Bruce Nauman and the Time on One's Hands: Control, Anxiety and the desire for Endlesness

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In 1965, Sony Corporation launched the first portable video camera, the so-called Sony Portapak. This new, quite inexpensive and user-friendly technology, quickly found its way into artists’ hands. Even the rather poor, “milky” character of the resulting video images did not temper artistic interest in this newfound medium. The reasons for this interest are varied. But one of them is surely the fact that it offered the possibility to work with and also “mold” time and to make duration and instances of time – for the first time in the history of the visual arts – tangible. One of the pioneers that used the Portapak in order to explore amongst others the fragmentation and flow of time, endlessness and several psychological components related to a heightened awareness of having to fill time, of having to do something with the time on one’s hands, was the internationally acclaimed American artist Bruce Nauman. In 1968 and 1969, the artist experimented with time by recording – with the help of a stationary Portapak, sometimes turned upside down to make time and sound more prominent – several physical actions such as running, pacing, balancing, throwing, catching a ball… Nauman drew inspiration for these performances from Stockhausen, Beckett, Reich, Monk… He however situated them in the artist’s studio, bringing multiple layers of meaning into play. The article considers Nauman’s choice for the time-based video medium, his use of time and the multiple meanings that can be given to his delimited actions and his desire for endlessness as well as his precarious and controlled endeavor of structuring time. The main analytical focus is the relation between Nauman and his audience and specifically the impact of Nauman’s opinions on having an audience.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalPolysèmes - Revue d’études intertextuelles et intermédiales
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • video art
  • enflessness
  • viewer
  • performance
  • anxiety


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