Shit in Your Hat – Head on a Chair is an installation that consists of a wooden chair with a wax bust attached to the seat. The chair is suspended on a wire that hangs from the ceiling, in front of a screen on which there is a back-projected image of a mime performance. The mime character runs through a series of actions in response to orders from an off-screen voice. The never-ending litany of instructions from the invisible individual requires the character to execute senseless acts that put her dignity to the test. ‘Put your hat on the table. Put your head in the hat. Put your hand on your head with your head in your hat. Put your hand on your head, your hat on your skirt. Drop your hat...’
The chair is an element that appears in earlier works by Nauman. This particular chair served as the model for the metal chairs in the sculptures with the generic title South America, which Nauman produced during the 1980s. According to the artist, ‘the chair becomes a symbol for a figure [...]. The chair is used, it is functional; but it is also symbolic. Think of the electric chair, or that chair they put you in when the police shine the lights on you.’ In 1981, the book Prisionero sin nombre, celda sin número by the Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman made a strong impression on Nauman. In the book, Timerman describes his dramatic kidnapping and the torture he suffered, tied to a chair, during the military dictatorship in his country.
The mime character is not a new feature in Nauman’s work. Like the clowns who appear in many of his videos, the mime artist is a completely abstract character. She is drained of sexuality and any notion of desire by her androgyny. With her face painted white, she is not exactly a person; she is the uncertain and unsettling idea of a human being. Her acts are beyond everyday sensibility and subject to another logic. In the final analysis, mime is another of the extensions of the human body that appear repeatedly in Nauman’s output.
By presenting us with an extreme situation of subordination, Shit in Your Hat – Head on a Chair invites us to reflect on the nature of power. The arbitrary nature of the orders and the docility of the mime artist as she performs them, without feeling humiliated, raise the question of who is more disturbed: is it the senseless, faceless voice, or the dehumanised character who obediently follows the orders it issues? This piece bears none of the direct references to physical torment that appeared in the work Nauman produced some years earlier, which is here replaced by instructions which remind us that subjection and submission are a continual presence in our lives in the form of a precise division of labour and social roles.