Bruce Almighty
At the Venice Biennale, Nauman Proves Himself a Contemporary Classic

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

VENICE -- The first in a series of articles on the Venice Biennale

Over the last four decades, American artist Bruce Nauman has been hugely influential on artists all around the world. The vast range of media that many artists work in now can be tracked back to his aggressive installations, neons, sound pieces, videos and performances. Their willingness to make a viewer flinch can also be traced to him. That's made Nauman a favorite of many of the world's top curators, critics and collectors.

Now, in the ultimate art-world accolade, Nauman is the subject of this year's American pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, which opened here yesterday, bigger than it's ever been and often better as well, and closes on Nov. 22. Nauman's mini-retrospective in the U.S. pavilion, titled "Topological Gardens," has spread to two other Venetian venues, the first time such a thing has happened to any nation's artist at the Biennale. To top everything off, on Saturday the Biennale announced that Nauman's show had won its Golden Lion prize for best national pavilion.

Nauman's tremendous success, however, also has its peculiar side. Nauman, at 67, is only a household name in households that already care about contemporary art. Especially in his own country -- Nauman was born in Indiana but now works from a ranch in New Mexico -- the general public has yet to catch on to him. Even in Washington, where the Hirshhorn Museum hosted a huge Nauman retrospective in 1994, he probably remains mostly unknown.

There's an explanation for this. Our culture has a notion that there's this thing called "classic art" that's easily, obviously, automatically loveable, and that runs more or less from Giotto to Picasso. And then we've got a notion that there's this absolutely different stuff called "contemporary art" that is obscure, challenging and an acquired taste -- with Nauman as its patron saint, and therefore ignorable by most Americans.

Seeing Nauman in Venice, home to some of art's great "classics," that distinction falls apart. You suddenly realize that a befuddling, aggressive, Nauman-style challenge is right there under the surface of most of the great classics. It's what gives them heft.

Take Nauman's signature piece in the American pavilion, a spiraling neon sign he first had made in 1967, in angel-pink and heaven-blue, that reads "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." It's a sendup of such comforting platitudes, but it's also about trying them on and seeing if they might just fit. That same duality is there in most classic art that has dealt with so-called mystic truths.

The huge mosaic of Christ ascending, installed by medieval artists in the dome of the great Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, certainly goes some way to making the same claim you get in a straight reading of Nauman's neon. But in its absolutely worldly beauty, the mosaic also calls the mystical into question, the way we imagine Nauman doing. After all, any glitzy man-made image has always had to cope with doubts that it can capture a heaven-sent truth. By zooming in on those doubts, Nauman's piece channels tensions that have always been there.

Other pieces in the pavilion, even at their most shocking, have similarly ancient roots. Most of one room is filled with a steel mobile from which hang styrofoam forms of flayed animals -- a raccoon, a brace of rabbits, an opossum and a bear -- that are the same ones taxidermists stretch real animal skins over. Hanging alongside them on the slowly turning sculpture is a small monitor that plays a gory video of a hunter skinning a freshly killed fox. This mobile's gross-out factor is something we think of as peculiar to in-your-face contemporary art, as pioneered by Nauman. But one of Titian's greatest paintings, "The Flaying of Marsyas," relies on that same factor for its impact and to convey the cruel arrogance of Apollo, God of Creativity (he's shown skinning a competitor) and maybe of the artists whom he's often seen as standing for.

Even tamer pictures by old masters, such as all those still lifes at the National Gallery that show the gore from a hunt or off a butcher's block, are also all about our discomfort with the killing that we do and our desire to see it domesticated. One reason we've been so happy to declare such pictures "art," and to put them at a safe aesthetic distance, is to take away their troubling edge. With Nauman, it may be that we simply haven't had the time to blunt him yet.

Actually, if there's one complaint making the rounds at this Biennale, it's that Nauman's pavilion comes too close to doing that. The pavilion's elegant neo-classical spaces have tended to make Nauman feel almost tasteful. In their reverent selection and hanging of works, curators Michael Taylor and Carlos Basualdo, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, have reinforced that tendency. (The U.S. pavilion is run by the State Department, which fills it by putting out a call for curatorial proposals.)

One attractive piece they've chosen dates from 1996 and consists of 15 pairs of human hands, cast from life in bronze, performing gestures ranging from a prayerful touch to various suggestive moves. They look much like 3-D versions of the sketches that you'd see on a sheet of hand studies by Leonardo or Raphael. The wonderful thing about them, however, is that they wake you up to the peculiarity that's always been there when an artist makes, and we admire, drawings full of severed body parts. Ever since the Renaissance, Westerners have seen dismembering the world as the best way to get to know it, and control it. The dislocation we feel so strongly in Nauman is just a distillation of the cutting-up that Western art has done for centuries.

My point is not that Nauman, for all his sound and fury, has always been a tasteful old master in disguise, and that that's what makes him worth admiring. It is precisely the opposite: That most old masters worth their salt have practiced Naumanish disruption, even if that's gone unrecognized by us or even by most of their contemporaries

Nauman's more disruptive tendencies -- as well as their ancient pedigree -- are on best display in his two off-site shows, hosted by Venetian universities in rooms not custom-made for art. Two new pieces are English and Italian versions of a single conceit: Fourteen flat-panel speakers hang from the ceiling at about ear-height, in two rows of seven, with room to walk between them. In the English version, each facing pair of speakers features a different person's voice, reading the days of the week in variously disrupted orders. The effect is somewhere between polyphony and cacophony.

As we stroll among the speakers, we labor to decipher meanings that are normally transparently accessible to us. The piece seems especially effective in Venice, where the Renaissance choirmasters of Saint Mark's gave birth to some of the greatest space-filling polyphony of all time. (They used to spread small choirs throughout the basilica's balconies, moving around voices even more than Nauman does.) The fascination and "beauty" of polyphony has always been in tension with the mess it makes of sense and with its constant risk of falling into noise; once again, Nauman simply throws a spotlight on such venerable tensions.

Of the 33 Naumans on view at the Biennale, there's only one that captures Nauman at his most disruptive. First shown in 1993, it consists of two stacked video monitors with the artist's head shown bouncing up and down in each, sometimes upside-down, sometimes right-side-up, and all the while screaming "Think! Think! Think! Think!" The effect is hardly cogitative. It numbs the senses and the mind. Yet "think" may be the most important command that art has ever given. We've come up with "classic" notions such as "beauty," "good taste," "high skill" -- maybe even "fine art" and "old master" -- to help to damp its force. Nauman restores it.

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