Shifting Ground

Shifting Ground

Steven Connor

This is the English version of an essay published in German as ‘Auf schwankendem Boden’, in the catalogue of the exhibition Samuel Beckett, Bruce Nauman (Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, 2000), pp. 80-7.

At one point in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, all four main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzy and Lucky, collapse into a struggling heap on the ground. For some minutes, the action threatens to stall altogether, with none of the characters able to get back on their feet. Nauman’s work too often approaches this zero condition, through the enactment of falling or lying, or rolling, or collapse. Both Beckett’s and Nauman’s work is held or called by the ground. In both artists gravity exerts its pull everywhere, though not always visibly. As with all human beings, the groundward tug effects or exerts (as an accidental byproduct) shapeliness, grace and balance, even as it deforms those things, pulling them into disorganisation, flatness or comic indistinction.

There are countervailing forms of motion or aspiration. An early sign of the impulse to escape or deny the ground in Beckett’s work appears at the end of his novel Murphy, where the wheelchair-bound Mr. Kelly imagines flying his kite out of sight, and beyond the reach of his ruined, wheelchair-bound body. The same aspiration is to be found in Happy Days, in which Winnie, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth, speaks of her sensation of being pulled or sucked up into the air. But the ground continues to organise the work, even in its absence. Mr. Kelly is detained in his wheelchair, Winnie is cinched, then noosed tightly in her ground.

The ground is temporal, for both Nauman and Beckett. It is temporal first of all in the sense that it is closely associated with the here and the now. In Beckett’s Footfalls, we watch an old woman, dressed in a tattered wrap, pacing up and down a track, while a voice off tells us of a young girl who paced with a similar intentness and desperation, and eventually asked her mother to take up the carpet, explaining: ‘the motion alone is not enough. I must hear the feet, however faint they fall.’ Hearing the feet establishes the young girl’s sense of being there, in the sensation of the faint impact on the ground and its answering resistance. In Nauman’s work, the ground is similarly a place of last resort, the lowest common denominator, both a continuous threat, and also a place of trust, a generalised securing or orientation of the sense of place. A human body moves between many different experiences of different floors and plots of ground, but is nevertheless orientated always just to one ground, just to ‘the ground’, spreading, various, but everywhere singular. As the ‘hypostasis’, that which lies beneath, or ‘understands’ all being and beings living on earth, even and especially creatures of the air like birds, and of the midair, like spiders, the ground has its say in every action and experience. The ground is limit itself; the hereness, or present condition that underwrites every elsewhere, the actual of every possible. It is time thickened and slowed into space, a stay against the passage of time. It is that towards which all movement tends. The dimension of downness, or underness can never be fully in mind, or in view, but is always at work.

It is perhaps for this reason that falling features so markedly in the work both of Nauman and Beckett. Falling, the involuntary or voluntary reversion to the ground, is a coinciding with the necessity which the ground represents. One of Nauman’s earliest performance pieces of 1970 (unrecorded, but recalled by Meredith Monk in an interview) involved him accompanying Monk’s vocal performance by a repeated series of actions in which he lined himself up exactly with the edge of a stage, fell off at intervals, then climbed back on the stage and did it again. This primal action of falling and rising itself seems to underlie many of the other seemingly primal actions, for example of walking, lying, bouncing, that Nauman has undertaken in his work. Describing his ideal of an art that ‘was just there all at once’, without preparation or expectation, Nauman does not reach for metaphors of expansion or progress or eminence, but reverts spontaneously to the ideas of impact and collapse. Such an art is ‘like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down.’ For both Beckett and Nauman, art does not lift you up; it stretches you out, and lays you low.

But the ground is temporal in another, more complex sense. The passing of time always dematerialises the ground. Walking over the ground lengthens the body into duration. A central principle of Beckett’s and Nauman’s work is that of balance, and a central shared problem is that of how to bring the space and place of the ground into balance with what is enacted in time across its face, how, in other words, to give temporal existence a shape. Neither Beckett nor Nauman can quite trust the ground. There is in both an impulse to walk through or walk out space, as though space would fade unless repeatedly made to start forth by the tread of the foot. Rather than the ground merely preceding and permitting the application of the foot, it comes to depend upon it. Rather than the ground providing a resting-place for the foot, as in Beckett’s poem ‘Echo’s Bones’, where the ground is ‘Asylum under my tread all this day’, the foot, or the body in motion, must bring about its own solace or asylum in the repetition of its movements back and forth or round and round.

The ground means permanence, and the here and now, it can also shift, as we make shift upon it. We have no idea whether the woman we see in the ‘real time’ of performance in Footfalls is the young girl spoken of by the voice ‘V’, now aged, or her mother, or another, and we have no idea what the ‘now’ is and who the ‘I’ is when we hear a voice, which does not come from the figure we see, saying ‘I walk here now.’ The ground is impalpable as well as actual; the ground becomes an ideal and ordeal of the foot. The placing of the feet attempts to give the ground an answering solidity, but the more often the ground is traversed, the less it coincides with the single, authoritative here-and-now of the footfall. In the French version of Beckett’s play, the footstep, pas, is a not-step too,pas. Pacing out the same piece of ground over and over again, like the woman does in Footfalls, or the hurrying, robed characters do in Beckett’s TV play Quad, draws the ground up into the figure, and its action of walking. Stop walking for an instant, and the fear is that the ground will sheer away, and one be left in agonised mid-air, between one step and the next. In Quad, as in a number of Nauman’s pieces involving repeated walking round a track or carrying out of a controlled set of movements, the place is brought into being by the action, space precipitated out of time.

