Exclusive interview with Bruce Nauman

The high-profile US artist gives a rare insight into the works on show at the award-winning US Pavilion in Venice

Installation shot of Bruce Nauman, Double Poke in the Eye II, 1985

venice. Being awarded the Golden Lion for the best National Pavilion only confirmed that Bruce Nauman is the star of the 2009 Venice Biennale. With his triumphant exhibition in the Giardini as well as his shows at two other sites in the city, he has finally been granted the attention he so richly deserves. This is not a display of new work – there are only two new pieces, a remaking of an earlier performance work and a new sound piece (in Italian and English), but these, placed alongside a carefully selected body of older works, give the audience an overview of the artist’s long and distinguished career which spans more than 40 years.

“Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens” has been tightly curated by Carlos Basualdo, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and contains some of the artist’s most famous works including The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), a neon work recently purchased by Basualdo’s institution.

Famously taciturn, Nauman did not speak or answer questions at the press conference for his show or at the presentation of the Golden Lion, leaving others to accept the award and speak about his exhibition on his behalf. However, we caught up with him in the rotunda at the heart of the US pavilion, where he told us his 1967 neon sign was made while he was working in his San Francisco studio in the Mission District.

This, like so many of Nauman’s works, began with the inspiration of what was around him, in this case, a neon sign advertising beer which hung in the window of the studio. When asked if it was the sound of the neon that had first attracted him to the medium, Nauman said: “No, it was the idea of using the sign which you could read from the outside but see also inside out.”

This is the first time that the back of the American pavilion has come alive; if you walk towards the Uruguay Pavilion, you can see the wording the right way round from outside because of how the work is hung in front of a window, something that cannot happen in Philadelphia where the work is displayed on a wall.

“I like the way that the spiral interacts with the building,” he says gesturing around the rotunda. “I also like the fact that they opened up the window in the final gallery. Ciara [Barbieri, of the Peggy Guggenheim collection] said she liked it because before that the space was rather dreary.”

The neon sign alludes in some ways to the opening out of the space, while the workings of the neon, a square within the spiral, recall Nauman’s earlier mathematical interests, a subject he studied at university.

Nauman himself appears in many of the works in the pavilion. It is the “idea of using the body as a tool or an object you could manipulate”, he says. His remark is particularly apposite in the American pavilion. The artist’s hands are in evidence, both in the video Washing Hands Normal or cast in Fifteen Pairs of Hands, an impressive series of sculptures.

His long time assistant Juliet, the model for the pink head in Three Heads Fountain, says that “Bruce has never cast his own head” but that his model, Andrew, “looks a lot like him leading to some confusion”.

From Hand to Mouth (1967) was cast from his first wife, and is both a play on words, (expressing their modest income at the time) as well as an illustration of the Nauman philosophy - that what is not there is as important as what is.

Nauman was born in the centre of the American Midwest, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on 6 December 1941, “the day before Pearl Harbor. That helps you remember your birthday,” he says. His father was an engineer for General Electric, so the family moved several times during his childhood. While his parents were not overly religious they were, he says, moral and caring people, which infused the artist with deeply held beliefs that still inform his work.

Moving frequently meant that Nauman found it difficult to make friends, spending a lot of time on his own, reading widely and taking up hobbies.

“When I was a child I was a musician and I made model airplanes, and all those things were private things.” Despite playing both the piano and being drawn to composing in particular he says he felt “a pull towards the engineering, the mathematical. I don’t know what you call it... a tendency towards abstraction.”

Nauman received his BA at the University of Wisconsin where he studied mathematics and studio art. He then attended the University of California in Davis. It was staffed by the influential artists, painters Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley and funk ceramicist Robert Arneson. Nauman was given a studio and in his words “was encouraged to experiment”. He soon caught the attention of gallerist Nicholas Wilder and was given his first solo show before getting his MFA.

Shows in New York at Leo Castelli and in Dusseldorf at Konrad Fischer in 1968 were swiftly followed with a museum survey show organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973.

Since then, Nauman has remained in the west, and settled since 1979 in New Mexico near Santa Fe with his present wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg.

Notoriously shy of art events, he often does not go to openings at all, preferring to stay on the ranch where he keeps horses and where he has a share in a nearby working ranch.

There is rawness—an unfinished quality to much of the works. Nauman is fascinated by process and it shows, in the twisted wire of the scouring work Hanging Carousel, George Skins a Fox (1988), a combination of found objects – the forms that taxidermists use to stretch pelts—revolving around a video in which his friend George is skinning a fox. Nauman has said that he wants to make art that is “like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck.”

Nauman’s influence is unquestionable, if nothing else opening the doors for generations of artists to work in many different mediums. Kiki Smith, Tony Oursler, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin and Mike Kelley are just a few of the contemporary artists whose work has been heavily influenced. Walking around this year’s Venice Biennale and its many off-site events, it is clear that Nauman’s influence is everywhere.

The 53rd Venice Biennale, Making Worlds continues until 22 November

“Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens” is at the American Pavilion in the Giardini, at the Ca’Foscari and at the IUAV

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