When sculptures look back

Ilana Cohn, Kaldor Public Art Projects, 13 Rooms

Joan Jonas, Mirror Check, 1970, re-performed for Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms,

Joan Jonas, Mirror Check, 1970, re-performed for Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms,

Joan Jonas, Mirror Check, 1970, re-performed for Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms,

When Hans Ulrich Obrist met Eugène Ionesco many years ago, the playwright told Obrist how pleased he was that his play, La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano), had been performed every single night for over 40 years in a Paris theatre. To Ionesco’s mind, this constant staging had cemented the play as a mainstay of Parisian cultural life, enabling it to achieve the kind of permanence that normally eludes time-based performance and is instead reserved for public sculptures cast in bronze, marble or stone.

Obrist, who is co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, cites this encounter as a source of inspiration for 13 Rooms, a project for which he has teamed up with Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1 in New York. Together they have created a travelling exhibition of performance art. Or, as they term it, ‘living sculpture.’ The line-up of artists includes some of the biggest names in performance from the 1960s and 70s until now, but Obrist and Biesenbach insist that 13 Rooms is not a showcase of performance art but more “like a sculpture gallery where all the sculptures go home at 6pm.”

First presented at the 2011 Manchester International Festival as 11 Rooms, and then as 12 Rooms at Germany’s Ruhrtriennale in Essen the following year, the show has been brought to our shores by Sydney arts patron John Kaldor as the 27th project to be mounted by Kaldor Public Art Projects. One new artist is added with each presentation and here it is Brisbane-based duo Clark Beaumont. They join 140 local performers reproducing the works of the international artists during the exhibition’s 11-day run at Walsh Bay’s Pier 2/3, where 12 pristine white cubes have been constructed, each containing a living and breathing work of art.

Yes, there are only 12 rooms in 13 Rooms. Many visitors are likely to remain oblivious to this anomaly because the first artwork is easy to miss: following the usual greeting that meets each visitor upon entering the exhibition space, a gallery attendant recites a headline from that morning’s newspaper. Tino Sehgal famously forbids any documentation of his art; not even a wall label accompanies this work, and it is only by listening closely to the attendant’s subsequent words—“This is New, Tino Sehgal, 2003”—that we catch a clue as to what we have just experienced. It’s a rather surreal interaction that heralds the collection of equally curious, playful and, at times, confronting works which are to follow.

A more material exchange is at the heart of Roman Ondák’s Swap, in which visitors are encouraged to exchange an object in their possession for whatever is on the table in the centre of the room, while Damien Hirst’s whimsical contribution involves a rotating cast of identically-dressed identical twins who chat cheerfully to visitors while seated beneath two of Hirst’s almost-identical spot paintings. The muscular male in Simon Fujiwara’s Future/Perfect won’t speak back however, as he lies still on a tanning bed reciting English lesson phrases from an iPod.

Opening the door to Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye reveals a breathing body frozen impossibly in mid-air. If it’s true that the average amount of time visitors to the Louvre spend in front of the Mona Lisa is 15 seconds, then Xu Zhen’s floating figure is more successful than most art objects in holding our attention. In fact, many of the works in 13 Rooms put into question the very act of looking—at art and at people. In Laura Lima’s Man=flesh/Woman=flesh-Flat, the visitor must crouch or lie on the ground to encounter a performer with a physical disability who is positioned horizontally within a confined opening 45 centimetres high, and the rotating dancers that make up Allora and Calzadilla’s Revolving Door demand not only a visual but a physical negotiation of the space. In Xavier Le Roy’s Untitled we actually see nothing at all; at least, that is, until our eyes have adjusted to the almost pitch black room to reveal the shadowy outlines of two hooded figures rolling on the floor in an intimate, slow-moving choreography.

The feverish diversity of works on show at 13 Rooms is an important ingredient in the exhibition’s tremendous appeal and accessibility, but they do share one common tie. With the notable exception of Clark Beaumont’s piece, they are all evidence of the increasingly popular practice of ‘delegated performance.’ Rather than using their own bodies as the site and material for their art, performance-based artists nowadays are just as likely to provide a set of instructions that enables other people to undertake their work. There is perhaps no artist working today who interrogates more explicitly both the material and representational politics of delegation than Santiago Sierra. In Veterans of the Wars of Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Iraq and Vietnam Facing the Corner, a real war veteran stands stiffly facing the corner of an otherwise empty room, hands held behind him. Why has he or she been relegated to this position? And how are we to behave in that ambiguous presence? On the back of a t-shirt worn by one of the men I encounter is the slogan, “War IS Terrorism.” For all his apparent stoicism, this Sydney veteran has found a way to pierce through the negation and nihilism of Sierra’s instructions, to speak a protest against war and against the very silence he has been employed to enact.

Re-performance has also emerged as a hugely popular strategy over the past decade, restaging for a contemporary audience historical works previously considered to exist as non-reproducible events. John Baldessari’s 1977 video work Six Colorful Inside Jobs is reinvented here as Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs, and 10 female performers rotate in 30-minute shifts between Marina Abramovi?’s 1997 Luminosity and Joan Jonas’ Mirror Check, first performed in 1970. The naked performer in Luminosity balances precariously atop a bicycle seat attached high on the wall. Vulnerability is belied in the way she returns the audience’s voyeuristic gaze with sometimes confronting force, making us question who of us is more exposed. The dynamics of the gaze are inverted in Jonas’ piece; the performer does not acknowledge our presence as she carefully examines her reflection in a hand-held mirror which she moves progressively down her naked body.

What is gained and lost when these historical works move away from their creators and are taken up by other people? One of the women re-performing Mirror Check is Melbourne-based dancer Atlanta Eke, who uses her naked body in her own practice to aggressively subvert conventional representations of femininity, as in her recent project Monster Body (RT114). For those familiar with Eke’s work, hers is a body that is already brimming with significations that were necessarily absent from Jonas’ quietly feminist 1970 performance. Eke’s presence in this 2013 Mirror Check highlights the inevitable diversification of the work’s meanings as it is displaced across time and space onto other performing bodies.

No longer bound to the body of a singular artist or to the fleeting moment of a once-in-time event, this is performance art made mainstream, as confirmed by the eager Sydney audiences lining Walsh Bay. Purists will nostalgically decry the loss of risk and rebellion that has proudly characterised a form that was, until recently, the underdog of the art world. But if you can manage to push past the crowds, the works at 13 Rooms still attest to the thrill of the live encounter and affirm its power to make us question our relationship to art and to others—even if here those encounters for the most part lack the presence of the artists themselves.

The only room in which the artists are physically present is Clark Beaumont’s Coexisting, which sees young Brisbane duo Sarah Clark and Nicole Beaumont sharing the top of a plinth for the duration of the exhibition. In a modest, tender portrait of the intimacy and mutual reliance that come with friendship and artistic collaboration, they channel Gilbert & George’s self-described living sculptures and render somewhat literal Obrist and Biesenbach’s curatorial pronouncements about the works in 13 Rooms being more akin to sculpture than performance. Clark Beaumont do however interrupt their statuesque posing to indulge in three 10-minute breaks per day. It’s certainly the first time I have encountered a sculpture that needed a toilet break.

Kaldor Public Art Projects, 13 Rooms, curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, 11-21 April, Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, Sydney

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 4-5

© Ilana Cohn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

6 June 2013