PHILADELPHIA Radical art comes from the young, or so it would seem. Few artists persist in making us rethink what art can be late into long careers. But Bruce Nauman, 68, does.
Even after four and a half decades, Mr. Nauman still turns out videos, sculptures, installation works and sound pieces that tend to be stripped to the bone, no-frills, unfamiliar and even alien in form. They dont present as art, yet they lodge in the mind and wont let go, disorienting, irritating, inundating and exhilarating the senses. And with time, the best Naumans make clear their art-ness, laying bare lifes basic experiences, distilled and compressed. They do this profoundly yet, it seems, inadvertently, as if Mr. Nauman were simply providing raw material that we absorb and fashion into art in our heads.
These conditions prevail at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the exhibition of Days and Giorni, two large, enveloping sound installations created by Mr. Nauman for the 2009 Venice Biennale. They are accidental choral works, reflective of Mr. Naumans interest in John Cages ideas about chance, it would seem, but also of the repeating musical structures of Philip Glass. Each consists of recordings of seven people reciting the days of the week and the equipment necessary to make them heard, either in English (Days) or Italian (Giorni). Both create corridors of sound and deliver epiphanies about time, space and humanity.
Days and Giorni formed the centerpiece of a 33-work mini-survey of Mr. Naumans art that represented the United States in Venice. The exhibition was sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum and organized by Carlos Basualdo, its curator of contemporary art, and it received the Golden Lion for the best national participation. As well it should have. There wasnt much competition, and the American display had much more real estate than any other. The Nauman works carried over to two good-size spaces outside the Biennale.
One was the Ca Foscari, an elegant old palazzo, where the assembled works included Giorni, installed in a salon with a view of the Grand Canal. The other was the University of Venice at Tolentini, where additional Naumans culminated in Days, displayed in another long, narrow salon, this one with rows of windows on both sides.
Seeing Days and Giorni in Philadelphia is tantamount to seeing them anew, in a clearer and more striking encounter. They are still separated, but in reverse order. Days is in the main museum and generally seen first. Giorni is across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the museums Perelman Building, a short shuttle ride away. To complete the reversal, Giorni occupies a large, regal gallery with long rows of windows on two sides, as Days did in Venice.
But Days and Giorni feel different mainly because they are largely unattended by the sights and sounds of other Nauman works, even though three early videos and a neon piece are on view nearby in the main museum. Isolation makes them more stark and austere, but also more complex. They saturate the mind and senses more completely and reveal contrasts that were barely discernible in Venice.
Again, each piece consists of 14 recordings of seven people reciting the days of the week. Their voices are broadcast from 14 wafer-thin white speakers, around 23 inches square, arranged in seven facing pairs, one for each persons voice. Each speaker is simply clipped to two wires strung tautly from floor to ceiling. Its like paintings by Robert Ryman hanging on Fred Sandbacks string sculptures, and the effect is magical. Phalanxes of levitating white squares emitting worlds of sound arent something you see and hear every day.
Six stools scattered between the rows of speakers invite you to sit, listen and figure things out. It is quickly apparent that the voices are always slightly out of sync, and sometimes even saying different days, so that the echoing segues into contrapuntal Ping-Pong. But that is only the beginning.
Days has a dizzying hum-of-the-universe buzz at first. Its almost musical. Someone in the crowd seems to be singing the days rather than reciting them. As you move among the rows, you make out various female and male voices speaking at slightly different speeds, and sense different ages and personalities. The fastest speaker is a young boy in the middle, perhaps the source of the singing sound. At one end, a male voice has a gravelly Kirk Douglas roughness, as if the piece were a kind of life cycle.
The sound is incessant, but always changing. The days are recited in units separated by pauses all seven days, a smattering of days, or just one as if they were measuring time passing at different speeds. Standing between a pair of speakers with the same voice bombarding each ear is like hearing someone who is of two minds. The voices dwindle to one pair reciting single days, but after this they all join in again, immersing the gallery and everyone in it in sound that seeps into adjoining rooms.
Days never stops and doesnt repeat: the recordings are different lengths and operate independently. But Giorni is a programmed loop of about 14 minutes, followed by a substantial pause. It is much more porous, as much about silence as about sound. The rich Italian voices are not so individual, perhaps because there is no childs voice, but each gets more air time.
At certain points the voices thin out. Several speakers on one side of the gallery fall silent as their partners keep going, then they reverse, and finally the group dwindles to a single voice, after which comes the pause, and the gallery rings with silence. Sound fills space in a much more precarious, unsettling manner.
Mr. Nauman is a realist working directly from life, isolating one readymade, obvious aspect of it at a time, and retooling it into something both grand and mundane that forms a strange, disorienting world unto itself. The Philadelphia Museum owns Mr. Naumans earliest, best-known neon piece, which now hangs in a gallery near Days. It is a lighted spiral that says, The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.
The words are typical deadpan Nauman, but revealing, as in laying bare, is what he does. And there is always something like the spiral that will get you every time.
Bruce Nauman: Days and Giorni continues through April 4 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia; (215) 763-8100, philamuseum.org.
- Roberta Smith