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The Nauman workout

The viewer is called to action in the service of art in the Venice Biennale's three-venue survey of Bruce Nauman's career.

"Double Poke in the Eye II" is one of the works in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (Peter Dobrin/Staff Photo)
"Double Poke in the Eye II" is one of the works in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. (Peter Dobrin/Staff Photo)Read more

VENICE - The conceit of Bruce Nauman's Days is so simple you might be tempted to dismiss it out of hand.

One of two new, related Nauman audio installations to be unveiled when the Venice Biennale opens to the public today, Days compels visitors to walk down an alley created by two rows of speakers. Recorded voices recite the days of the week.

"Sunday. Tuesday. Wednesday . . .," says a voice, one of the seven you can hear distinctly from the 14 flat, white speakers.

That's all. That's the whole piece.

Except it's not.

Nauman, craftily, has captured the circumstances for creating a piece of art. The rest is up to you.

I was seven pages of notes and 20 minutes into the drone when Days revealed itself to me in surprising ways. Collectively, the vowels bouncing around create a chantlike wash of sound in this marble-and-plaster former refectory, now the lecture hall of the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini. Consonants accumulate in the air, chirping like birds.

The piece recalls the electro-acoustic manipulations of musique concrete, a largely forgotten but influential force in music in the late 1940s and '50s. It's lulling, angst-inducing, banal, and ultimately, in its random way, quite musical.

Good thing, since Days and its Italian-language counterpart, Giorni, are the only two Nauman works that will travel to Philadelphia as souvenirs of the 53d Venice Biennale, to which the official U.S. representative is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Days and Giorni arrive in Philadelphia in November for a four-month stay.

Days is one of 33 works at three sites in a remarkably trenchant survey, "Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens," assembled by Art Museum curator Carlos Basualdo with the artist. It's an economical show rather than an exhaustive one, but the works are choice. Each one puts out a series of ripples - connecting the art to Venice and water, highlighting significant strands of concern in Nauman's work over four decades, isolating concepts of private versus public space, and pointing out with dates just how prescient and influential Nauman has been.

While many national pavilions at this year's Venice Biennale will make energetic arguments for their representatives as progenitors of important movements in art, Nauman's contribution sits confidently in the U.S. Pavilion, indisputably in possession of the goods. It's perfectly clear why the Philadelphia Museum of Art dreams of coming home with additional Naumans for its collection.

The show has also been the occasion for a significant brightening of the U.S. Pavilion. A small, slightly frumpy neoclassical building from 1929, it is among the least impressive national pavilions in the Giardini, the park created by Napoleon where the Biennale started in 1895. But this year, changes to the building have worked in tandem with several Nauman works to expand its presence.

A visitor approaching the the façade has a clear view - through a wide horizontal window that has been opened up on the right-hand side - of two Nauman works hovering above a pool of water. How can you resist walking in to ponder Three Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde) and Three Heads Fountain (Three Andrews), both from 2005, with gentle sprinkles leaking from their heads?

From farther away, the pavilion still beckons: Through the surrounding foliage you catch sight of a Nauman even before you can make out the building. The neon Vices and Virtues (1983-88), installed at the University of California, Davis, where Nauman studied, has been refabricated for Venice, its 230 multicolor letters spelling words like SLOTH and TEMPERANCE around the upper exterior. Pairs of words are positioned one behind the other; they illuminate alternately, releasing the thoughtful wordplay for which Nauman is noted. Pretty lights they may be. But how does each word comment on the other? Here's more work Nauman is asking you to do.

With 15 pieces and especially elegant installations, this venue is probably the most potent of the three (though Days is housed at the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini, and a re-fabrication of Nauman's seminal My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon, from 1968, is a powerful lure to the Università Ca' Foscari). One room contains Fifteen Pairs of Hands, a series of white bronze sculptures, which taken together appear as the only visible remnants of a writhing, submerging civilization.

Nauman's The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967) has been given a spot that emphasizes its borrowing from the world of advertising. With the removal of a grate, a rounded-top window has become a viable perch for the work, which has been placed looking out, making it the piece of high art that didn't forget its humble beer-sign roots. The blue and red hues have a chance to mix into a purple cast in the surrounding white arch.

To jump venues for a moment, the Pink and Yellow Light Corridor installed at IUAV, a long strip of four fluorescents, similarly evokes other arenas - possibly industrial, or the unintended beauty that comes with the medium's utilitarian use in the tunnels going into New York City.

Nauman's anti-fans - those who say he is not an artist at all - may find the validation they're looking for in Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox), a 1988 work that involves waxy-buttery polyurethane-foam animal forms revolving at the end of steel wires, while a monitor plays a video of the act in progress. It's hard to know how to proceed in thought upon encountering it - except that, as the animal loses its pelt, it may please metaphorically minded critics to note that more than one emperor has no clothes.

The two universities have been given an extraordinary temporary residency of Nauman works, including one piece so inscrutable it might be missed. It happens in what appears to be an empty room lighted by a 10-watt bulb. Soon you realize that someone very angry is saying something unintelligible. Threatening whispers. Sounds more percussive than vocal. What you come to realize is that you're in the midst of Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room, an audio work Nauman made in 1968 when his marriage was breaking up. The sounds are coming from speakers hidden behind the wall, giving the space a threateningly voyeuristic mood. After a while, you conclude that it's probably best to comply with the title's request.

Nauman evokes just as much emotion in Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), which, if you were visiting a correctional facility, you might recognize as confinement of last resort for difficult prisoners. Participatory art is a Nauman hallmark, and to get the full message, you really do need to squeeze through the space between the larger cage and the smaller one inside. It's perhaps a foot wide, and as you round the first corner and realize you have three more lengths to shimmy through, a wave of panic may strike. You're immediately aware of how concepts of space and constriction make you feel.

Here, playing out in the most visceral way, is Nauman's dictum that art, when it works, appeals on many levels. You can get caught up in the psychological, political, and philosophical issues evoked by a cage built for man. Or you can simply get caught.