• Léna Lewis-King

PETE AND REPEAT; Incantering OR “The True Artist Helps The World by Revealing Mystic Truths”

Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture, 1987.

To start, I want to evoke the vision of a series of clowns condemned to repeat various moments of their own torment indefinitely, and arbitrarily. In one setting, one clown addresses ‘you’ directly. This clown is sitting on the floor, comically large clown-shoed feet held up in the air, shaking wildly, while it hollers “No” in endless repetition at you, the viewer. In another, we surveille a clown sitting alone in a grotty, unkempt toilet, straining to defecate but never seeming to reach the release it so demonstratively craves. In others, clowns hold full fishbowls on poles aloft above their heads in a precarious and ultimately failed balancing act, or seek to tell a joke about “Pete and Repeat” without ever reaching their desired punch-line. In a cacophony of sounds and senses, imagine all these visions playing in one room, simultaneously, looping without decipherable beginning or end. This would only begin to describe the experience of viewing Bruce Nauman’s video installation piece, ‘Clown Torture’ (1987). The installation evokes a sense of sense itself unthreading before you, and it’s this effect of dissolution that lead me to the question I look to explore within this text. In what ways does the relationship between the medium and the content of Nauman’s piece, ‘Clown Torture’ relate to context of the Theatre of the Absurd, and the concept of Reification?

The sheer complexity of the history of ‘Nonsense’ becomes abstract when you try to chisel out a concrete definition, so in order to give it form I’ll focus in on the literary, philosophical and theatrical movements that have expressed this with clarity. The philosopher Pyrrhos, born in 360BC in Ancient Greece, developed the idea of Skepticism and of Fallibility, in reaction to the philosophy of the Dogmatists who asserted they could achieve controllable and certain knowledge (Bett 2009: 1-5). Subjects such as mathematics, science, and architecture are built on logical systems of thinking. However, it’s how this logic is used (specifically politically) when out of balance, that an attachment to dogmatic ideology can lead to fascism. This is why Fallibility, and the room for doubt, is crucial. It opens up a space for inquiry and distance from the need for control.

To straddle the gap between Nonsense and the Absurd, we fast forward to the 1900s. As a concept, the Absurd began to grow, and it expresses fallibility uniquely. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines ‘absurd’ as follows: “Absurd: 1. Mus. Inharmonious.*1617

2. Out of harmony with reason or propriety; in mod. Use, plainly opposed to reason, and hence ridiculous, silly. 1557.” (1965). The Theatre of the Absurd really came into its own throughout the 1950s, although Martin Esslin notes that the themes that are expressed within the Absurd have been present far beyond the establishing of the Theatre of the Absurd as a movement, most notably “apparent [...] since the 1920s (Joyce, Surrealism, Kafka) ..”, (Esslin 1961: 16).

The absurdity of the 1950s was defined by its key figures, such as the philosophers Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus, and it’s dramatists, most notably Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet. An important distinction to be made is between the philosophical explorations of the Absurd and the distinctly different theatrical expressions. The key juxtaposition is that the philosophy of the absurd exists within the clearly explained logical structure of philosophy, whereas the Theatre of the Absurd warps and viscerally breaks down the ability for sense beyond logic or comprehension through it’s performative, time-based format. Esslin describes this as “the difference between theory and experience.” (1961: 24-25).

Most of these writers were born around 1910, and the world that they were born into (between 1914-1945) was in turmoil and undergoing radical change. Their generation straddled two world wars, facing horrors and spiritual conundrums of the likes barely comprehensible even today. The experiences of war acts as the cohesion between these writers, and throughout the 1950s they began to synchronise in their various expressions of nonsense, sharing perspectives on “certain attitudes towards the predicament of man in the universe [...]” (Hinchcliffe 1969: 1). As Esslin discusses the international mixing pot of Paris as the home of the Theatre of the Absurd, I begin to consider this non-national, outsider perspective that these thinkers had, and how it relates to the fundamental definition of Absurdity, to be outside of harmony.

For the sake of drawing some parameters to this text and its relationship to Bruce Nauman’s work, Samuel Beckett is my next port of call. Within the text of Esslin’s ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ (1961), he delves into the works of Mr.Beckett. When reading, the connections between Nauman’s work and Becketts became ever-more nuanced to me. Born in Dublin in 1906, Beckett wrote many highly anarchic books and plays that deal with the inherent impossibility of communication both in self expression and within language itself. His book ‘Watt’ (1953) plays with words and character although the author is engaged in a high-stakes chess game with convention itself (social and literary). As Esslin points out, Beckett exposes the “[..] fallibility of language as a medium for the discovery and communication of metaphysical truths.” (1961: 34). Repetition is also key within Beckett’s work, such as in his play “Play” where Esslin summarises it as “[...] three dead characters [...] endlessly repeating the contents of their last moment of consciousness. [...] the entire text of Play spoken twice, identically, except that the words become faster and softer. When the third time round is reached the play fades from our view, but we remain aware that it will go on, ever faster, ever more softly, forever and forever.” (1961: 82)

