PRINT May 2009

US News

Bruce Nauman at the 53rd Venice Biennale

“BRUCE NAUMAN: TOPOLOGICAL GARDENS,” the title of the exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the United States pavilion at this year’s Fifty-third Venice Biennale, may at first seem incongruous. Why use a mathematical term in connection with an artist famous for focusing on language and the body? Yet topology—a field of math that, as the museum puts it, “examines the continuity of space amid changing conditions”—does turn out to be slyly apropos. Already invoked by critics to describe post-Minimalism’s torqued and twisted forms, here it suggests a way of understanding not only the sixty-seven-year-old artist’s legendarily heterogeneous practice but also the impulse that led the commissioning curators, Carlos Basualdo and Michael R. Taylor of the PMA, to take the work out of the pavilion proper and into the city at large.

“Bruce is always talking about the experience of being in a phone booth on the street, and how you would feel that you’re isolated from the world, in a completely secluded and private space, but at the same time completely exposed,” Basualdo says of the inspiration for venturing beyond the Giardini, only the third time in ninety years (after Alan Solomon’s 1964 Pop show and Michael Auping’s 1990 Jenny Holzer presentation) that the American contribution has migrated outside its neo-Georgian home. “That’s an experience you seem to be able to find in his work across different mediums and materials, and one we felt you still often have in Venice. In a way, the city is built on that blurring of the differences between what’s private and what’s public.”

Basualdo and Taylor—along with the museum’s late director Anne d’Harnoncourt and curatorial assistant Erica Battle—first began to think of Nauman for Venice in early 2008, not long after the museum had acquired the artist’s iconic 1967 neon piece, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), a work whose productively mismatched form and message play along that same psychological boundary between public and private. Only a few months before the vernissage, the three remain cheerfully reticent about the specifics of the show. But they do allow that thirty works in a full array of media will be featured, including brand-new pieces and existing work both classic (The True Artist . . .) and little known, such as a re-creation of Untitled 1970, 1970/2009, a performance-based work that, Basualdo says somewhat cryptically, was “supposedly done in Japan in 1970 and has never been seen” anywhere else. The curators also confirm that the show will be organized around three formal categories—“Fountains and Neon,” “Heads and Hands,” and “Sounds and Space”—and distributed between the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini and the Università Ca’ Foscari, in addition to the pavilion.

“Venice has a large population of students,” Basualdo says. “That doesn’t figure enough in people’s imagination when thinking about the city, but in many ways it keeps the city alive. I have been teaching at Iuav for five years, and Michael suggested I think about my experience at the university as we worked on the project.” The spaces, Basualdo says, have distinctly different backgrounds. “One is a historical building that belonged to a prominent family, the Foscaris. We love that building because it represents a very traditional Venetian typology and because its use tells a lot about the erasure of the boundaries between public and private in Venice—a private residence that became a public university and now an exhibition space. The second space is in the former Tolentini convent, which is the main seat of Iuav. It’s not an exhibition space but a more recent building devoted to education. We felt that we were able to not only address different kinds of buildings but also buildings with different histories—and that was important, because this layering of space is also a layering of history.”

It’s an ambitious program, and one for which continuity amid “changing conditions” has also proved to be a business requirement: The New York Times reported that as late as mid-March, the museum was only 80 percent of the way toward raising the $1.8 million estimated tab for the show and was sending out letters to potential donors in an attempt to bridge the shortfall. Such solicitations are not unusual, Basualdo says, adding that the price tag includes the cost of bringing the show in some form to Philadelphia following its appearance in Venice. The endeavor is, like so much of the Biennale, a game of both meeting and confounding expectations—a balancing act Nauman himself has spent a fair amount of time exploring in his own practice. “A lot of the work is about that,” the artist told an interviewer in 1980, about “the tension of giving and taking away, of giving a certain amount of information and setting some kind of expectations and then not allowing them to be fulfilled, at least not in the sense that you expect.”

Jeffrey Kastner is a frequent contributor to Artforum.