BMA Voices: Using art to explore language

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician

This artwork is compelling and it confuses me. I like crossword puzzles, cryptograms, brainteasers in general, etymology, and games of language manipulation. It seems obvious that playing with language is a significant part of Bruce Nauman’s artistic practice. Our Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman recently wrote:

In addition to provoking viewers to consider the aesthetic dimensions of a format associated with advertising, Nauman called attention to the idea that visual art can be a means for exploring language.

Especially in his language-based work, Bruce Nauman is SERIOUSLY funny. But he’s serious, too.

It’s easy enough to grasp the progression (spelling and rhyming) of the words in the title. How did he come to those particular words though? Which one came first? Or was it just an immediate kind of thing where the words mentally landed one after the next? I’ve wondered if you’re intended to think of the sad cliché of violins playing? It’s easy then to think of something that might really be sad. VIOLENCE and SILENCE together = what? It could be death. Is the word SILENCE intended to get you to think about the silent nature of the neon itself, flashing in the dark? Or is SILENCE to make you think about VIOLENCE being under-reported or ignored? Could it just be that Nauman heard a great piece of violin music that had a violent crescendo and then got really quiet? Or, maybe the cadence of the words has a natural incline and decline as you think them or say them. But I doubt it’s that simple.

What about the colors? The sequence of words goes like this:  VVSand then the same words, only completely backwards:

SEE
Do the specific individual colors or their transitions make you feel the ideas of the words differently? I think they must. I’m not sure it’s fair to say it, but maybe Nauman assigned the specific colors to each word for a specific conceptual reason, manipulating the gases as if using physics to harness synesthetics. Nauman studied mathematics and physics in college, so I assume his use of the noble gases is pretty well-informed. The sequencing of the words, too, is another aspect entirely that is mathematically specific.

When I moved here in 1989 as a young art student, I first saw this piece and was absolutely astounded by it. I hadn’t seen any of Nauman’s work before then, and it introduced to a whole new genre of artwork. Everything I’ve seen of his since has moved me.

Now that I’ve lived here for 25 years, the way I experience this work is slightly different. I think it’s because it’s located in Baltimore. It’s not pleasant to admit that Baltimore has a reputation for violent crime. Maybe any city where it was installed would summon up the same ideas. Yet there is an impact or echo of a city’s identity on a work of public art. Language manipulated in this way is suggestive politically. Figuring out the suggestion is part of the intellectual challenge in looking at Nauman.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *