Burning Small Fires


“A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s” is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through April 15.


Bruce Nauman once did an installation in which, just as you catch a glimpse of yourself on a video monitor when you enter, the screen goes blank. (The image is a delayed feed from a camera outside the entrance.) This piece is a perfect distillation of his idea that all art is ephemeral, and so are you. A lot of Nauman’s art has been a similar disappearing act.

The piece seen here is a photographic record of Nauman’s destruction of a work of art by Ed Ruscha that was also photographic. Ruscha had published a book titled “Various Small Fires and Milk,” an intentionally nonsensical collection of trivial photographs. Nauman’s one- upmanship was to set ablaze the pages depicting fires and then photograph that. But he didn’t have the images cut and bound into a book. He just left them as a single, folded sheet, thereby creating a work whose impracticality made it even more of an in-joke than Ruscha’s book.


The redundancy in Nauman’s title--you don’t have to burn a fire, it’s already in flames--makes the piece seem dopey, until you see that it’s really a philosophical conundrum. Nauman said that he admired Wittgenstein for taking “an argument to the point of logical absurdity.” Conceptualists like Nauman typically disguised cleverness as daffiness.