Human nature in neon

When stepping into Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light, the latest exhibit to open at North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, visitors should prepare for an optical assault. Garish neon lights flash before the eyes, blinking on and off, lending the exhibit a carnival-esque feel. But despite the colorful, jocund atmosphere immediately established by the glow of lights, this exhibit is not mere child’s play; Nauman uses this playful medium to make deeply profound, often dark statements on the human condition.

The very incongruity of the artist’s medium and message make Nauman’s exhibit worthy of discussion, if not accolades. Inspired by a neon advertisement for beer glowing outside his studio window in the 1960s, Nauman has since taken the familiarity of neon lights and created clever plays on words, anagrams and graphic illustrations to visually impart his perceptions on politics, sexuality and psychology.

At the very least, the artist’s use of the atypical medium of light deserves a nod of respect. By using a combination of neon tubing and clear glass suspension frames, Nauman very precisely and carefully makes his artwork a unique craft. His pieces are so fragile that the works on display at MOCA are actually gallery copies of originals housed in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

According to the accompanying plaque on “One Hundred Live and Die,” the largest neon light installation of Elusive Signs, 100 flashing three-word statements become Nauman’s consummate statement of the human condition. Messages such as “Think and live,” “Suck and die,” “Love and live” and “Piss and die” light up arranged in orderly, rainbow-colored columns. The four columns of 25 messages work in pairs that juxtapose basic human acts with life and death. Each pairing of verbs, no matter how incongruous, ends with both life and death-for example, if a viewer waits long enough, “Speak and live” will flash up next to “Speak and die.”

Nauman takes on several other themes throughout the 20-year span of the works displayed in Elusive Signs. In “Hanged Man,” he presents the viewer with the simple childhood game, showing a multicolored hangman drawn sequentially, gallows first, then noose, then head, and so on, with one notable addition: A very prominent, flaccid penis. Once completed, this hangman goes dark while its writhing, duo-tone counterpart flashes, dying with a gigantic, erect penis. Perverse, perhaps, but also humorous; the piece can accurately be summed up with the adage, “Lucky men are hung, unlucky men are hanged.”

Sexuality is the feature in another, more political work, “Five Marching Men.” Here, soldiers multiply in straight-legged Nazi-stomps.

As each additional soldier mimics his counterparts, down to his monstrously erect penis, the viewer recognizes Nauman’s ridiculing of the testosterone-driven, uniform one-mindedness of militarism.

The extraction of such messages takes a bit of mental stretching, exercise that not every gallery-goer is up for.

Strolling through MOCA during the opening of Elusive Signs, several visitors made comments such as, “I can’t handle it,” and “What kind of person supports art like this?”

Perhaps Nauman refers to himself in one text-heavy installation which reads, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”

Visitors quite literally have to crane their necks and turn their heads to follow the spiraled cursive of this particular work, which shares the same title as its message. This physical act mirrors the mental perspective required of those that seek to appreciate Nauman’s work.

Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light will be on display now through January 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, located at 770 NE 125th Street in North Miami.

MOCA charges $3 for students with identification and $5 for adults.

Admission to the museum is free to the public on Tuesdays and free to North Miami residents every day.

Bring a pair of sunglasses if you have shamelessly sensitive eyes.

Hannah Bae may be contacted at