This idea of the repetition beyond our human ability to view generates the impression of an endless echo chambre, which speaks to the ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1955) both in Camus’s exploration of the Absurd and in the original mythology of the futile trial Sisyphus faces of pushing the boulder up the mountain’s summit only to have it roll back to the bottom once again. “The ceaseless activity of time is self-defeating, purposeless, and therefore null and void.” (Esslin 1961: 53). To tie Nauman and Beckett together, in Weintraub’s discussion of Nauman’s ‘Clown Torture’, he notes “Of course, much can be said about the constitutional repetition of the ‘Pete and Repeat’ joke, including the way in which its Sisyphean form collapses narrative structure and suggests language’s self-referential nature.” (Robb 2007: 71). It’s a circular, entrapping scenario where there’s no progression (specifically within the form of pre-recorded video loops), which relate to how Nauman explores performance, text, the body and the studio space.

Bruce Nauman was born in Indiana in 1941, and grew up in Wisconsin. Within the interview conducted with Joan Simon in 1988 for Art in America, Nauman discusses how his multimedia practice arose due to the freedom of the 1960s, and he never felt the need to specify nor control where his creativity took him. When considering the relationship of his work to artists and other movements, Nauman himself says “Sure there are connections, though not in any direct way.” (Nauman 1988) which is a sentiment further noted by Eugen Blume in ‘Live or Die’ (2010), where he states that Bruce Nauman escapes the tautology of minimalism, the dominant movement of the 1950s-60s. Minimalism, by Tate’s definition: “ [...] seen as representing such qualities as truth (because it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is), order, simplicity and harmony”. (Tate 2015). This is where Nauman markedly departs from Minimalist thinking, as Nauman seeks to confront, combat, disrupt and cut through the separations between viewer and artistic experience. The aim was to create “Art that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down.” (Nauman 1988). This evident immediacy and pure intensity of Nauman’s pieces remain present throughout his body of work. He began to shoot on celluloid film in 1965, and later picked up video tapes in 1969, which as a medium began to influence the work he produced conceptually. Nauman preferred video over film as “His films were almost always distributed in the form of video due to the ease of which videos could be shown and disseminated.” (Blume 2010: 70).

An integral part of my inquiry relies on the medium of Moving Image, and it’s ability to preserve. The timeline of Moving Images’ relationship with experimentation spans from the advent of ‘film’ itself, the complexity of which, as argued by Ian White within ‘Film and Video Art’, is beyond clear definition. This is due to the technologies’ development, alongside the conceptual and conventional evolutions that have emerged over time. In an initial definition of Moving image, it is composed of sequences of photographic images that have recorded, and replicated the subject of the recording. This process allows the filmmaker to alter, repeat and preserve perspectives on reality. As “Moving Image” is a definition of a process, then the artist’s intention, content and presentation shapes the substance of the work.

The reception of the work will change depending on it’s presentation. A projection within a cinema, where the audience faces the screen head-on while sitting (passive viewing) will be encountered completely differently to a laptop, television or phone screen. The filmmaker must consider all of these elements, and specifically with art film, how to present work within a gallery space. On page 13 of Omar Kholief’s text, ‘Navigating the Moving Image’ (2015), he writes “Moving image work by visual artists is activated by the context of an exhibition space, an environment, a site, an action, a performance; it is equally activated by its apparatus, its history, by bodies, by the structures and channels of its own distribution.” Nauman has explored this transformative process in depth throughout his oeuvre. “In essence, [Nauman] builds ‘experience traps’ in which the person entering is exposed to an energy field [...]” (Blume 2010: 70). The traps of which Nauman creates are intrinsically related to his unique use of Moving Image. Nauman has identified certain elements of Moving Image’s process that highlight the existential and absurd components of the work he is displaying. By looping ‘Clown Torture’, there’s no discernible beginning or end. This lack of resolution tempts the brain to look for answers where there are none to be found, leaving a puzzle of the work with you.

