Bruce Nauman has been one of the talk of the Venice Biennale (“a stunning success” … “a contemporary classic” … “virtually never disappoints“), winning the Golden Lion Award for Topological Gardens, his installation at the U. S. Pavilion and two other sites. Here, guest blogger and Minneapolis artist Monica Haller writes from Italy with her own impressions:
In addition to Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds exhibitions in the Giardini and Arsenale, and collateral events all around the city, the Venice Biennale is characterized by the national pavilions — individual buildings designed to house one country’s exhibition-its representation of itself. Each country decides who and what it will show. On the first morning before the three days of opening events, the Giardini was quiet. My intent during that rare moment of calm was to briefly stroll through a few of the country pavilions with these questions in mind: How does this country want to represent itself? What topics will it discuss and what not? (What will I see and how will this reflect my agenda for this country?)
I planned to move from Brazil to Israel to the U.S., was particularly curious about the middle pavilion. (Palestinian representation was dispersed through collateral events. One noteworthy exhibition, Venice c/o Palestine). But, even before I was able to dig into the Israeli exhibition featuring Raffi Lavie, we were evacuated from the pavilion. A stray bag was left unattended. Quickly they discovered the owner – no bombs – and we re-entered. Even so, enough time passed to understand that a country’s state of being (the reality its citizens live from day to day) is going to travel with it to these isolated little buildings in Italy.
With this in mind, I moved into the U.S. pavilion, one of three installations of Bruce Nauman’s Topical Gardens. The U.S. Pavilion is U-shaped with columns lining the front. It was designed after those neo-classical federal buildings in the United States that populate D.C. and other key cities. As an exhibition site, the building is stately and tame. It was redeemed this year by Nauman’s neon signs that hung just above the front columns. TEMPERANCE / GLUTTONY, FAITH / LUST, CHARITY / SLOTH.
The first piece one sees when entering from the left side of the building is Nauman’s wax heads. (Four Pair of Heads, 1991), hanging from the middle of the room, flesh-colored and red, dripping wax fluid. A fifth bronze head hangs just to the side, tinted blue from the elements. The heads look like they are suspended from barbed wire. (Really, just wire twisted back on itself). On the wall behind, several more wax heads are stacked on top of each other facing the corner, as if sent there for a child’s time out.
This room struck me hard. The dismemberment and wire restraint called to mind Guantanamo Bay, or scenes from Abu Ghraib (taken one step further). I felt like crying and was surprised at my own association with Nauman’s work. The irony was that his pavilion installation was hung very elegantly, preciously. This treatment had potential to smooth out the rawness and aggressiveness inherent in Nauman’s work, but it didn’t. (As a side note, the State Department is in charge of the U.S. Pavilion, which it fills by making a call for curatorial proposals.)
Though Nauman’s work does not overtly reference political history, he does challenge notions of isolated experience. In that way, the Biennale pavilions do not, and cannot, operate in isolation from their countries’ current conditions. As United States citizens, we will carry these past eight years with us.
I also got over to the Nauman installation at the Universita Ca’ Foscari.Nauman is prolific, but not all his works are masterpieces. The best part about the overall installation here is that it demonstrates that fact. In this way, it subverts the preciousness of the final art object (and the handling of his work at the U.S. Pavilion).
His work is “Not always good, but important,” art critic Patricia Briggs said as we walked along. I agree with that. He informed a generation of artists through his multi-disciplinary work. Currently, in the Universita Ca’ Forscari, it is very apparent that his intense curiosity and experimentation precede a need to promote the artist-as-genius. I approach Nauman’s experiments with trust. They are genuine inquiries, and I am going to follow right along with him.