Play on words

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Bruce Nauman's 'Raw Materials' recordings at Tate Modern underline the power of language. Stephen Lucas looks at how the voices can be exploited for speaking and listening exercises

In the yammer of voices that artist Bruce Nauman has unleashed in Tate Modern's cavernous Turbine Hall are dozens of lessons on what can and can't be done with language.

"Raw Materials" - the fifth commission for Tate's Unilever Series - is a soundscape constructed out of 22 looped recordings from the US artist's eclectic back catalogue. It jettisons the neon and skewwhiff rooms that accompany the language in the original works. The words are no longer cocooned inside topsy-turvy monitors and the images of mime artists, clowns and actors whispering, growling and singing the words are gone. Only the voices remain -beamed out of flat wall-mounted speakers at intervals along the hall.

"Work, work, work..." one challenges. "Think, think, think..." another insists. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," another says politely or rudely or both, while another wisecracks, "Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left? Repeat. Pete and Repeat..." You get the picture.

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl's sympathises with people's reactions when first introduced to Bruce Nauman's work. Nobody needs that kind of stress in their lives, he jokes.

"Raw Materials" really makes you "work". When you enter the hall your gut instinct is to get through the space quickly because there is nothing there and you are small and it is, well, not. But instead you get entangled in the bands of sound and the longer you are in there the more the space dwarfs you and the more self-aware you become. Visitors huddle round speakers or stand awkwardly in Nauman's cross-fire. But here is the weird thing, children at the exhibition run from speaker to speaker unphased, it is supposed to be fun after all.

Bindu Verma, an English teacher at City and Islington College, North London, says of "Raw Materials": "I would think about what the students really enjoy doing. They like to get technical so I would give them tape recorders to record different parts of different texts. Then they could order it in different ways and construct stories from it."

Stimulating different responses was "You May Not Want To Be Here" - a sentence read by a child, the meaning of which alters as words vanish or spellings shift. For instance, "You may be here, You may not want to hear".

Emma Dixon, an English teacher at Claremont High School, Kenton, Middlesex says: "I'd use 'You May Not Want To Be Here' as a starting point then I'd give pupils a soliloquy from Shakespeare to look at and get them to remove words until the meaning had totally changed."

Anna Hickson, an English teacher at Marjory Kinnon School, Feltham, Middlesex, says: "Reading and writing have had all the attention in the past but speaking and listening is being pushed more now. This would be a good exercise in listening carefully to language and understanding and making sense of it."

Anna sees "Raw Materials" as a stimulus for drama-based work too: "You could incorporate the 'Work Work,' piece into a staging of Kafka's Metamorphosis. That's about the relentlessness of work too."

Language has run through Nauman's work since he arrived on the US art scene in the mid-1960s, so lesson inspiration need not come solely from "Raw Materials". A good way for teachers to get a handle on Nauman's work is through Naumania, a workshop led by artist Mike Ricketts at Tate Modern.

Mike traces Nauman's career from early, chiefly comic pieces such as "Eating My Words" - a photograph of Nauman eating bread shaped into the word "words" -through to the more sinister "Violin tuned DEAD" - a video of Nauman playing a violin he has re-tuned so the notes are D-E-A-D - and onto cheeky neons like "Run from Fear, Fun from Rear".

The Naumania day also features a clutch of activities which teachers could adapt for school visits to Tate Modern. You are asked to explore the different spoken texts in "Raw Materials" for parallels with Samuel Beckett. Compare, for instance, the infuriating trap the speaker of "Pete and Repeat" is caught in with the endless absurd circle Beckett's two down-and-outs in Waiting for Godot find themselves in. Another activity asks you to look at how language is used by Nauman to provoke anxiety and unease. A trickier task would have been to consider how it isn't used to provoke anxiety and unease.

Young people love gimmicks and this exhibition is full of them. It sets out how to spring a trap with language in "Pete and Repeat"; it shows how the meaning of a word can flip around through repetition and intonation respectively in "Work Work" and "No No No No"; and it demonstrates how the meaning of a sentence can turn on the spelling of a single word and the absence or inclusion of words in "You May Not Want To Be Here".

But while this exhibition can wow pupils with the feats language can achieve, it also demonstrates the limits of language. At the end of the turbine hall you reach "World Peace", a recording in which calm voices lull you into a false sense that you have reached a happy conclusion to the preceding chaos. "I'll talk, you'll listen" they intone. But the voices overlap and you forget to listen. Nauman's parting shot is to then deny you an exit by this the last recording, and force you to walk back through the noise to where you came in. On a second listen, the recordings become shaded by the bottom line of "World Peace". They seem to say that despite all its tricks language is human and fails.

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