Bruce Nauman is an artist to be approached deferentially. By consensus of art insiders, he's one of the most original and influential artists of his generation (he just turned 68).
It was almost inevitable, then, that his multisite exhibition "Topological Gardens," organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would win a Golden Lion award as the best national pavilion in the Biennale that closed in Venice last month.
The Golden Lion was Nauman's second, and how many artists, especially Americans, can claim that distinction? (He shared a 1999 award with sculptor Louise Bourgeois.)
In recent years, the Art Museum has affirmed Nauman's eminence - in its own eyes, at least - by acquiring a celebrated neon wall sculpture and three early films and videos. These four works serve as context for the museum's current presentation of two sound installations that were presented in Venice, Days and Giorni.
The film-video works, all from the 1960s, establish the conceptual template for the Biennale sound pieces - take a simple action and, with minor variations, multiply its effects through seemingly endless repetition. With Days and Giorni (Italian for days), the action is a recitation of the days of the week in an otherwise empty room, transforming banal, everyday language into musical resonance.
The two pieces, shown at two locations in Venice, differ in form. In each, seven pairs of speakers have been installed, in two permanent exhibition galleries - Days in Gallery 176 of the main building, Giorni in the large first-floor room of the Perelman building.
Each sound piece involves seven voices, male and female, speaking the names of the days in various sequences and cadences. Days, in English, is a continuous loop in which the voices overlap and produce a choral effect. One hears individuals only when standing directly in front of a speaker, or midway between an opposing pair.
Giorni, in Italian, is a structured piece that runs for 14 minutes 28 seconds. It begins with a single voice, then builds to the multipart choral effect, then trails off to a single voice at the end.
Both works exploit not only the long-established fact that language can be inherently musical but also the idea, which I'm sure many people have discovered for themselves, that continual repetition of familiar words can eventually cause them to sound exotic, strange or even comical. Children are especially sensitive to this transformation, I think.
The phenomenon is more evident in Days than in Giorni. Each installation is a densely woven aural landscape, an echo chamber in which time's orderly progress is disrupted.
The continuous chanting might prompt some visitors to think about the way humans organize time - by hours, days, weeks, months. Why are there seven days in a week and not five, or 10? Seven days isn't a natural sequence, and the naming of the days, after gods and goddesses of the ancient world, is completely, albeit poetically, arbitrary.
This is the kind of mental stimulation one hopes to receive from art of this kind, otherwise all you have is a relatively brief immersion in a Tower-of-Babel cacophony (again, more prominent in Days).
When I say brief, I mean that it's difficult to remain in these environments for too long - five minutes, perhaps - without risking disorientation or ringing in the ears. Days in particular would be more effective if it were at lower volume, which would allow individual voices to be more expressive.
If the repetition and the noise level become tedious, the physical character of the installations, particularly the speakers, provides a distraction. Nauman discovered some flat Finnish speakers that permit an elegantly minimal configuration. In photographs of the Venice installations, they are nearly invisible.
When I say flat, I mean that each square, white panel is slightly thicker than the cover of a clothbound book. Each speaker is spring-clipped to two floor-to-ceiling wires. These technological marvels proved to be the single aspect of Days/Giorni that stayed with me after I had left the museum.
This is to say that Days/Giorni is primarily a phenomenological experience rather than an intellectual one. Both the musical and the aesthetic effects dissipate rather quickly after one has left the environment. Perhaps this is because the pieces aren't primarily visual, and visual memories are more durable than aural ones.
Residual transience has always been the major deficiency of conceptual art. An experience like Days/Giorni can be rewarding the first time, but one isn't likely to want, or need, to go back for seconds. Still, Nauman deserves top style marks for design and execution.
Shrinking the prize pool. A few days before my Nov. 15 commentary on the art-prize universe, and unknown to me, the Pew Fellowships in the Arts announced a fundamental revision in the way it chooses winners of its coveted $60,000 grants.
Beginning with the 2009-10 awards process, open applications by categories are terminated. Instead, a small number of artists in all disciplines will be invited to apply after being selected for the honor by a panel of 30 anonymous nominators considered to be knowledgeable in their fields. Each nominator will select two candidates to be evaluated for awards by a second panel of evaluators.
As I noted earlier, the process Pew has used since the fellowships began in 1991 already had become discriminatory toward artists who could be considered traditionalists. However, under open applications there was always a chance that one of these retrograde mavericks could sneak through and win the lottery.
With the nominating and selection process now completely in the hands of establishment types, it appears that wild cards have even less chance of being recognized. The pool, in effect, has shrunk dramatically. Logrolling and cronyism seem even more likely to influence the outcomes.
In theory, the new system should be more democratic. Before, only artists who applied could be considered. Now, theoretically, all artists are eligible. Yet the smaller, highly selective pool of contenders probably won't help visual artists, who are likely to be overshadowed by performers and others who create specifically for audiences.
Days and Giorni by Bruce Nauman continue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 4. Days is installed in Gallery 176 of the modern-contemporary wing of the main building; Giorni is in the exhibition gallery of the Perelman building. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. The Perelman building closes at 5 on Fridays. Admission to both buildings is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday of the month. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or www.philamuseum.org.EndText