Alison Scarpulla

Nauman’s Installation

by Peyton Burgess


I’m standing on the veranda overlooking the Chicago Art Institute’s contemporary wing. The ledge induces vertigo, which I welcome as temporary relief from my work-study assignment. Then three construction workers push a wall on a dolly out of the freight elevator, through the lobby, and into what was a William Eggleston exhibit. More workers follow behind them with more walls on dollies. My radio crackles to life, interrupting my reverie in this dizziness, and the head of security summons me to the curator’s office to receive the details of my new assignment. The stairwell acoustics amplify my labored climb up the stone, six flights.

(“Does it bother you that I don’t ask how work is going?”
“No. You know what happens. The best parts are after I leave and before I go back.”)

The curator and the head of security stand in front of a laptop; its screen reflects off their glasses. They both look up and then back down at the screen, and the head of security waves me over. I walk behind the two and peer over their shoulders at the computer screen.

Bruce Nauman, in a bed, with the tubes for oxygen cluttering his image through Skype video, instructs the curator not to place warning signs around the installation that he had titled Second Poem Piece. “Please, I don’t want any sort of unintended distraction around this piece. Please.” He hacks and then wipes phlegm from his lips. A nurse enters the picture and says that Mr. Nauman cannot speak any longer, at the moment. “He needs rest.” The nurse ends the video feed.

“There will be no signs warning guests about Mr. Nauman’s art in the floor. You alone will watch over the installation,” says the curator.

“And do not let anybody step on it,” says the head of security.

“Do not let anybody step on the installation,” says the curator. “That’s settled. Now, I must reorganize the south wing. Go to the Nauman piece.”

“Is Nauman dying?” I ask. As if I know the guy.

“You know him? I mean, his work?” the curator asks.

“No,” I say.

There are corridors and wings of the museum that confuse me and then change and confuse me for the first time. I get lost frequently, if not because of the maze of walls then because the curator is constantly changing the order of the walls and the art that they exhibit. Pollock was once where I got my cue to turn right for Nauman, but now there is a giant painting of an open mouth, by whom I’m not intrigued, and I can’t turn right; now there is a wall with a giant painting of an eye. There was a bathroom down the hall where I used to take a right and I wonder if the bathroom is still there. The curator couldn’t reroute plumbing that quickly, I decide. There must be a new entryway leading to the bathroom, to the right.

I run into another security guard, a pudgy little white man named Sam, and ask him for directions. “This is the new map,” Sam says, pulling out a rough copy of the contemporary art wing’s latest layout. “Go through the Penskat exhibit, then the Reynolds exhibit and then the Walker exhibit and you’ll get to Nauman.”

“None of that sounds familiar,” I say.

“Here then. Take my map. I’ll be fine.” Sam walks off then stops and walks behind a movie screen, which is showing projection video of a car garage that opens slowly. A man exits pushing a lawnmower toward a yard overwhelmed by tall dandelions. I can see Sam’s feet below the movie screen as he stands behind it.

“Sam?” I say.

“I like seeing dandelions sway backwards in the wind,” he says.

(“I don’t have a lot of luck with plants. I just don’t have an angel watching over me.”
“I blame this weather. But either way, having an angel watch over you might not be as nice as you’d think.”)

Nauman ordered the sixty-by-sixty-inch steel plaque to be placed in the museum’s hardwood floor, leveled with the floor’s surface. He had stamped the words YOU, MAY, NOT, WANT, TO, SCREW, HERE (or HEAR) in vertical columns, creating different combinations of the words in horizontal rows.

“Ma’am, don’t step on the artwork,” I say, and shift my weight from my left foot to my right foot. I want to lean back against the wall and relax but I don’t because I worry that people won’t take me seriously.

“How is anybody supposed to know this is artwork?” the lady whispers, but real audibly, to the old man next to her. The old man is holding what I assume is the lady’s purse. I’ve done that before. There have been times when I appreciated holding a purse. I want people to take me seriously.

(“When is Muses this year?”
“Same as every year.”)

There’s a constant knocking sound too, like from a pendulum: the exhibit in the next room shows black and white footage of a tall skinny white guy, Nauman in his youth, tapping, barefoot, the corners of a white box marked on a concrete floor, and he’s tapping in time with the knocking. The video loops, but you’d never know from here because all you hear is a seamless knocking sound. It doesn’t pause, not even when the video loops back to the beginning; but I assume it has a beginning, that Nauman started somewhere.

