Review: Bruce Nauman's 'Mirror'

A revival of 'Corridor Installation with Mirror' at San Jose State
Keith Daly, left, Tony May, center, and Dore Bowen from SJSU's 'Time Tunnel' curatorial panel. Photo by Tran Tran

"I just came out of your room, Bruce. And it was one of the most touching experiences, sincerely, that I've ever had of a work of art." That's the late Willoughby Sharp, an avant-gardist, speaking on camera in May 1970, with the artist Bruce Nauman.

On a makeshift set inside of San Jose State's art gallery, they're discussing Nauman's "Corridor Installation with Mirror—San Jose Installation (Double Wedge Corridor with Mirror)."

This was one of many corridors that Nauman experimented with in the late 1960s and into the '70s—but it was the only one he made on the SJSU campus. Sharp continues the interview with limited help from his subject. He asks hopefully, "What can you say about that room?" The laconic artist replies, "Not very much."

This filmed discussion loops on a small TV screen in the same SJSU gallery where, 48 years later, the work has been reconstructed as "Time Tunnel: Bruce Nauman's Corridor Installation with Mirror—San Jose Installation." Black and white photographs from the original installation are edited into the video. Last week while visiting the campus, the artist Tony May pointed out an image of his younger self there in the midst of construction. Now an SJSU emeritus professor of art, he returned earlier this year to the campus he taught at for 38 years to oversee the re-installation. His recent involvement with the project began when one of the curators, Keith Daly, a former MFA student, brought the work to the attention of Dore Bowen, associate professor of art history and visual culture at SJSU. In their research, they found out about May's participation and asked him to return.

Building the corridor again put him in the unique position of being, apart from Nauman himself, "the last living link to the original." The contractor they recruited, Terra Amico, (and their builders, brothers Gabe and Juve Pacheco), assembled the installation from May's reconstructed drawings. "This piece was never properly documented originally in its totality," he recalls. "It seems that the photographer, Gianfranco Gorgoni, must've left just before it was actually finished." May explained that "the Guggenheim, which owns the piece, actually had no very thorough documentation of what it even looked like in this original installation. This show will become part of the definitive archived documentation."

The two narrow, white corridor walls form the shape of a capital letter V. A tall mirror hangs at the end of the path but, as you approach it, your image doesn't immediately make an appearance. It's like making your way toward a funhouse mirror, except it's the walls themselves that distort your perceptions. In an interview Nauman recorded in 2000 for[ ], the artist is much more forthcoming about his intentions than he was in 1970. He's referring to his video projects, but his response also applies to his practice in general: "My videos always involve some idea of a human being in an unusual situation, and what happens." And what happens in "Corridor Installation with Mirror" is open to interpretation.

May has been asked, perhaps too many times, about his reaction to walking the corridor. "We all have our own experiences. I was unable to disconnect from the very physical nuts and bolts aspect of building it. I'm not sure that I had what is often described as a more profound spiritual experience," he admits. Instead, he describes the feeling like this: "It does have a certain confounding aspect. To me the essential experience of it was walking towards a mirror, apparently showing you the corridor that you are walking toward the mirror in, but you do not appear in it."

When asked if he would accompany a visitor—each person taking one side of the V at the same time—May was willing and agreed. Walking down the corridor with someone offers a change in perspective, if not a major revelation. You may not appear in the mirror but your companion does. It is, as Nauman suggests, an "unusual situation" that keeps you temporarily off-balance. The 2018 "Time Tunnel" installation also includes a version of the corridor in virtual reality, for those visitors who'd like a 21st century experience. In an email, Bowen wrote that "Assistant Professors Andrew Blanton and Rhonda Holberton were later asked to supervise a group of SJSU students to design the VR version of the installation." Either way, it's worth investigating the corridor to find out, simply, what happens to a human being when they find themselves on the inside of an unusual corridor.

Time Tunnel: Bruce Nauman's Corridor Installation with Mirror
Thru Feb 23
Art Building, SJSU

Find Art Events

Type: Area:
List your event with Metroactive