Art: Listen without prejudice

    Thus, the sensible observer must surely favour the pessimist’s opinion of this gigantic post-industrial cavern. The Turbine Hall is bigger than big: it is the largest space for art in the world. The simple act of filling it is a logistical nightmare. And the harsh industrial atmospheres that prevail in here are not naturally sympathetic to art, you would think.

    Certainly, this is no space for shy artists, nor unduly sensitive ones. There is no room for nervousness or hesitation. To work in here, you need to have a vein of megalomania running through your aesthetics. Or, better still, you need to have a vein of aesthetics running through your megalomania. Which brings us to Bruce Nauman.

    Sooner or later, someone was going to tackle the problem of the Turbine Hall by seemingly leaving it empty: in art, sooner or later, someone always resorts to leaving a space empty. With hindsight, it was entirely predictable that this someone would be Nauman. He is the most damnably varied of the big hitters currently in action in contemporary art. Sometimes he sculpts. Sometimes he makes videos. Sometimes he uses neon. Sometimes, as in the Turbine Hall today, he is a sound artist. Whatever his method, there is an inviolate hipness about his art, an unbluntable edge of revolution and protest. Born in Indiana, raised by the 1960s, Nauman has never retreated from the fight against the squares. He may be 63, but he remains hard-core.

    So, you walk into the Turbine Hall and there’s nothing there. Nothing to see, at least. No obvious art. No thingumajigs.

    No clutter. Just the gothic looming of the Turbine Hall itself, sans turbines, and you. But — and this is a smart and successful trick — it doesn’t feel empty. It feels inhabited. Packed, even. Because as soon as you step in, you become aware of a huge sea of noise stretching away before you: whispers, murmurs, bangs, shouts, swearing, poems, confessions, exhortations. The cacophony fills the space and seems to extend to the far end of the Turbine Hall — which is about the length of two football pitches. So, this is a spectacular whopper of a cacophony.

    It actually consists of 21 individual sound pieces, all playing at once. As you walk down the long entry ramp that is Tate Modern’s single most effective architectural feature, you gradually become aware of different voices saying different things in different pieces. Each piece is produced by two speakers facing each other. Each, therefore, forms a stripe of sound across the hall. Each is followed by another stripe of sound, then another — until you end up with a student’s scarf of these sound stripes stretching from one end of the world’s largest art space to the other. Wow.

    As usual with Nauman, the things being said make no obvious narrative sense: the 1960s didn’t invent the happening to confirm the status quo but to disrupt it. The first voice you hear at this parti- cular superstereo audio happening shouts “Thank you” over and over, and makes something utterly aggressive out of what ought to be a display of gratitude. A little further along, another guy screams “Okay, okay, okay”, and you know it’s not okay, and never will be. This punchy one-word stuff is interspersed with Nauman’s prolix sound duets, tortuous urban dialogues in which male voices duel anxiously with female ones. Think of Beckett. Think of Freud. Now get rid of all the common sense. “I was a good boy,” he says. “You are an evil man,” she replies. “That was good,” he responds. “I am an evil woman,” she retorts.

    These are tense, fractured, neurotic games of vocal ping pong, and I won’t make the mistake of writing down any more of them for you, because, frankly, they look lousy on the page. Senseless. Ungrammatical. Tough. But that’s not how they work in the room.

    In the room, they seep and creep into your consciousness with that subcutaneous sneakiness that radio fans will know all about. Nauman favours sound because sound is so adaptable. Pressing your ear to the speaker for a particularly quiet piece, you find yourself within kissing distance of his mutterers and monologists, plunged into their Colgate zone. But take a few steps back into the room, back into the cacophony, and the intimacy turns into its opposite, the anxious roar of the crowd that seems so unavoidably to represent the tone of our modern world.

    So, to get to the point, I ended up admiring this thing a lot. It infiltrated me like a dose of gamma rays. By engineering a succession of tense and nervous one-on-ones with a set of broken but thoughtful speakers, Nauman manages to avoid the grandiloquence that has, alas, proved so tempting for earlier artists taking on this space. The recurrent intimacy you feel here makes something worn and human of the huge and inhuman Turbine Hall. Basically, it populates it.

    That said, there is not a pope’s chance in Baghdad of Nauman’s effort proving as popular with the general public as the previous occupant of the same space, Olafur Eliasson’s must-see The Weather Project, which created a full-size outdoors in here, complete with setting sun, and turned audience participation at the Tate into another new art form. Nauman’s sound piece is made of altogether sterner and tougher stuff, even though it isn’t actually made of stuff at all.