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Human Nature/Life Death

Multicolored neon sign composed of various English words in a circular pattern.
© 2018 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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  • Multicolored neon sign composed of various English words in a circular pattern.




Bruce Nauman
American, born 1941

About this artwork

Regarded as one of the most innovative artists of his generation, Bruce Nauman has produced an oeuvre of stunning diversity, encompassing works of film, installation, performance, photography, sculpture, and video. He creates profoundly aesthetic experiences that are often aimed at disrupting viewers’ habits of perception. In the mid-1960s the artist adopted the medium of flashing neon in order to critically examine the role of language in visual art. Inspired by its hypnotic aura and non-art aesthetic, Nauman began using this quintessentially commercial medium in an ironic way, as a vehicle for wordplay, puns, and jokes. The artist created this neon sign for an invitational sculpture exhibition held in Chicago in 1985. Three pairs of words, antithetical in their connotations, line the six-foot circumference: life and death, love and hate, and pleasure and pain. In the center, human, animal, and nature are repeated in stacked sets of two. Each word blinks independently, ordered so that over several minutes all possible permutations are displayed. Juxtapositions of colors produce optical illusions that create a jarring, visceral effect. This work ultimately insists on language’s inability to deliver a fixed or stable set of meanings, conveying a deep suspicion about what constitutes truth, especially in the public realm.


Currently Off View


Contemporary Art


Bruce Nauman


Human Nature/Life Death


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frames


182.9 × 182.9 × 10.2 cm (72 × 72 × 4 in.)

Credit Line

Acquired from City of Chicago Public Art Program Collection, through prior gifts of Florence S. McCormick and Emily Crane Chadbourne

Reference Number



© 2018 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


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