Both Nauman and Beckett have attempted to resist or complicate the downward pull of the earth, denying gravity in the exploration of different forms of disembodiment or virtuality, especially in the substitution of electronic or audiovisual experience for the here and now performance space of the theatre or the gallery. Nauman’s early work included a number of combined installation and performance pieces in which he, or the viewer would walk through a narrowing space, sometimes in the form of a corridor. Nauman has spoken of his interest in these pieces of the body’s sense of constriction, of the encroachment of limit. The same fascination with narrowing and enclosure is to be found in some sculptures of the late seventies and early eighties, such as 3 Dead End Adjacent Tunnels, Not Connected (1979), Dead End Tunnel Folded Into Four Arms With Common Walls (1980), Smoke Rings: Two Concentric Tunnels Skewed, Non-Communicating (1980). For Nauman as for Beckett, who produced during the 1960s and 1970s a family of related ‘cylinder pieces’, including Ping, The Lost Ones, Imagine Dead Imagine and All Strange Away, dealing with the enclosure of human beings, there is a reassurance in constriction: a claustrophilia rather than a claustrophobia. Or rather, in both cases, there is the possibility of coming to rest against a surface that holds as well as obstructs, defines shape in denying movement. But, from early on, Nauman was already adding to these primary experiences of constriction and concussion elements that embarrassed or dispersed their quality of the here-and-now. In a series of works from the early 1970s, Nauman combined video with sculpture in a series of what he called ‘surveillance corridors’, in which a viewer in a closed space or corridor saw of themselves was distorted or detached or desynchronised in various ways. The viewer of or visitor to the work is thus both inside and outside it; the here and now is cut into by the there and then.

In these pieces, the screen provides an alternative to the ground. A screen, which usually hangs on a wall, and operates in the plane of the wall, is congruous with the traditional picture plane of the painting and the gallery. But, in Nauman’s work, the screen is often defined not in its relation to the imaginary, suspended space of the wall, but in its complex relation to the ground. Nauman used double exposure in some of his photographic work of the 1960s and 1970s in order to allow a play between the idea of the ground and the photographic surface. In Failing to Levitate in the Studio (1966) and Tony Sinking Into the Floor, Face Up and Face Down, the doubling of the image of the human figure in each case allows us to see it in two places, above and below the ground at once, unsupported by anything except the skin or screen of the photographic plate.

It is conventional to imagine the victims of suffering or oppression bowed, or brought down to the ground. Nauman and Beckett, by contrast, have found and formed in their work the pain of the mid-air. The exposure of the nameless creature manipulated by the Director in Beckett’s Catastrophe is highlighted by the fact that he is raised on a plinth. There is no hilarity or exhilaration for Nauman in the inhabitation of the air and he has made the mid-air signify pain, threat and coercion. In the neon sculpture Hanged Man (1985), a sequence of lights marks out the shape of a viciously daubed stick-figure made to dance grotesquely and given a ridiculous erection as it dangles from a gallows. The gallows itself rests on nothing, and the piece is nothing but its own endlessly reenacted sequence, as though, in reference to the children’s guessing game ‘Hangman’, it were trying to get the viewer to guess some agonisingly missing word, which would bring things to a halt. Shit In Your Hat – Head on a Chair (1990) also puts together two kinds of impalpability or groundlessness. On a screen, a female mime responds obediently to a series of humiliating instructions given by an offstage voice: in front of the screen, a chair on which a green severed head has been placed, dangles, leaning a little backwards and to the side. What is occurring on screen ritually enacts abasement – the shit in the hat and the hat placed on the head, a simple embodiment of the replacement of the high by the low, the head by the arse. But the chair, which both does and does not participate in the action depicted on the screen, is a painful refusal of the possibility of subsiding to the ground.

The meaning of the clown for Nauman, like the meaning of the tramp in Beckett, is its imminence to the ground. The clown is at every moment threatened with collapse. Nauman literalises this condition in his Clown Torture of 1987, in which a series of actors dressed as different kinds of clown were filmed as they attempted to tell an endless loop story, like the song sung at the beginning of the second act of Waiting for Godot, in an imaginary seated posture, standing on one leg, with the other crossed over it. The clown’s body had to hold itself up, be its own chair. The tension of the piece derives from the knowledge that none of the clowns will be able to sustain this position, and will eventually topple to the floor. Time is here not a medium, but a weight and an ordeal; it does not so much pass, as press. The ordeal is made worse by the awareness of being watched, a condition dramatised in the hilariously solemn sketch Clown With Video Surveillance of 1986, in which a traditionally-garbed circus clown squats on a lavatory, in a cubicle which is also a picture hanging on the wall, while a roughly-sketched video camera protruding from another picture apparently hanging from the wall of the cubicle records his every move. The clown is not permitted even the security of his abasement, the recording of his actions painfully suspending the clown between this time and place and the other times and places of surveillance and playback. cutting into this scene with the suggestion of another time and another place.

