|Days of Our Lives
Art in America, September 2009, p. 108
1 September 2009
I didnt think Bruce Nauman would win the Golden Lion.
Once Id traipsed around Venice to the three main Nauman venuesthe U.S. pavilion in the Giardini and the two university sites, the Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini and Ca' FoscariI thought thered be a backlash against American cultural imperialism. (I heard that exact phrase muttered by somebody with a press tag at a vaporetto stop.) After all, as Carlos Basualdoa curator from the sponsoring Philadelphia Museum of Art and one of the commissioners of all this Naumaniawrites in the catalogue, Never before 2009, we believe, has the U.S. exhibition been conceptually and programmatically conceived to exceed the physical and ideological limitations of the national pavilions and to establish deeper consonances among the work of the artist shown, the urban fabric of Venice, and the social, ethnic, and cultural constitution of the nation that it is supposed to represent. Which is to say that Basualdo, who teaches part-time at the Tolentini campus, used his knowledge of the city, familiarity with Italian bureaucracy and a few connections to pull off a coup. The Nauman mini-retrospective in the pavilion is superbly installed, but most visitors have seen the 15 works before, as works before, as is the case with the other 15 earlier works installed at the university sites. One exception: a videod re-creation by two Italian dancers of a galvanizing and previously undocumented 1970 performance, in which the participants roll and revolve in tandem, like clock hands, until they collapse from exhaustion.
The real Nauman news is the two new hush-hush works, which commissioners Basualdo and Michael Taylor, a fellow PMA curator, handled pre-debut with the level of secrecy Apple maintains while developing a new iPhone. They are pendant sound pieces, Days and Giorni, similar in content (voices reciting the names of the days of the week) and physical structure. The catalogue succinctly describes them: The speakers used in [both] are thin, square, off-white, and produce sound in both directions. Ordinary metal clips attach each of them to two floor-to-ceiling steel cables, at eye level, which makes them look like opaque, empty mirrors. When the work is playing, all the voices are heard at the same time, but because the speakers are directional, each of them can also be listened to in isolation.
The difference between Days and Giorni is that Days, housed in a noble room at Tolentini, with a marble statue at one end, is spoken in English, while Giorni, at Ca Foscari, is, appropriately, in Italian. The voices in Days are looped, so theres no beginning, no end. Giorni has an audio arc, starting with one voice, building in a kind of ronde to seven and then dropping back down to one. What are the pieces like to experience? Of course, everyones experience will be different. I encountered Days first and, while others present smiled at the audio-puzzle aspect of it, I teared up. Something about the absurdity of people living and dying,week in and week out, I guess.
Naumans Golden Lion-winning performance probably deserves a ringing finish here, but I dont have one. The best I can do is offer a raw snippet from my notebook, jotted down in some momentary pause away from his works, as I tried to make sense of all the extravagant social/political claims made in press material and on labels for so much of the work at the Biennale:
Nauman, the non-radical radical artist is about art, not about society. Art doesnt change society. If you had an overhead view of the art world, without seeing the paintings on the walls, it would look the same whether the artist at work were Andrew Wyeth or Damien Hirst. Radical artists simply want, at bottom, a good bourgeois life for themselves so they can keep on making art which is, after all, a small shopkeepers enterprise. Otherwise, theyd be real radicals, à laDaniel Cohn-Bendit or Rudi Deutschke. Real radicals take real risks for political/social purposes. Radical artists who take risks do it for art and their art careers. Nauman understands this, but still reserves the right to do radical- or risky-looking art because, simply, art is what he has to do to be an artist.
I wonder whether a thought like that occurred to anybody on the Golden Lion jury.