While the Cat’s Away

Long before YouTube, I remember watching a video on television on one of those animal programs that show us how clever animals can be. A camcorder had been set up in a kitchen, its lens pointed toward a countertop on which was placed a cookie jar. Nothing happened for more than a couple of minutes. And right at the moment when boredom began to creep in, and I reached for the remote, a small mouse scurried into view. I watched in awe as he sped up the side of the clear glass jar, knocked off the lid, and dragged out a cookie four times his size. The clip wasn’t about art of course. After all who would have thought the idea of running surveillance on a mouse could be the makings for great art? Bruce Nauman I guess.

In the summer of 2000 Nauman—one of the leading and most innovative contemporary American artists—with the help of infrared light, filmed his workspace in the dark. Over forty-two nights and just as many hours, he taped the room from different angles, looking to capture the movements of his cat and the field mice who had previously moved in. The end result was Nauman’s video installation Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage). Consisting of seven real-time green-gray monochrome images projected onto wall-sized screens, the installation is accompanied by ‘multiple audio tracks’ of ambient sounds—a distant train whistle and a coyote howl, thunder and wind, insects buzzing and a horse quietly snorting nearby—giving away the studio’s rustic setting. The viewer waits for something to occur but is greeted instead by hours and hours of motionless debris of creativity: cast heads and taxidermied forms for example, among a haphazard collection of chairs. But that’s entirely the point. Eventually Nauman’s cat patters in, then patters out. Meanwhile the field mice hurry across the floor. Nauman says he “used this traffic as a way of mapping the leftover parts and work areas of the last several years of other completed, unfinished, or discarded projects.”

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Sources: Jerry Saltz, “Wild Kingdom, Bruce Nauman,” Seeing Out Loud: The Village Voice Art Columns, Fall 1998 – Winter 2003; Michael Kimmelman, “Art in Review: Bruce Nauman — ‘Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)’,” New York Times, July 05, 2002; Kate Mondloch, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art, 2010; Dia Art Foundation.


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