Bruce Nauman

Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor)


Bruce Nauman born 1941
Video, monitor, colour and sound (stereo)
Duration: 59min, 18sec
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

Not on display


Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor) is a single-channel video work in colour with stereo sound. The video is presented on a television monitor and runs continuously on a loop. From a stationary position the camera records Bruce Nauman as he builds a corner fence on his property, Las Madres Ranch in New Mexico. The landscape seen within the frame of the video is flat and fairly dry, with grassland and bushes visible in the background. The video is in real time and runs for fifty-nine minutes and eighteen seconds, just under one hour, which is one of the standard lengths of video cassette tapes. When exhibited the monitor is presented on a plinth or trolley. This copy of the video is number 27 in an edition of 40.

The video begins with text scrolling up the screen, white on a black background, introducing the work and the task Nauman is seen performing in it. In this text Nauman notes that a good fence cannot be built or maintained without a good corner, that the posts are made of nine-foot long cedar railroad ties (railway sleepers), and that the wire he uses is smooth, not barbed, so as to avoid snagging his clothes and using obscene language. Nauman also states that he learnt this way of setting a corner from one Gene Thornton, though the mistakes he makes are his, not Thornton’s. As the action of the video begins there are already two sturdy wooden posts in the ground, to the left of the frame. Nauman is seen digging a deep hole using a red vehicle with an attachment that bores into the ground. He uses a spade and other tools to remove excess soil from the hole in which he then sets a third post, forming a corner. Of the nine-foot post, about half its length is buried in the ground for stability. Nauman then places wooden crossbeams, or ‘H braces’, between the posts, and pulls wire diagonally across them. The last thing he does is to bring in a green gate, which he places to the left of the frame, against the central post. Because the video is not cut or edited, it also records everyday occurrences such as Nauman’s wife and dogs visiting him while he works. At the end of the video white text scrolls up the screen on a black background. This text is introduced as an epilogue and includes the comments of Nauman’s neighbour and partner on the ranch, Bill Riggins. Riggins, more familiar with ranch work than Nauman, notes the hardness of the clay, and that Nauman tamped the fence posts in well, making sure there were no pockets of air that would allow the posts to work lose. Riggins also advises that Nauman should always keep his tools in the same place so that he can find them and that he should sharpen his chainsaw.

Setting a Good Corner comes out of Nauman’s concerns, which began earlier in his career, with duration and time, ‘where you could control the length of the film or videotape or activity by having a specific job. You began when the job started; and when the job was over, the film was over.’ (Nauman in ‘“Setting a Good Corner”: Bruce Nauman’, Art21, November 2011,, accessed 11 December 2013). This became a way to structure the work, so that once the task was set Nauman did not have to concern himself with the outcome, but rather focus on completing the job.

In that it records the undertaking of everyday manual labour – an unexceptional chore undertaken by all those who live and work on a ranch – the video documents an aspect of the artist’s work that is not conventionally understood as art. Critic Eugen Blume has examined the blurring of roles that Nauman plays in the video:

On the one hand, it is a self-portrait of Nauman in his other life as a farmer. A cowboy decked out in the full regalia of his calling and equipped with all the necessary tool sets a corner for one of those archetypical ranch fences used to prevent the horses or cows from straying too far afield. In the course of the action the functional matter-of-factness of this procedure is transposed into the non-functional form of an artwork, whose producer in turn presents himself in his second role as artist.
(Blume 2010, p.95.)

The second part of the work’s title, (Allegory and Metaphor), might suggest that this work can be read metaphorically so that like the corner itself, the video captures a meeting of two places: Nauman’s roles as both artist and rancher. An allegorical reading, on the other hand, might suggest the work has a lesson of some kind to impart. As a student at the University of Wisconsin Nauman absorbed ideas from his professors about the moral potential of art and he has stated: ‘there is the particularly American idea about morality that has to do with the artist as workman. Many artists used to feel all right about making a living with their art because they identified with the working class.’ (Nauman in Simon 1987, p.322.) The act of ‘setting a good corner’ foregrounds Nauman’s role as labourer and the kind of moral imperative implied in having a strong work ethic and doing a job well.

When he viewed a first cut of the video, Nauman’s neighbour, Bill Riggins, whose words appear at the end of the tape, said: ‘Boy, you’re going to get a lot of criticism on that because people have a lot of different ways of doing those things’ (quoted in ‘“Setting a Good Corner”: Bruce Nauman’, accessed 11 December 2013). For this reason Nauman decided to include comments from his neighbour on the tape in order to acknowledge his superior expertise, ‘about keeping your tools sharpened and not letting them lie on the ground, where they get hurt or get abused and dirty, and you can’t find them’, as Nauman has said. (Nauman in ‘“Setting a Good Corner”: Bruce Nauman’, accessed 11 December 2013.) In comparison with the firmly established locals, Nauman was relatively new to ranch work, having moved to Pecos, New Mexico, in 1979, where he built a studio on his property. Although it is rare for his work to reflect the specific environment of New Mexico, this particular film sheds light on the life the artist leads in the southwest and in the landscape he experiences every day. Indeed, the work’s outdoor setting is unusual in that the majority of Nauman’s video works are filmed inside the studio (see, for example, MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) 2001, Tate T11893).

Further reading
Joan Simon, ‘Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Bruce Nauman’ [1987], in Janet Kraynak (ed.), Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2003, pp.317–38.
Lynne Cooke, ‘The Revealer of Mystic Truths’, in Laurence Sillars (ed.), Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think Me, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2006, pp.82–9, reproduced p.85.
Eugen Blume, Bruce Nauman: Live or Die, exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin 2010, p.95, reproduced p.104.

Ariana Musiol
The University of Edinburgh
December 2013

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.