Both Beckett and Nauman have found a compulsion in the act of walking. Early in Beckett’s career, there is to be found the miniature pedestrian career of his character Watt in the novel of the same name:

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south….The act of walking is here an ongoing, chaotic compromise between the dimensions of up and down, left and right. It is only Watt’s clownish imbalance that keeps him on the move. In fact, there is an element which Beckett fails to specify in this seemingly precise and exhaustive set of instructions, which, if followed rigorously, would leave the subject merely rocking stiff-legged from side to side. In order for Watt to move, to become a ‘headlong tardigrade’, there must be an inaugural leaning, or movement of falling forward. Watt must be and remain off balance, pulled forward towards the ground, for the action of walking to begin and continue. This unbalancing may perhaps be identified with the principle that Michel Serres borrows from Lucretius of the clinamen, the theory of the origin of the world in a first tiny deviation, or asymmetry in the orderly rain of atoms, which makes the world possible at all, even as it makes it impossible ever for the world to add up or come to consummation.

Nauman pays homage both to Watt’s way of walking and to the similarly awkward, unbalanced gait of Molloy in his Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) of 1968. In this piece, Nauman videotaped himself walking slowly and with awkward precision around a track marked out on the studio floor. As he walks, arms behind him, he lifts his leading leg high before him and, as it lands, lifts his following leg high in the air behind. The unbalancing of the walk is doubled by the fact that Nauman taped the movements with the camera on its side, so that he appears to be walking up a wall, gravityless. As in many other pieces from this period in which Nauman uses the interaction of video and live movement to interfere with orientation, such as Stamping in the Studio (1968), Revolving Upside Down (1968),Pacing Upside Down (1968) and Bouncing in the Corner, no 2: Upside Down (1969), the camera is drawn into the play of relative positions and substitutions, creating a sense of mutually shifting grounds.

The concentrated, careful, sometimes even tender attention to awkwardness is a feature of the work of both artists. Clumsiness speaks of the infiltration of falling in human action. The English word ‘clumsy’ is derived from a Northern dialect word klumse, which means benumbed by cold. The clumsy one is weighed down by his cold or numb body, by a body that he does not fill or coincide with sufficiently to command. His body is faster and slower than itself at once. His body is of a piece with the ground, but has not yet acquired the grace of the ground. Awkwardness, clumsiness, rendered with this kind of care can acquire its own kind of grace, lightness and fluency, as in Nauman’s beautiful rendering of a slow motion slip on a banana skin in one portion of his video installation Falls, Pratfalls and Sleights of Hand (1993). Here, the experience of seeing the pratfall repeated slowly and set against renderings of hands performing various kinds of play with eggs and cards is to run together the different forms of movement, to create an impossible imaginary new syntax of bodily movement.

The pull of the ground, the compulsion of down, is always at work in Beckett’s world. It is perhaps partly what makes it a ‘world’ at all, that it is so strongly orientated by gravity, that it is so weighed down by itself. The work itself keeps striking out anew, in what promise to be new directions, but which are always drawn back in to the orbit. By the end of his long career, Beckett’s work has built for itself its own ground. In Beckett’s Company, the one to whom, on his back in the dark, a voice is supposed to come and speak of a past, cannot be certain of anything, not even the pressure of the ground on his hind parts. The work, like so much of Beckett’s writing, is composed out of pure supposition. Even the confirming pressure of the ground has vanished in Worstward Ho, in which the ground is removed from every hypothesis the instant it is posed. But to ‘suppose’ is literally to place beneath. As Descartes could doubt everything but the fact that he was doubting, so Beckett can suppose anything but that he is not supposing. The work creates its own artificial gravity system. Becoming its own world, it comes down to itself.

One of the striking differences between Nauman’s and Beckett’s work is the horror of repetition in the former. Notoriously, Nauman reinvents his art, reinvents his way of being an artist, with almost every work, as though art had to be the opposite of repetition, as though art could be recognised only when unrecognisable as itself. His are the workings of the death instinct as explicated by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the instinct to disconnect, to atomise, anatomise and particularise, to make a work composed of sunderings and breakings off, which will resist gathering into substance, and will refuse to be weighed down by its own self-resemblance. Of course, there are islands or passages of self-similarity in Nauman’s work – the recurrence of certain subjects, like the tunnels and channels of 1979-80, the use of certain materials, such as neon tubing, and motifs, as in the clown pieces, the hanging pieces and actions, as in the video pieces, and the distinctive styles and signatures of the video work. But, taken as a whole, Nauman’s work is allergic to the idea of wholeness. It is not an oeuvre but a désoeuvrement; every work a working loose from what has come before and threatened to solidify into a whole. It does not anywhere or anyhow come to rest; the most that can be said is that it hangs together.