At Tate Modern

Peter Campbell

The turbine hall of the old power station is cathedral-like. Its dimensions and proportions, the windows at each end and the choir-screen bridge that divides the nave space of the entrance from the space beyond are churchy. As an art gallery, it is demanding. When the long red horn of Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas filled the box the scale was exhilarating in itself, but it made the hall feel like a shed. Housing Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, it became a theatre of illusions. It tends to perform best when the scale of the work matches that of the hall.

But until next March you have it plain. Now you see that what it resembles is a preaching hall, like Les Jacobins in Toulouse, rather than an aisled, chapel-lined cathedral. But the ecclesiastical comparison holds, and is underlined by Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials, the latest work made specially for it. A place in which you were accustomed to look has become one in which you must listen. It is now a sounding box. The resonance of chants, cries and mantra-like repetitions tells you, even with your eyes shut, that you are in a big space.

Nothing Nauman has added to the turbine hall (if you discount the wall mounted speakers) is visible. The audio loops that talk at you as you walk down one side, up the other and then back down the middle tell no story. Imagine an institutional corridor with open doors on either side giving onto dark rooms. You hear talk that is repetitive (‘Work, work, work, work’; ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’) or aggressive (‘Get out of my mind, get out of this room’) or instructional (‘Shit in your hat . . . Put your head on the table’).

The ordering of the tapes and the layout of the speakers doesn’t do a lot to shape the content. I can’t see that it means much; I guess meaning isn’t what Nauman is trying for. But think of the piece as a representation, and things that affect you rather as this set-up does come to mind. For example, the concourse of a big railway station – Grand Central in New York, say. When you stand in a huge space, filled with a muddle of amplified announcements and unamplified voices, you let the sound wash by until the human ability to sort out significant strands comes into action and tells you your train has been called. In the Tate it is different. You attend. You listen again and again to the same recorded fragment and let your mind test its significance. You get to be like the character Gene Hackman plays in The Conversation, a surveillance expert who must play, replay, filter and amplify surveillance recordings made as his targets walked round a public square. The scale of his search for a narrative in fragments of talk is dwarfed by the throughput of computer programs that nowadays comb millions of hours of telephone traffic for significant phrases: Nauman is not spooky, but he turns you into a spook.

Things repeated, or half heard, lead to one set of associations. The scale of the space leads to another. Imagination tests the stability of the structure. You remember that overambitious roofs have collapsed, and that the superstition about walking under ladders is just common sense. The echo of disembodied voices that lets you know you are in a big, enclosed space becomes ominous, like the rising roar of a hidden motorway approached through woodland, or of a waterfall which sounds louder and louder as you float towards it.

The raw material of Raw Materials is recordings taken from pieces Nauman has made over the past forty years, this new work still touching base with an old avant-garde (Duchamp, Beckett, Cage), its aleatoric aesthetic making it something of a period piece. Nauman began his career with the proposition that as he was an artist, anything that happened in his studio was art: you can see that Duchamp’s ready-mades, Cage’s low-definition scoring and Krapp’s tapes would all colour in the space around that position.

So why do I, an old man who is happiest looking at pictures of things, who feels he is lotus-eating after more than an hour or so with abstracts by the School of New York’s finest, want to revisit this long-running testing-the-limits-of-art show?

Think of it as tourism. A visit to a famous battlefield. The weapons used there lost their edge long ago, but there is pleasure in being aware of that, too: the rudest assaults made on art by the avant-garde to which Nauman was quite a late recruit have been co-opted and become a tradition themselves. In the Tate it is celebrated and tamed. The celebration takes the vim out of the assault; it is hard to be shocked here. A tin of human shit becomes as bland an exhibit as a Cretaceous coprolite in the Natural History Museum.

Wild country was all mapped long ago. Once, as Allen Curnow has it, ‘simply by sailing in a new direction/We could enlarge the world.’ Now neither art nor the planet offers much virgin territory. Nauman’s excursion does not take us places we have never been before. We may admire the way he finds new twists in the path, but we know that others have camped where he is heading. The pleasure is in the little tug you feel when he peels away one of the preconceptions with which we bandage together the raw material of things seen and heard to make a comprehensible world.

Upstairs in the Tate there is a room of Nauman’s wall-scale projections taken with an infra-red camera in his empty studio at night. The high point of the action (you have to be quick to spot it) is a mouse whizzing across the floor. There is a cat too, I think, but things take a good deal longer to happen than in Tom and Jerry and I didn’t have time to wait for it. However, I did sit long enough among the jumpy pixellated images to feel, for a while, that there was a self-denying lesson implied – something along the lines that all art is a distraction from proper looking.