The point of departure for Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens was to inquire whether the structure of an exhibition can help the viewer to relate both to the work exhibited and to the context where the exhibition takes place. In the case of an exhibition that is set from the start to accomplish the impossible task of representing a country, the challenge becomes acknowledging that very impossibility in a productive fashion, by making it the logic of the show. Topology has been used to propose a specific model for understanding Nauman’s practice, and as such it allows for a possible interpretation that pivots on the urban structure of Venice. By encouraging the audience to experience the city in direct relation to Nauman’s work, and vice versa, the exhibition also hopefully questions the ideological foundations of the national pavilions themselves. Topology is the precise tool for establishing these connections, poking into these seemingly discrete and separate territories.
Taking place in two other venues outside the Giardini, Topological Gardens is less bounded territorially than aesthetically to the city of Venice, to its history, its inhabitants, and to the actual uses of its spaces. The renovated interiors of a Gothic Palace on the Grand Canal, which previously housed the administrative offices of the Universitá Ca’ Foscari, or the main lecture hall of the Universitá Iuav di Venezia, in the former convent of the Tolentini–originally a refectory–precisely exemplify the palimpsest of public and private spaces upon which the entire fabric of Venice is built. It is in that sense that their inclusion as exhibition sites amplifies the contradictions associated with the creation of the Public Gardens in the XIX century, subsequently used as the venue for exhibitions still closely associated with a well-defined political and economic project. Together, it is as if the three sites of Topological Gardens compose a musical phrase that declines as many instances of the structural instability between the public and the private as one finds in Venice.
If the three sites in which the exhibition takes place are called upon to stand as visible manifestations of the topological urban structure of the city, then the three conceptual threads that drive the show allow the viewer to imagine a topological logic behind Nauman’s work. Each of these threads is organized like a sentence, in which the individual works are words or clusters of notes in a musical script. The threads—Fountains and Neons, Heads and Hands, and Sound and Space—are inconclusive, as they do not intend to exhaust the possibilities of Nauman’s specific artistic operation, but rather indicate its directionality. Their mode of operation is simple: each thread is just a connector, existing between two terms that are tentative examples of possible polarities— open categories that do not pretend or intend to constrain the constantly surprising open-endedness in which Nauman’s work operates. Neither is it precluded that the elements in one thread could become part of another.
The relationship between the elements of the threads is topological—it always seems possible to imagine the passage from one to the other by stretching and twisting, shrinking and contracting, to quote words used by Nauman. Finally, it is Venice itself that constitutes a fourth thread of Topological Gardens, as its systematic confusion between outside and inside, and private and public suitably interplays and dialogues with Nauman’s works. It is there, in between works and buildings, where the viewer’s imagination allows her to piece together her experiences, reinventing the work while traversing the city. Like Leibnitzian monads, each of the three sites could be seen independently, in any combination, and thus there is no preferred order in which to go from one to the other. What does count is the space between them, as well as the experience of finding them.