Human nature is a loaded term. Whatever we think it is, it is precisely that and so much more. It is certainly never fixed or singular. So for an exhibition to tackle this subject, it has to have the art to back it up.
Human Nature at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (not to be confused with another exhibition called Human Nature) certainly does. Curated by LACMA’s curator of contemporary art Franklin Sirmans, the exhibition takes its name from Bruce Nauman’s 1983 neon sculpture “Human Nature/Life Death/Know Doesn’t Know.” It sits on the second floor of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum, offering a history of art since 1968 and a unique glance at LACMA’s amazing contemporary collection.
Human Nature is something of a who’s-who in contemporary art. The exhibition draws connections between historical figures in plastic arts like John Baldessari, Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kosuth to performance artists like Hannah Wilke and Vito Acconci; the 1970s are connected to younger artists such as Carlee Fernandez, Amanda Ross-Ho and Jack Pierson. The scope is surely international as well, with Zhang Huan, Alfredo Jaar, William Kentridge and Do-Ho Suh, among many others finding their place in the exhibition.
Its international and historical scope aside, this is more than a history of contemporary art and offers much to be said about humans. Identity politics from all corners of the world come into play with this exhibition and Sirmans does a sharp job juxtaposing works, playing them off one another and guiding us on this tour. Human Nature does not dictate any politics, however, nor does it force specific themes down the viewers’ throats. The threads are there and we make connect them or disconnect them as we see fit.
And LACMA’s contemporary collection shares quite a few names with the Nasher Museum’s collection. Marlene Dumas, Glenn Ligon, David Hammons, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Dario Robleto, all in the Nasher Museum’s Building the Contemporary Collection: Five Years of Acquisitions, are represented in Human Nature. Further, the exhibition includes many artists of the African diaspora. Artists Leslie Hewitt, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillan and Lorna Simpson also figure prominently in the show.
Maurizio Cattelan’s “Untitled” is of course worth mentioning. A crowd favorite, the works consists of two mouse-sized elevators nonchalantly installed in the bottom of one of the gallery’s walls. The work is at once disorienting and comical, gesturing toward that which we do not see. In many ways, this seems to be a key thread of the show–looking at that which we do not see or consider. But the same could be said of Nauman’s titular work with its brilliant flashes of neon light and juxtaposition of words and phrases, rendering human nature nothing more than a set of flashy words which signify that which cannot be signified.
Regardless, it is difficult to write about Human Nature because it so resists summary. Of course LACMA’s collection is impressive and the work in Human Nature is consistently good. Whether it’s work made in 1968 or 2008, it all begs to be seen more than once. It is ultimately the type of exhibition that demands being seen, felt and experienced in person.
IMAGE: Bruce Nauman, “Human Nature/Life Death/Know Doesn’t Know,” 1983. Sculpture; Powered device, Neon, 107 1/2 x 107 x 5 13/16 in. (273.05 x 271.78 x 14.61 cm). Modern and Contemporary Art Council Fund (M.84.36). Contemporary Art Department. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.