This wall-hung work comprises the words ‘VIOLINS’, ‘VIOLENCE’, and ‘SILENCE’ spelled out in coloured neon tubing. Each word appears twice; one of each pair is written left to right while the other is presented backwards from right to left. The six words are composed to form a loosely triangular shape, the horizontal bottom of which consists of two instances of the word ‘SILENCE’, one overlaid on top of the other so that the individual letters are barely distinguishable. The two angled sides of the triangle each consist of the words ‘VIOLINS’ and ‘VIOLENCE’: on the left-hand side ‘VIOLINS’ can be read from left to right and ‘VIOLENCE’ is presented backwards, while on the right ‘VIOLENCE’ can be read from left to right and ‘VIOLINS’ is presented backwards. Supporting each word is a clear glass tubing suspension frame. Each word is rendered in a single colour using various shades of pink, yellow, and red neon and argon gas, and there is an audible buzzing from the neon. The words illuminate on a cycle which begins with them all lit up, then each in turn starting with ‘SILENCE’, then the left ‘VIOLENCE’, then the left ‘VIOLINS’, again ‘SILENCE’, then the right ‘VIOLENCE’ and finally the right ‘VIOLINS’, before all lighting up together once more. The work is displayed on the wall using glass support mounts. Although Nauman designed the work and planned its specificities, it was actually fashioned by a commercial neon expert.
VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE was made in response to a commission from California State University, Long Beach. Nauman originally envisioned the work in two incarnations: in addition to the triangular configuration of the ARTIST ROOMS piece, which is meant for display in an interior space, Nauman intended to create a second version consisting of the same three words but this time made up of large neon letters which would be wrapped horizontally around the exterior of the university’s music building (Richardson 1982, p.92). Although the university rejected the outdoor proposal, Nauman revisited the idea later for the landmark 1983 exhibition of his neon works at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he eventually realised the outdoor version (Ketner, Kraynak and Volk 2006, p.27).
Nauman began making works using neon while he was a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. His early neon works included pieces where the artist painted over the neon tubing or submerged it in oil, although Nauman has since destroyed these (Richardson 1982, p.14). In that they are displayed in galleries as artworks, existent neon pieces such as VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE foreground the iridescent material qualities of neon, which are often overlooked when it is used for commercial signage. Additionally, the triangular arrangement of the words and the way in which they overlap prohibits a conventional left-to-right reading, while their sequential illumination – and the visual patterns and semantic associations it produces – points to the materiality of the words themselves.
The word ‘violence’ incorporates the first four letters of the first word, ‘violins’, and the last five letters of the word ‘silence’. The words convey extremes of sound and situation. Curator Joseph D. Ketner II has stated that ‘the word violin conjures up a pure musical sound that is squelched by violence and obliterated by the succeeding silence. The confluence of these words creates an ekphrastic sound poem in visual form that speaks of the extremes of music and silence, creativity and violence’ (Ketner, Kraynak and Volk 2006, p.27). Any sense of musicality, through reference to an instrument, is counteracted by the opposing idea of silence, which is itself complicated by the implication of violence. The connotations of the three individual words are confounded when understood in relation to each other. The repetition and layering of words communicates a seemingly disorienting message, exemplified by the practically illegible double presentation of the word ‘silence’ at the base of the triangle, which serves to silence the word and its meaning. However, art critic Gregory Volk has detected links between the words in the form of a narrative, noting that ‘violence often results in violins, as in funeral music, as well as in silence: The silence of victims and the silence of those who chose not to bear witness or to oppose’ (Ketner, Kraynak and Volk 2006, pp.71).
The flashing light and buzzing of the neon convey a sense of playfulness that contrasts with the uneasy connotations of the words. As Volk has noted, Nauman’s neon works evoke ‘a carnivalesque world that is part visual wonderment and part uncomfortable confrontation’ (Ketner, Kraynak and Volk 2006, p.77). Similarly, curator Brenda Richardson has observed that ‘Nauman has always, especially in the neons, consciously tried to provoke the viewer to a response; the language in the neons is often scrappy or even contentious in tone’ (Richardson 1982, p.32).
Brenda Richardson, Bruce Nauman: Neons, exhibition catalogue, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore 1982, pp.32–5, 92–5, reproduced p.93.
Nicholas Serota, Joan Simon, and Jean Christophe-Ammann, Bruce Nauman, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1986, p.26, reproduced p.45.
Joseph D. Ketner II, Janet Kraynak and Gregory Volk, Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light, exhibition catalogue, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee 2006, pp.27, 29, 71–2, reproduced p.26.
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.