Clown Torture’ was produced in 1987, whereby Nauman filmed actor Walter Stevens performing as a series of a larger-than-life clowns in states of existential and physical torture. The piece itself is comprised of 6 screens in total, with 2 large projections in a parallel wall stand-off. Two plinths stand on the inner left wall, with two monitors stacked upon each individual plinth. All 6 displays play sound simultaneously, creating a sensory overload where you as a viewer aren’t sure where to direct your attention to due to the cacophony of colours, movement and sound. (Art Institute Chicago 2008). This overwhelm corresponds to Esslin’s description of Beckett’s style of playwriting whereby, “Instead of linear development, they present their author’s intuition of the human condition by a method that us essentially polyphonic; they confront their audience with an organised structure of statements and images that inter-penetrate each other and that must be apprehended in their totality, rather like the different themes in a symphony, which gain meaning by their simultaneous interaction.” (Esslin 1961: 45). As I described the content of each of the 4 clown torture scenes within the introduction, I will expand on the iconography of the clown itself. “Historically the figure of the jester acted as a foil to the power, authority and order symbolised by the king and his court. [...] the jester embodied ambiguity and irrationality and personified the lesson that chaos, unreason and death were ever-present and always poised to irrupt within order, reason and life.” (Brill 2007: 77). As is explored in Maxim Leonid Weintraub’s text ‘Clowing Around at the Limits of Representation: On Fools, Fetishes and Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture’ (Brill 2007), the figure of the clown within a circus is transitional, intended to perform in the interludes between main acts. Nauman’s asphyxiate focus and isolation of this figure intended only for transition is inherently absurd. Aside from the symbolism of the clown, the torture aspect of this piece is of equal note, as Weintraub mentions “[...] torture disrupts our social selves and places us in close proximity to the Real. Torture then, as a momentary intrusion of the Real, [...]” (Brill 2007: 77). The experience of viewing the work is shocking, and causes a strong physical reaction whereby you want to leave the room immediately. Critic Peter Schjedahl concurs, “You “get the joke” at once, but the joke won’t stop. Those clowns are telling the same circular stories, getting bopped by the same water bucket and monotonously screaming “no! no! no!” as you read this. They do so for eternity. Nauman makes us squirm, and by “us” I mean fans. What he makes others do, in my observation, is glaze over, tense up and flee.” (Schjedahl 1994)

Repeating, unravelling narrative, discord, and ambiguity are all elements that exist within the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd. Moving Image can repeat (loop), suspend, decontextualise, augment, represent, preserve and transform a physical space through it’s display. Theatrical performances however, as they are based in the ongoing present, pass through time like life itself. It’s this temporality that grounds these performances within the ‘Real’. Moving Image, on the other hand, makes an incision between Reality and its representation, causing the illusion of an experience, an after-image that mimics reality through light/pixels/film. When searching for a way to relate this intuition to a term, I discovered Hannah Ardendt and her perspective on artistic practice as a metaphysical process. Through the creative process, the artist becomes the creator of an ‘immortal’ object, “not the immortality of the soul or of life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen [...]” (Arendt 1958: 168). Another thought of Arendts is that of “Reification'', which defines the process of concretising the abstract. Through the creative process, you reify from a mysterious place. You incanter the being of the artwork from beyond our world or understanding, and give it a presence. “Works of art are thought things, but this does not prevent their being things.” (Arendt 1958: 169).

I seek to marry Moving Image and ‘Clown Torture’ to the context of the Theatre of the Absurd. The inferred endlessness of the clown’s torture, due to the nature of the video’s looping, communicates to the viewer that somewhere, at all times, that clown is being tortured. Nauman has reified a scene of eternal absurdist torture. The immediacy of the recorded performance will not age alongside humans, nor will the content alter past its intended presentation. That being said, as we enter into increasingly mediated times, how does the dissemination of this work via social media or alternate reproductions change it metaphysically? Will the methods of which it’s currently shown become obsolete? With the rate of our technological acceleration, one can never be certain of anything’s permanence. Such considerations deserve a whole other text, but I’d like to leave room for speculation.

From topic to topic, through exploring the context of Nonsense, of the Theatre of the Absurd, of Beckett’s linguistic revolutions, of Nauman’s practice, of Moving Image as a medium, of ‘Clown Torture’ as the vessel for the absurd, and of the concept of Reification, I hope to illustrate the complex interrelations between them. I conclude that Nauman has pulled from the world of our nightmares, into our laps via the body of the camera and of the projector, the very spirit of artifice, meaninglessness, lack of control, of knowledge, and ultimately of sense, defined by the term Absurdity. ‘Clown Torture’ actualises, synthesises, births that feeling which is known yet suppressed (through our daily avoidance of it). It condenses and reifies that pure panic of being, of being unable to find the answers, and of the collapsing of everything we attempt to understand in the face of genuine philosophical interrogation.


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•Weintraub, M. (2007) ‘Clowing Around at the Limits of Representation: On Fools, Fetishes and Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture’, in Robb, D. (ed) Clowns, Fools and Picaros: Popular Forms in Theatre, Fiction and Film. Leiden: Brill.

•White, I. (2009) ‘Life itself! The 'problem' of pre-cinema’, in Comer, S. Film and Video Art. (ed) London: Tate.


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© 2019 by Léna Lewis-King.