless, that’s what Nauman hoped to achieve through that work. As previously stated, he tackled numerous human emotions and experiences through this work. The title captures it well.

Bruce Nauman - Clown Torture (detail), 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes

Bruce Nauman – Clown Torture (detail), 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes

Features

Clown Torture has several mindboggling features. The following features define its uniqueness:

  • Two rectangular pedestals
  • Two pairs of color monitors stacked upon each other and supported by the pedestals
  • Two massive color video projections
  • Sound from the surrounding six video displays

Through these features, you already get a glimpse into the qualities that make this piece of art special. In fact, many art lovers consider it notorious and quite controversial. It has nothing to do with the traditional forms of art that most art enthusiasts are accustomed to. Using the monitors, Nauman is able to narrate five stories all featuring a common denominator; that is, a clown. In all of them, we see the irredeemably ugly clown screaming, jumping up and down, mumbling a creepy nursery rhyme, and laughing nervously among other activities.

Bruce Nauman - Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, installation view, The Art Institute of Chicago/artic.edu

Bruce Nauman – Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, installation view, The Art Institute of Chicago/artic.edu

Bruce Nauman - Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Bruce Nauman – Clown Torture, 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes, installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo: Martin Seck/moma.org

Torture Comedy

Bruce Nauman, through his Clown Torture, delves into what is known as torture comedy. However, what you will not see clearly is the identity of the person undergoing torture. The work doesn’t show us the exact kind of torture the clown faces. If you are keen enough, though, you will realize that the tortured party is the one watching all of this unfolding – you! The loudness, the mess, and the screaming clown, among other features all torture your senses. Here, Nauman reminds us that art doesn’t always have to be beautiful. It can be quite ugly too!

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Bruce Nauman – Clown Torture (Dark and stormy night with laughter), 1987, four-channel video installation, two projections, four monitors, color, sound, approx. 60 minutes

More

More by Bruce Nauman

All images: Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York unless otherwise noted.

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