These are times I feel like I got the dumbest job in the world. Everybody thinks this stuff is ridiculous. Everybody wonders why they don’t just have a sign warning people, why this plaque’s not on the wall like most artwork, or why this stupid guy is standing here waiting to warn people right when they’re about to step on the thing.

“Sir, please don’t step on the artwork.”

Most of the time, I can tell if someone is the type of person that would step on the artwork if I didn’t interrupt. They usually enter, their eyes searching the walls, and walk toward the installation wondering where that knocking sound is coming from. If I take immediate action and tell people to not step on the artwork as soon as they enter the exhibit I look like an asshole and some other asshole will say that he would have seen the installation and would have never been dumb enough to step on it. So, to avoid insulting anybody, I wait until the person is taking the one last stride that makes their stepping on Nauman’s Installation inevitable unless I say something. Then I say something. And when I do say something the person usually backpedals, laughs with some sort of embarrassment, and looks at me like I’m the one that put Nauman there in the floor.

Nauman’s Installation is right around the corner of a wall separating it from the next exhibit, so that when someone comes around the wall they’re right on top of the installation. The curator’s layout forces them to walk right on it like a welcome mat.

“Sir, don’t step on the artwork.”

It’s discouraging to know that art invokes such a repetitious reaction from its audience. I would never argue that puzzlement is weak inspiration because it doesn’t lead to any instant gratification. Never.

“I don’t get the point of this. It’s pointless. There’s no point. Let’s go see the fucking Seurat exhibit,” a man weighed down by an oversized Red Sox sweatshirt says to an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

I love instant gratification. I just realized that.

(“What do you do when you can’t sleep?”

“I say, ‘Give up on the day!’)

There are eighteen different combinations of Nauman’s words, including the possibilities that involve the removal of words. But after standing here, guarding it from the crud people track in on their shoes, I’ve gotten comfortable enough to convince myself that there have to be more combinations than that.

“Sir, don’t step on the artwork.”

“Why’d you put it in the floor?”

“I didn’t put it in the floor. I’m just paying for my tuition.”

“You know what I meant. Do you hear that knocking noise? What is that?”

“I haven’t heard anything for a while.”

I have a surprisingly easy time believing this, even when I swear that knocking noise from the video exhibit next door gets louder.

“You don’t hear that?” he says, throwing a hand in the direction of the next exhibit.

“No. Ladies, excuse me. Ladies, please don’t step on the art.”

The man is not convinced that I don’t hear the noise, I guess, because he just keeps staring at me.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” I say, waving my arms slowly to get their attention. “Please exit the exhibit so that the museum can perform maintenance. It will reopen momentarily. This is all routine.”

I pull a velvet rope across the entrance and wait for the last person to leave the exhibit. “It’ll be just a minute,” I say.

On my way back to the lobby I get turned around. The map is no longer current. I’m looking at a large black and white photo of a woman wearing sparkling earrings and a long sparkling gown, which are both sparkling even though it’s a black and white photo. She’s descending a staircase in a slight blur of motion. I walk up to it to see who the artist is in hopes that it would give me an idea of where I am. Then I realize that it’s a painting. Done with a horsehair brush. Richter. That means nothing to me. But I like it, horsehair.

Heavy footsteps are coming up behind me and I turn to see three construction workers wearing those big canvas overalls. Carharts or Dickies, I guess. The kind of cotton that would drag my frame to the floor.

Two of them lift the wall on my right. “You know what dees walls made of?” says one of the workers. “Balsa wood and plaster,” he says without waiting for an answer. “Good tang. We be movin’ dees tangs all the time,” says the worker. Another rolls a dolly under the wall.

“Makes sense,” I say.

“What? Rearrangin’ dis museum all the time?”

“No. The balsa wood.”

The workers shake their heads and frown at me. I’m reminded of the way I felt when I walked into a biker bar once in Ponchatoula, asked for a Stella and kept asking for more. That’s a bad, true story.

“Wouldn’t need balsa wood walls if dees walls were permanent. If dat curator make up his mind.”

Unlike the balsa wood, the workers’ accents make no sense to me. There’s no way they talk like that in private.

Then they roll the wall around a corner, and I can hear the wheels on the dolly squeaking. It goes on for a while, like they’re rolling it down a marbled tunnel, and then the echo fades and I lose it like the nightmare I might have had this morning.

I see the staircase to the curator’s office behind where the wall had been and I start climbing up. I get to the top and see that his door is wide open so I walk in, real fast, trying to get up the courage to ask for a new assignment, but he’s not there.

The laptop screen shines up on the wall behind the desk. “Hello?” a voice comes through the computer speakers. I go around the desk and see Nauman on the laptop screen. “Can you take your glasses off? There’s a glare,” Nauman says.

