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Burning Small Fires (Artist Book)
© 2006 Bruce Nauman / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
"A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s" is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through April 15.
Bruce Nauman once did an installation in which, just as you catch a glimpse of yourself on a video monitor when you enter, the screen goes blank. (The image is a delayed feed from a camera outside the entrance.) This piece is a perfect distillation of his idea that all art is ephemeral, and so are you. A lot of Nauman's art has been a similar disappearing act.
The piece seen here is a photographic record of Nauman's destruction of a work of art by Ed Ruscha that was also photographic. Ruscha had published a book titled "Various Small Fires and Milk," an intentionally nonsensical collection of trivial photographs. Nauman's oneupmanship was to set ablaze the pages depicting fires and then photograph that. But he didn't have the images cut and bound into a book. He just left them as a single, folded sheet, thereby creating a work whose impracticality made it even more of an in-joke than Ruscha's book.
The redundancy in Nauman's title - you don't have to burn a fire, it's already in flames - makes the piece seem dopey, until you see that it's really a philosophical conundrum. Nauman said that he admired Wittgenstein for taking "an argument to the point of logical absurdity." Conceptualists like Nauman typically disguised cleverness as daffiness.
[Originally published in West Magazine : February 11, 2007, p.9]