Bruce Nauman is a master of disguise -- just not in the way you might expect. His work not only finds meaning in the hidden, but also in what is revealed and the tension between the two. Nauman's 1987 video installation, Clown Torture, is a perfect example of this. In the installation, four narrative sequences detail the absurd but unnerving actions of a clown who is played by Nauman himself. An assault of sound emanating from a darkened room is the viewer's first taste of the spectacle that lies beyond and once they enter, their psychological comfort zone is broached as well.

Inside, there are two pairs of stacked video monitors (some are upside down, others on their side), and two wall projections which disorient the viewer immediately. Each of the clowns in the videos are different: one is a jester, one is your average white face clown (just like Tim Curry, eeep!), another a French Baroque clown, and the last a play off the Emmett Kelly "Weary Willie" character. In one video, the viewer is confronted with a clown screaming the word "No!" over and over again, while jumping and kicking his feet -- lying on the ground. Another video shows a clown becoming increasingly frustrated and horrified as he recites the same joke repeatedly: "Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who's left? Repeat." Two videos show clowns trying to balance goldfish bowls and buckets of water which fall on their heads as they attempt to open a door. In the last video, a clown sits on a toilet in a public bathroom stall -- the image resembles closed-circuit security camera footage.
Watching the videos for longer than a minute is extremely difficult and Nauman places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of questioning their own participation in the traumatic events that are simultaneously unfolding around them. One almost gets the feeling of bearing witness to an interrogation or experiment, which recalls horrifying social and political events and experiences like torture, isolation, confinement, insanity and surveillance. The costumes and makeup that the clowns wear parallels the artifice of the media and advertising worlds, which is a nice play off the video medium. It also renders the clowns as anonymous victims and oppressors concurrently, in a way similar to how someone like Jason Voorhees dons his iconic hockey mask to both instill terror and hide his deformed face (but that's a whole other topic).

Nauman's installation is at The Art Institute of Chicago, but is not always on display. Call ahead for exhibition information. You can check out a few clips of Clown Torture below, along with another clown surprise I thought you might enjoy. Try not to wet yourself.

Since these are videos posted by random people, I posted a few different views because not all the videos have every element of the installation in them.


I "acquired" these clown wall hangings from an abandoned barn in New Jersey. Yes, nothing says terrifying like rapey, cartoonish clown sculptures.

categories Features, Horror