Who is afraid of performing art? Vicente Todolí, artistic director of Pirelli HangarBicocca, told us how to visit the Bruce Nauman exhibition. Neons Corridors Rooms, just opened in Milan

The bodies, that of the artist and that of the viewer, are at the center of the process, indeed, they are the work itself. As immediate as it is disarming, performing art is difficult for many to understand. We asked Vicente Todolí, artistic director of Pirelli HangarBicocca, to tell us about the Bruce Nauman exhibition. Neons Corridors Rooms , just opened in Milan.

We meet Vicente Todolí in the dim light of the great central nave of Hangar Bicocca, on the opening day of the Bruce Nauman exhibition. Neons Corridors Rooms, which he curated together with Roberta Tenconi.

Vicente Todolí is of Valencian origins, he has directed the Center of Contemporary Art in Valencia, the Tate Modern in London, the Serralves Foundation in Porto and, since 2013, has held the position of artistic director of Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan.

Architecture determines choices

"At the Hangar we offer site-specific exhibitions, in which art is hosted by architecture", he explains.

"Architecture always influences the choices of a curator, but, in our case, it even determines them. A symbiosis must be created between the two disciplines and architecture provides a unique space because the work of the artist is read in a new way.

We do exhibits like Americans do, because we have the space to do it. We do not create rooms and we do not divide the space and when we prepare an exhibition, we select the works thinking right from the start about how they will be inserted in the space.

"Our vocation", continues Todolí, "is to give new life to a series of works, as we did with the exhibition dedicated to Ambienti by Lucio Fontana (ed. Ambienti / Environments 21.09.2017 - 25.02.2018). Unlike what I did at Tate Modern, where I was director for seven years and where I commissioned the artist, here we use existing works to create site-specific environments. "

In the case of the exhibition dedicated to Bruce Nauman, artist awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of the Venice Biennale in 1999 and the one for the best national participation with the Pavilion of United States of America in 2009, Vicente Todolí explains that half of the exhibition is dedicated to the same body of work: Rooms and Corridors . These are very important works for Nauman, but little known, which the American artist began to do almost by chance.

A work born by chance

"It was 1968", Todolí continues, evoking the background of one of the installations on display, Walk with Contrapposto , a seminal work for Bruce Nauman that accompanies the reflections of many works of the following years, "when Bruce Nauman was studying to earn his Master of Fine Arts from the University of California at Davis and was an assistant in Wayne Thiebaud's life drawing class. had to be the model of the work. "

It is during this time that he creates experimental performances - made even in the absence of an audience and shot with a 16mm camera. The subject of the performance is Nauman himself who slowly walks back and forth inside a corridor just 50 centimeters wide built specifically in his studio.

The fact that this corridor was created ad hoc as an element in its own right, around which to walk and move, explains it well, once again, by Vicente Todolí, with an element derived from the artist's biography: "the owner of the studio who Nauman rented and told him that he was not allowed to intervene on the walls of the room, so Nauman was forced to build movable walls which gave life to the work Contrapposto."

"In that same period", Todolí continues to tell, "Marcia Tucker, an important curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who allegedly then founded in 1977 the New Museum in New York and which was then preparing an important exhibition entitled Anti-Illusion: Procedures / Materials , he went to visit Nauman in his studio, saw the walls mounted to simulate the space of a corridor and suggested that he turn that work into a work of art and exhibit it in a museum".

Nauman was so upset that, in a letter to the curators, he wrote 'this is not so much a sculpture, but a prop for a dance exercise or a studio that I filmed'. Despite this, the narrow wooden corridor, born by chance, was re-proposed by Nauman the following year, as an independent work with the title Performance Corridor (1969).

Disorientation and claustrophobia

From this moment on, the architectural structure of the corridor will become a recurring element in the work of Bruce Nauman, developed since the late 1960s in increasingly complex works and installations. In the museum context, the corridor serves to soften and then intensify the acoustic, visual and kinesthetic response of those who pass through the wall or around it. In this type of installations, therefore, it is no longer only the artist's body, but it is that of the public that becomes the possible performative subject, user and at the same time activator of the work.

Passing through these corridors, faithfully recreated, following the instructions written by the artist to the letter, is an intense experience, which can generate disorientation and a sense of claustrophobia. This is, moreover, the ultimate meaning of performative art, which is made to generate a response, even if negative, in the user.

The work embodies a poetic sensorial: the artist is experimenting and invites us to experiment with him. This letting ourselves go to experimentation, thus becoming from spectator to performer and, therefore, part of the work itself, is the fundamental step in understanding Bruce Nauman's work and, in general, performing art.

Conceived in this way, the Corridors represent an important part of the Neons Corridors Rooms exhibition, so much so as to determine their title. The exhibition, open until February 26, 2023, then brings together for the first time in a single exhibition thirty works created from the second half of the 1960s: the various types of corridors and rooms, as well as six neon works, five video and sound works, and a selection of Tunnels , or sculptural models for underground architecture. Absolutely to see, or rather, to experience.