Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens - US Pavilion, Venice Biennale
This summer, Venice has been dominated by the presence of the American artist Bruce Nauman. He was awarded both the Golden Lion for the Best National Participation and the Laurea Honoris causa in Visual Arts from the IUAV University. It’s been more than month since he left Venice for New Mexico with his family and his new diploma. But his body, mutilated and cast, his signature (as in the neon Bbbbbrrrrrrrrruuuuce or My Name as it Were Written on the Surface of the Moon, from 1968) and his voice, asking you to think, still remain absolutely tangible and fascinating, even in their immateriality.
The official US presentation at the 53rd Venice Biennale was conceived and curated in large measure by Carlos Basualdo, who has been working in Italy since 2003. It was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the two venetian universities, Cà Foscari and IUAV, with the support of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. For the first time in its history, the US Pavillion’s program involves two sites outside the Giardini: the former convent of the Tolentini, close to the train station and the Calatrava's bridge, whose entrance was conceived by Carlo Scarpa, and a recently restored gothic palace on the prestigious Grand Canal, just in front of Palazzo Grassi. In these venues, three conceptual threads - Heads and Hands, Sound and Space, and Fountains and Neons - run in and out of the spaces and are reflected conceptually in the artworks.
The way to the Tolentini's Aula Magna is indicated by the impressive Pink and Yellow Light Corridor (Variable Light) (1972), suspended alongside the courtyard next to the main architectural library. It is impossible not to note that the students will become very familiar with this work in the upcoming months. In the large room upstairs, we encounter the new work, conceived last year by Nauman and presented here for the first time: Days. It simply consists of fourteen gracefully thin, white speakers - seven for each side. Voices in different tones jump out of them, as if they were playing a tennis match. They read out subverted permutations of the sequence of the days of the week, scripted by the artist himself. In this work, the spectator’s position determines whether one encounters an individual reader’s voice or a global sound emerging from the general mixture.
The Italian version of this sound installation, Giorni is on view at Cà Foscari Exhibition Spaces. At this site, too, we find a recreated performance, presented originally in 1970 for the Tokyo Biennale but before never realized for the western public. The dancers involved are all students, amateurs in their field who have trained for months to execute movements according Nauman’s concept: rolling on the mat until they get tired or the tape ends. The clock-like rolling inevitably suggests a meditation about the passing of time with all its irremediable complexity.
But the place where the three threads magnificently converge - or start to split up - is the US Pavilion in the Giardini. Here the neon Vices and Virtues underlines the universality of human nature, always oscillating between bad and good. A message of hope is exemplified by the cast aluminium sign reading The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain, seemingly stating that we can only be saved by the artist offering light and water. Inside, we are exposed to cruel spectacles and machines: a fountain originating in three heads (Three Heads Fountain (Three Andrews)), Fifteen Pairs of Hands - on metal pedestals theatrically miming or creating portions of space through different combinations - and finally the Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox) (1988), in which a hunter, a neighbour of the Nauman’s ranch, shows us how to remove fur from skin. In order to see the macabre video we are forced to enter the carousel’s circle with other skinned, suspended animals, and we become at once victims and witnesses. What to do then? Just wash our hands of blood as in the video Washing Hands Normal.
One realizes that the underlying curatorial project is perfectly orchestrated in every single detail when observing the Pavilion from behind. Someone has cut the plants that have generously and wildly taken control of the Giardini in order to help viewers observe of one of the most meaningful neon works ever realized, one absolutely crucial in the comprehension of conceptual art, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967). As Nauman himself commented in one of the rare interview in 1979, and is quoted in the free brochure/map: 'what I want to do is the use the investigative polarity that exists in the tension between the public and the private space and to use it to create an edge'.
Eleonora Charans is a Ph.D candidate in Theories and History of Arts at the School of Advanced Studies in Venice. Her research is about the E. Marzona Collection. firstname.lastname@example.org all articles from this author