‘13 Rooms’ – presented in Australia by the Kaldor Public Art Projects and curated by Klaus Biesenbach (Director of MoMA, PS1 in New York) and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Co-Director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London) – was an exhibition of performance art, focused on the body and ideas of performance as ‘living sculpture’. The curators variously described the show as an imagined encounter with a naked person in an elevator, or as the secret lives of sculptures that come to life when the gallery closes; as such, it was handled with a theatricality which didn’t sit particularly well with all of the works.
Comprised of 13 mostly very well-known performance pieces from the 1970s to the present, ‘13 Rooms’ featured some important and elegant works by artists including John Baldessari, Santiago Sierra, Damien Hirst and Roman Ondák, along with work by lesser-known artists, such as the Brisbane-based duo Clarke Beaumont. The 13 works were performed in 12 rooms designed by Harry Seidler and Associates that were arranged in rows – much like store fronts or peep shows – inserted into a large warehouse at Pier 2/3 on Sydney’s waterfront. As the third iteration of what was initially ‘11 Rooms’ at the Manchester International Festival, UK, in 2011, and then ‘12 Rooms’ at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany in 2012, the exhibition collects content as it moves from location to location, bearing the same generative structure as many of Obrist’s previous curatorial projects.
The selection of performances was loosely unified by the idea that each one involved ‘the body’ and provided ‘situations for experience and participation’. At times, the individual intent and historical context of each work seemed secondary to the overarching ambitions of the exhibition with the works politely corralled into the homogenizing layout of the exhibition. So, whilst Laura Lima’s eloquent and moving work Man=Flesh, Woman=Flesh/Flat (1997) – which features a disabled performer lying on a carpeted floor compressed beneath a ceiling lowered to 45 cm high – is an articulate expression of constrained possibilities, it also risks being read euristically by the peep-show layout of the rooms.
Likewise, the works that were intended as a critique of the gaze, such as Joan Jonas’ pivotal Mirror Check (1970) and Marina Abromavić’s Luminosity (1997), were depoliticized in the theatrical setting. Abromavić’s work features a naked woman wedged atop a bicycle seat that was fixed just above eye level on the wall. Despite the performer’s attempts to engage with the audience with sustained eye contact, the fact remains that she was naked, vulnerable, uncomfortable, subjected to pain and discomfort – and voyeurism.
Furthermore, the impact of Jonas’ investigation into the intense scrutiny inflicted on women’s physical appearance was lessened by the fact that only women performed it. I feel that in order for the work to be more than an art history lesson, it would be interesting to see the work performed by men as well as women, as they too have succumbed to the pressures of the beauty myth. Broadening the discussion in this way may in fact divert the conversation away from a basic scrutinizing of the performer’s body and back to addressing our appearance-obsessed society.
Three works in particular, however, transcended the constrictions of the exhibition’s architectural and conceptual framework. Clark Beaumont’s Coexisting (2013) embodied ideas around ‘relational aesthetics’: the artists attempted to sit together on a simple plinth that was too small to accommodate them. Visitors were privy to their quiet negotiations and whispered arrangements as they adjusted their bodies into awkward, yet balanced and sustaining entanglements. Likewise, Xavier le Roy’s Untitled (2012) took place in a darkened room where the viewer gradually became aware of a couple entwined in a choreographed series of embraces that was startling in its intimacy. Their gender and faces were indistinguishable, but piecing together elements of this quiet, private and sacrosanct-feeling embrace felt like trespassing.
Perhaps the most successful work in this context – and the curators’ inspiration for the exhibition – was Tino Sehgal’s This is New (2003). It was the only piece that didn’t occupy one of the rooms: the invigilators were asked to select a headline from the day’s newspaper, which they then quoted to visitors as they offered them room brochures. In an exhibition that purported to be about a moment of encounter between bodies, Sehgal’s piece was the only one where the performers were actually part of the work, rather than existing as indicators of an idea. The performer was a thinking, feeling, knowing human, who physically implicated the viewer in the fabric of the exhibition, embedding their response in its meaning so that the work only existed in that moment when two bodies interact, and celebrated the truly temporal nature of performance art.
Emily Cormack is a curator and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the 2016 Curator of ‘Primavera: Young Australian Artists’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.