I always enjoy having a look in York St Marys, a de-consecrated church which is now used as an exhibition space for contemporary art. The exhibitions there are usually very carefully chosen to resonate with that kind of space. I am certain, for example, that Cornelia Parker’s 30 Pieces of Silver (always beautiful) will never look quite as stunning anywhere else. I was not so sure about this exhibition before seeing it. St Marys is not a natural home for the work of Bruce Nauman. He uses a lot of neon and video and his ideas would resonate more naturally in a modern white cube gallery than in a space with a history and a different beauty of its own. I think I was partly right. Some of the work does seem grafted onto the space rather than becoming a part of it and the neon work and videos could be seen anywhere to similar effect. I’m sure that a site specific neon work in this space could be stunning but not one which is just set up attached to a backing wall. I am not a fan of Bruce Nauman’s video work at the best of times. My objection can be summed up in the question, asked by the very interesting information sheet, about the video work Good boy Bad Boy from 1985. Are the two actors on the screens believable? For me they are not. The constant repetition in the video work becomes trite and tedious, losing both my attention and its power. It’s just not for me.
There were a couple of pieces which did prove my initial expectations to be wrong. Raw Material Washing Hands, a video piece from 1996 does gain from being seen in that space and the duration of the hand washing and repetition of the actions does become quite mesmeric. There is a long tradition of water being used as a part of religious ritual, cleansing and renewing in this space and it both paid tribute to that history and seemed to question it in a more secular age. The action of washing seemed to become more desperate and pointless as time passed as well as gaining a strange kind of dignity.
My favourite piece was Untitled (Hand Circle) 1996. It is very beautiful, a circlet of hands made from bronze, holding onto each other as they are held high in space. There were lots of resonances here. A crown of thorns, an advent wreath, a symbol of unity and compassion. The information leaflet suggests that there could be some kind of lewd association but I couldn’t see it and I still can’t. Maybe that’s a good reason for a work to be untitled. I can see what I want to see without distraction or guidance.
This was an interesting exhibition and it made me think, which is the job of conceptual art after all, so I’m not complaining.