“Listen, I was just going to tell the curator I need a different exhibit. Don’t take it personally.” I rub my eyes and hang my glasses on my collar.

“But what’s wrong with my exhibit?”

“I just can’t stand there saying the same thing all day to every single person. It’s too much. Or not enough.”

“Just want to stare at Pointillism all day!” Nauman hacks more and the video feed gets all pixilated with his convulsing. He gets really pixilated. The word “Pointillism” gets corrupted by the slow transmission and Nauman is a mess of digital vocal hiccups.

“Yes. I want to stare at Pointillism all day.”

“Listen. I never said to stop people from stepping on it. I just said don’t put any distractions around it. Actually, you’re doing exactly what I told you not to do. I wouldn’t have required that the thing be installed in the floor if I gave a fuck if people would step on it.”

“Then I don’t need to be there.”

“I don’t follow. Just go back to the exhibit and don’t open your mouth. I don’t want you to do a damn thing. Even if someone pisses on it, just stand there and watch! The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”

“That’s some marvelous bullshit, Nauman.”

When I get to the bottom of the stairs, I see, all the way at the other end of the contemporary wing, one doorway, the only doorway in the entire wing now. The whole contemporary wing is one big lobby with one little exhibit in the corner. People wander around; some are crowding by the one doorway, which is blocked off by that velvet rope, others just walk until they meet the wall and turn back. Sam, standing by me, is leaning against the banister, peeling an orange, watching the people wander around.

“What happened to the other exhibits, Sam?”

“They ran out.” He throws the orange peel to the ground.

“Ran out of what?”

“Not everybody lives on your timeline.” He chomps down on the orange, wipes the juice from his mouth with his shirtsleeve. “Sorry. My blood sugar is low.”

“I’m gonna get back to Nauman.”

“Lots of people waiting to get in there. Him being so sick and all.”

People are bumping into me and shoving me as I walk through the lobby; everybody is crowding around me following the same path, following me to the exhibit, stepping on each other’s feet and knocking into my back. I’m trying to unhook the velvet rope to let people into the exhibit but everybody keeps pushing me so that I can’t keep my hands steady enough.

Once I move the rope out of the way, the people flood in and I’m up against the wall. They’re pushing and shoving each other all over the place, angry at the blank walls, stepping all over Nauman’s installation. And then the alarms sound and the red lights start flashing, and everybody, including me, covers their ears. I hug up against the wall even harder. The air smells of sweat and Chanel No. 5 and I walk over to the installation and see a piece of pink bubble gum stuck to it.

The alarms turn off and it’s quiet until I hear footsteps and three construction workers come in and move a wall. Then more workers and they move the next wall. They move every single wall, rolling them into a freight elevator one after the other, until there’s nothing else in the entire contemporary wing except for me and what looks like a big bed in the opposite corner.

A neon light, mounted above a hospital bed, flickers and buzzes on, it reads Artist In Residence, with a flashing red arrow pointing down. I walk over and it starts smelling like a combination of chlorine and urine. Nauman is sleeping in the bed, machines beeping with his pulse, one bag to hydrate and one bag overflowing with his urine. He opens his eyes.

“I just wanted a little take and give,” he says.

He spits some mucus into a towel resting on his chest. “All this is one endless salvage yard. I heard you: what happens after, weekends, a yard with a garden and maybe some of those orchids you can hang from a tree, that part I assumed, but home.”

“I never brought any of that here.”

“Just step on my installation. It won’t answer. That’s the matter of it.” Nauman’s head drops back to the pillow and the heart rate monitor sends out a steady high pitch. The workers start rolling walls back in so that I have to run towards my post at the installation, the walls locking into place behind me as I run.

The exhibit closes in together again and I’m standing there by myself, a bit nervous about what to do next, I’m bad at making decisions, especially in a place that lacks any consistency. I step on the installation, smearing the gum with my shoes so that I cover up one of the HEREs. Sam walks into the room. He says, “They told me to tell you that you’re fired.”

He hugs me. And I hug Sam back, which surprises me a bit, but I like that I can’t actually hug him too firmly because he’s still fat. I get a sense that he’ll never change.

“I’m sorry I gave you that map earlier,” he says. “It was way off. I was way off.”

“You were only trying to help.” I pant a little into his collar, which is gross because his collar has a crease that’s edged with that brown of sweat and dead skin.

I push him off, a little disgusted with my behavior.

“That’s good. Here, I’ll walk you out.” He ushers me to the exit, which I don’t remember having ever seen before.


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