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Bruce Nauman’s masterful Topological Gardens, which was the United States entry in the 53rd International Art Exhibition—La Biennale de Venezia, not surprisingly won the Golden Lion Award for best national pavilion. Breaking from most previous U.S. exhibitions at the biennale, Nauman’s amounts to a not-so-mini-survey and is spread, also uncharacteristically, over three venues—the United States Pavilion in the Giardini, the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini, and the Università Ca’ Foscari, the latter two being the sites, respectively, of Days and Giorni, a pair of new sound installations. Also at Ca’ Foscari is Untitled (1970/2009), a videotaped re-interpretation of a performance initially presented at the 1970 Tokyo Biennial. One of several performances enacted according to Nauman’s written instructions during 1969 and 1970, it was not seen by the artist at the time; nor was it documented. The only evidence Nauman had that the performance occurred was from Sol LeWitt, who saw it and reported that the dancers had done a good job.
Philadelphia Museum of Art curators Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor organized the tripartite exhibition around three themes: “Heads and Hands,” “Sound and Space,” and “Fountains and Neons.” But the exhibition also could be understood in terms of circularity and repetition, both in terms of individual pieces and Nauman’s practice of circling back to earlier works in the creation of new ones. Untitled (1970/2009) is an example of both. At Ca’ Foscari, dual large projections of the performance, shot from above, one on the wall, the other on the floor, show the two female dancers. As Nauman specified in his 1970 description, “The dancers lie with their feet extended toward the outside of the performance area, hands extended overhead and touching at the center.” For thirty-two minutes and twenty-nine seconds they roll in a circle around the mat with their hands still at the center. The camera is held steady for three minutes and then rotated at the same speed as the dancers for three minutes before repeating the sequence, each time rotating in the opposite direction. In this way, when the camera rotates, the dancers seem to be still as the floor turns under them. By the end, the dancers are visibly spent. Nauman conceived this piece soon after his first videotaped studio performances, such as Beckett Walk and Bouncing in a Corner, both 1968, in which he put himself through rigorous routines that lasted the full sixty minutes of a videotape reel. By 1970, Nauman had removed himself from his work in favor of surrogates, whether ordinary viewers who interacted with his video corridors, or performers, such as the two dancers in Untitled.
From his very first works, Nauman’s fascination with rotation and circularity is evident. Two small ceramic cup sculptures he made as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, in 1965 imply rotational movement. Two years later came his iconic spiral neon sign, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign). In Venice it is inverted, i.e., hung on the glass window in the entry foyer of the U.S. Pavilion so that visitors who enter the pavilion see the words in reverse, as did Nauman from the inside of his San Francisco studio. In 1970 alone he made three circular works: the film installations Rotating Glass Walls and Spinning Spheres, and a stage set for the Cunningham Dance Company’s Tread, which consisted of ten large fans placed across the stage. (As early as 1965, Nauman demonstrated the sculptural qualities of a fan in an art class at UC Davis.) Other circular works ensued in the subsequent decades, including many on view in Venice: Untitled (Hand Circle) (1996); Smoke Rings (Model for Underground Tunnels) (1979–80); Untitled (#358), a mobile consisting of radiating arms, legs, and torso (1986); and Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox) (1988).
Both Vices and Virtues (1983–88) and Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), while rectangular rather than circular, depend for their full effect on circumnavigation. The alternating neon Vices and Virtues from the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego is installed around the exterior frieze of the U.S. Pavilion. Double Steel Cage Piece at Ca’ Foscari is only fully experienced by slithering through the uncomfortably small space between the nested cages, recalling two of Nauman’s filmed performances from 1967–68 in which he walks in various postures around the perimeter of a taped square on his studio floor.
As stunning as the constellation of works installed in the Giardini is—the room of Fifteen Pairs of Hands (1996) is particularly effective—the two off-site locations that include Days and Giorni (Nauman’s new, related sound installations) are the most compelling. To arrive at the two universities, one walks the labyrinthine streets of Venice, a topological journey that, along with Nauman’s undergraduate interest in topology (modern geometry that allows for spatial continuity amid changing conditions), gave the exhibition its title. In both Giorni and Days, the days of the week in Italian and English respectively emanate from seven pairs of paper-thin white speakers to create bands of sound as one walks between them.
The idea for Days and Giorni surfaced first in Raw Materials, the sound installation Nauman produced in 2004 for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. As visitors walked the massive hall between eleven pairs of wall-mounted speakers, they heard a variety of voices, including Nauman’s, reciting twenty-two texts from previous works by the artist going back as far as 1968 (First Poem Piece and Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of this Room). As he habitually does, Nauman’s sound installation at Tate Modern demonstrated how circling back and recontextualizing aspects of earlier (text) works could form an entirely new—in this case sculptural—experience. Also sound corridors, Days and Giorni are closely related, but it is remarkable how different the effect of the two languages is: the Italian, more expressive; the English, matter-of-fact. The two pieces differ in more than language. For one thing, the manner in which Nauman orchestrated the text of Giorni, which is spoken by students and staff members from the university, was not strictly in sets of seven. The piece starts with one voice, which is then joined, one by one, by the other six, building a chorus of sound that then slowly diminishes as each voice drops out. In contrast, the sound of Days is looped—all seven voices begin at once and continue in unison.
Days comes at the end of a progression of works at Iuav that evoke fundamental human emotions. The pleasant effect of the beautiful Pink and Yellow Light Corridor (Variable Lights) (1972), which is installed on the ceiling of the entry arcade of the university, is soon dispelled by the confrontational sound of Nauman’s voice saying, sometimes growling, “Get out of my mind, get out of this room.” Next, a further grating repetition of the word “think” is spoken by Nauman’s head spinning on two stacked monitors (Think (1993)). A melancholy, aural reprieve is offered by the triple projection End of the World (1996) in which country guitarist and composer Lloyd Maines plays the eponymous, soulful song on a pedal steel guitar, a lap steel guitar, and a homemade dobro. Finally, one arrives at the large, airy room of Days, where men, women, and children endlessly repeat the days of the week, a poignant reminder of the ineluctable passage of time.
Adjunct Curator, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
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