Nauman in Venice on adobeairstream

venice-biennale-2009-veni-015Bruce Nauman’s Fifteen Pairs of Hands, photo by Christian Sinibaldi
Bruce Nauman’s installation “Topological Gardens,”  has won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. In its award citation, the Biennale stated that Nauman’s work “reveals the magic of meaning as it emerges through relentless repetition of language and form.”

Examining the continuity of space amid changing conditions is one way the Philadelphia Museum of Art curators responsible for the Bruce Nauman retrospective in Venice define topology. The spatial relationships between the gardens of Bruce Nauman’s art, at three separate locations in Venice, characterize the U.S. Pavilion. (This is only the third time in 90 years that the American contribution has spread out like this.)

Curators Carlos Basualdo and Michael R. Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art proposed the Nauman retrospective to represent the United States, and said the citywide aspect was pertinent at all times.

“The viewers experience in the context of the city will be very prescient,” Basualdo said by phone from Italy days before the show opened. “This is not like any other shows (of Nauman’s work). Somehow, the experience of the work will tell you something about your relationship to the city and your relationship to the city will tell you something about the work.”

The blurring of the public and the private is an idea Nauman has explored in his art. Basualdo told Artforum that Nauman frequently talked about the experience of how one can feel isolated yet exposed as in a phonebooth on a public street.

Basualdo said choosing Nauman to represent the United States was simple.

“He is an artist’s artist,” Basualdo said. Nauman was also forefront in the minds of the Philadelphia curators, because they were in the process of acquiring Nauman’s 1967 neon, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.

“Bruce believes it to be taken as an affirmation. He always found it interesting, but he never said he believed in or didn’t believe in it,” Basualdo said.

Basualdo said he believes that the Biennale will be “a lightning bolt for an audience.”

Thirty Nauman works in a full array of media will be planted and performed around the city, including Untitled 1970/2009 a performance-based work that was supposedly done in Japan, but was never seen.

The show is being organized around three formal categories “Fountains and Neon,” “Heads and Hands,” and “Sounds and Space.” Nauman is premiering a new sound installation Days/Giorni that features four male and three female voices intoning the days of the week in Italian, skipping or adding days in varying sequences. An English-speaking version will be installed in a separate location in Venice. Vices and Virtues 1983-88 seven of each, seven feet high, flashing neon letters will intertwine and encircle the cornice of the U.S. Pavilion at the Giardini.

Multiple critics agree that Nauman is the most influential living artist, credited with leading artists out of minimal art’s austerity and doing so in near total isolation from artworld politics and promotions. Nauman has lived in New Mexico since 1979, a few years after his first retrospective in 1972 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was panned critically, creating artist’s block and causing Nauman such anxiety he considered finding a different career. His second retrospective in 1994 organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis had a similar effect.

“He’s not somebody who loves to spend a lot of time in work he’s already done,” Basualdo admitted. “So we are installing and showing new work. Bruce is very involved. It’s amazing to have him and I hope it will be stimulating for him to be here.”

In accepting the Golden Lion Nauman publicly thanked the woman who had tipped him to the best pistachio gelato in Venice.

“A work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity,” Daniel Birnbaum, curator of the 53rd International Venice Bienniale, said to a group of art journalists at the Italian Cultural Center in New York on March 30.

“It represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously must be seen as a way of making a world,” he continued. Hence, the title or theme of this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition, Fare Mondi/Making Worlds.

The oldest and premiere visual art biennial opened June 7 in Venice, Italy and will remain on display until November 22, 2009.

In order to understand the Venice Biennale one must understand the structure of Venice itself. Just as the city is a series of islands connected by canals, the biennial is an archipelago of visual art initiatives. The Biennale, which first took place in 1895, is now claiming the city of Venice itself is a venue–not just the Giardini and the Arsenale sections.

nauman3This year’s Biennale spans the survey of art curated by Birnbaum, which features more than 90 artists from around the world, and then the individual pavilions from the 77 countries. There are an additional 38 collateral and collaborative events for smaller nations and groups. The world literally comes to Venice every two even-numbered years.

Galisteo, New Mexico artist Bruce Nauman, an international art star, is representing the United States at the Venice Biennale. Of the 200 international biennials, Venice is probably most venerable of the flashy events that put curators and artists in high demand with collectors and dealers as well as with institutions. But Daniel Birnbaum’s rhetoric spells the ideal of art in democracy.

“The role of the biennale is not what is to be bought or to launch new artists, the role is to listen to artists and let them speak,” Birnbaum said.

In Venice this year, at the Biennale’s permanent home of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni,

Birnbaum asked Massimo Bartolini to redesign the educational space, Tobias Rehberger the bar-cafeteria, and Rirkrit Tiravanija the bookshop. “They are three of the main protagonists in today’s exploration of the realm between art, design and architecture,” Birnbaum said. By asking the artists to create functional public spaces, Birnbaum has sought to program permanent activities that move contemporary art’s utopian aspirations into the realm of the real.

But in marked homage to conceptual art the Biennale honors two artists of the conceptual avant-garde as this year’s Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement: Yoko Ono and John Baldessari.

Birnbaum said: “Their work has revolutionized the language of art and will remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art U.S. pavilion, featuring Nauman, won the Golden Lion this year, the first time the U.S. has taken the prize since 1990.

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