About the Exhibition

Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens—the official U.S. entry at the 53rd International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art—presents a thematic survey comprising four decades of Bruce Nauman’s innovative and provocative work over three exhibition sites: the United States Pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale, Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini, and the Exhibition Spaces at Università Ca’ Foscari.

Since his first works in the 1960s until the present day, Bruce Nauman has continually forged new paths in American and international artistic practices in which language and intellectual conceptual thinking figure prominently within art forms structured by a precise use of diverse mediums and disciplines. From his early studio-based videos, films, and sound pieces (like Studio Aids II, 1967-68, installed at Iuav’s Tolentini) to his neon signs, bronze, plaster, wax, and resin sculptures, and corridor installations, Nauman insistently pushes the boundaries between disciplines and mediums while teasing and testing psychological, physical, and social constraints.

In a 1979 interview, Nauman commented, “What I want to do is use the investigative polarity that exists in the tension between the public and the private space and to use it to create an edge.” In his seminal 1967 The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign)—on view at the U.S. Pavilion—which occupied the window of Nauman’s San Francisco storefront studio, the artist articulates the precise moment in which space morphs from private to public, indoor to outdoor, and personal to social. Later environmental works, such as Double Steel Cage Piece of 1974 (on view at Ca’ Foscari), both entice and entrap visitors by conflating collective perception and subjective experience. Nauman’s most recent works, two sound installations from 2009—Days at Iuav and Giorni at Ca’ Foscari—boldly fill the space with the sound of undulating voices that are at once personal and disembodied.

The three-site structure of the exhibition takes as its point of departure Nauman’s purposeful dissolution of the boundaries that are conventionally perceived to demarcate personal and socialized space. Applying a topological model in which continuity drives experience and perception, Topological Gardens extends the geography of the American representation in the Venice Biennale beyond the U.S. Pavilion and into two Venetian universities located strategically within the city. Topology—a mathematical and metaphorical concept that has been employed by the artist in the consideration of his practice—challenges any notion of discrete and isolated experiences. As a concept that functions both in relation to Nauman’s work and to a possible interpretation of the urban structure of Venice, topology provides a framework in which the audience can relate the experiences of and encounters with Nauman’s art to traversing and negotiating the city.

By opening the U.S. representation formally and conceptually to the city—both to its topography and its inhabitants—the exhibition also intends to challenge the internalized, monolithic ideological foundation on which the national pavilions historically lie. The exhibition sites themselves perfectly exemplify the continuity of change layered in the history of the city’s architectural spaces that were once private, regal, or religious, and are now public, civic, and educational. The renovated interiors of the Exhibition Spaces at Ca’ Foscari—a Gothic palace on the Grand Canal—was once home to the prominent Foscari family, and had housed the administrative offices of the Ca’ Foscari University before their transformation into exhibition space. The main lecture hall (the Aula Magna) of the Università Iuav is situated in what was the refectory of the former convent of the Tolentini. As palimpsests of public and private spaces upon which the urban fabric of Venice is built, all three sites in which the exhibition takes place lay bare the structural mutability between the public and the private that characterizes the city of Venice.

Like the three sites that are topologically linked both to each other and connected to the in-between spaces of Venice, the three thematic “threads” that are plotted through the selection of Nauman’s work in Topological Gardens are similarly intended as trajectories rather than finite itineraries. These thematic concepts—Heads and Hands, Sound and Space, Fountains and Neons—are recurring open categories that, like notes on a musical script, repeatedly punctuate the larger, open-ended landscape of Nauman’s practice.

Neither conclusive nor exhaustive, these threads weave in and out 
in of the three exhibition sites, resonating formally and conceptually throughout the exhibition. As Nauman’s work in diverse mediums might be described as topological—based on resonance and transformation—each site allows visitors to access the logic of the entire exhibition at any point. While there is no preferred order of experience for the exhibition’s three components, what does count, however is the spaces in between, where the tension of the “edge” is both constitutive and ever present.