Sydney Morning Herald Column

13 Rooms

Published April 13, 2013
Damien Hirst, Hans, Georg,1992, performed by Curtis and Jeffrey Argent

In 1969 a young, enthusiastic art collector named John Kaldor sponsored a visit to Sydney by the renowned international artists, Christo and Jeanne Claude. The project that resulted was Wrapped Coast, which saw hundreds of volunteers working with the artists to wrap a rocky section of Little Bay.
Wrapped Coast was the first ever Kaldor Public Art Project. 13 Rooms – the 27th in the series – has just opened at Pier 2/3, and promises to be the most ambitious enterprise Kaldor has undertaken since Wrapped Coast. Like that early landmark, 13 Rooms requires a huge cast of paid workers and volunteers. Like that first project, for many participants it will be a life-changing experience that allows them to visualise a future career as an artist or performer.
Imants Tillers sees his student involvement in Wrapped Coast as the point where he found a future direction, and there are bound to be young artists involved in 13 Rooms who will look back on this project in the same way.
13 Rooms is a challenging experience for both participants and audiences, combining the logistical problems of a large-scale public event with the peculiar intimacy of coming face-to-face with performers in a closed, domestically scaled room. Some of the performers will be completely nude, although in Xavier Le Roy’s piece they are almost invisible. In Santiago Sierra’s work the performer keeps his back to the audience, while Tino Sehgal and Roman Ondák’s works aim to start a conversation.

13 Rooms is a celebration of performance art that conceives the human body as a portable sculpture which may be viewed in an art environment until it’s time to go home, with performers working shifts over an eight-hour day. For the more demanding pieces there are half-hour slots divided between four or five participants. This mixture of art and work makes unusual physical and mental demands on the performers.
The show was initially conceived by international curators, Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist, for the Manchester International Festival in 2011, under the title, 11 Rooms. Last year, as 12 Rooms, it was re-staged in Essen, as part of an event called the Ruhrtriennale.
The Sydney version is the biggest and most elaborate so far. The rooms have been designed by Seidler Associates, and installed in the cavernous interior of Pier 2/3. Most works have been newly finessed for the occasion. For instance, Rafael Bonachela of the Sydney Dance Company has choreographed the Revolving Door piece by American artists, Allora and Calzadilla. The performers are members of the SDC and students from the Brent Street school of performing arts.

The flexibility of the concept is its greatest strength, allowing for an ever-changing mix of new works alongside classic pieces that are re-staged or re-imagined.
It is a relatively novel idea that performances may be reconstructed by different performers years after their first appearance. In the past, performance art has been treated as an ephemeral activity that found an after-life only in written accounts, photographic or filmic documentation. Many of the most famous pieces were staged in obscure locations, to small audiences. We know them only in the form of grainy, decayed videos or poor quality stills.
The change of focus arrived in 2005 with Marina Abramovic’s exhibition, Seven Easy Pieces, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. In this show Abramovic restaged classic performances by Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Valie Export, Bruce Nauman, Gina Paine, and two of her own works. For the first time works of performance art were treated like musical scores or theatrical events, able to be reinterpreted in slightly different ways. The emphasis on authenticity was dropped, and the presence of the original artist was not deemed essential.
13 Rooms builds on this breakthrough, staging new versions of Abramovic’s Luminosity (1997), Joan Jonas’s Mirror Check (1970), and a variation on a 1977 piece by John Baldessari, called Thirteen Colorful Inside Jobs, in which a room is repainted a different colour every day, the fresh paint being applied over yesterday’s coat.

The only completely new piece, by Brisbane duo, Clark Beaumont, is simplicity incarnate. It consists of two young women from Brisbane, Sarah Clark and Nicole Beaumont, sharing a plinth that is slightly too small to accommodate them comfortably. You may be relieved, or disappointed, to learn that the artists remain fully clothed and silent, although they are remarkably decorative.
Clark Beaumont’s piece makes one think, inevitably, of the third Kaldor art project, of 1973, when Gilbert and George came to Australia as The Singing Sculpture. With their faces and hands bronzed to resemble statues, they stood stiffly, miming Underneath the Arches over and over. At least Clark Beaumont move around a little, although this time there will be no Karaoke.
There is an interesting dichotomy between those pieces that invite audience engagement and those that keep the audience at a distance. You can have a chat with one of the three sets of twins that will be sharing Damien Hirst’s room with a couple of precisely calibrated dot paintings, but don’t try talking to the Veterans of the Wars of Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Iraq and Vietnam Facing the Corner, in Santiago Serra’s room. The performer stands silently in the corner until replaced by another, equally sullen veteran.
In Simon Fujiwara’s Future/Perfect, a muscular young man lies on a tanning bed, teaching himself a foreign language, oblivious to the audience’s presence. The same applies in Xu Zhen’s piece, In the Blink of an Eye, in which the performer is suspended in time, in an impossible position half-way between standing and falling. The sensation is akin to walking into a freeze frame.

To find the performer in Laura Lima’s Man=flesh/Woman=flesh – FLAT, the viewer has to lie on the ground and peer into a room with a ceiling height of only 45 centimetres. The three performers who will alternate in this space all suffer some form of physical disability, inviting us to read the claustrophobic space as a metaphor for limited opportunities or the low horizon of expectation that attaches to anyone different from the norm. It’s worth noting that, in their own lives, the three participants are people who have rejected the stereotypes and worked to have careers in the arts.
In contrast to Lima’s willingness to pare away at her allotted space, Tino Sehgal takes the entire exhibition as his ‘room’, using interpreters to meet and greet visitors. The other genuinely social experience is Roman Ondák’s Swap, in which visitors are encouraged to swap something they bring with them for whatever is on a table. The process is conducted by an interpreter who can engage in negotiations, can encourage or advise.
Already Ondák’s room is shaping up as one of the most popular drawcards. Another room that has captured viewers’ imaginations is Xavier Le Roy’s Untitled, which consists of two bodies moving under a heavy grey covering in a darkened space. It takes the eye a while to adjust to the dim light, as we gradually discern the figures shifting around, preparing to be born from some primeval swamp.
In terms of sheer theatricality, Le Roy’s piece is perhaps the most effective of the rooms, although hardly the most confronting. That distinction must go to the two rooms that feature nude performers, Abramovic’s Luminosity and Jonas’s Mirror Check. I’ve left these pieces to last because the promise of nudity is one of those clichés of performance art that serves as a powerful tool of attraction. It can’t be denied there is an element of voyeurism involved, with slightly unpleasant overtones.

On the other hand, we are all hard-wired in such a way that we have a compelling interest in other people’s bodies. These performances ask us to distinguish between what is natural and unnatural. Where is the dividing line between healthy curiosity and prurient interest? Although these pieces are dignified by the label of Art, and have impeccable pedigrees, they can hardly be viewed in the same way as a famous painting or sculpture.
The ten performers who alternate in these two rooms are all young women, and mostly professional dancers. It is conceivable these pieces could have been performed by men, or by a mixture of men and women, but the determining factor may be that the original artists and performers are female.
The performers display no acknowledgement of the audience, following the artists’ instructions to the letter. As dancers, they are obviously more at home with their bodies than most of us, but it requires courage and confidence to appear nude in front of strangers, in a room where the door is being continually opened and closed. It is in these rooms one realises that if art is to be more than a pastime or a distraction, it requires a tremendous commitment on behalf of the artist. In a sense, these women are only making concrete that experience which is common to all artists – of standing naked in front of an audience.
13 Rooms: Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, April 11 – April 21, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning herald, April 13, 2013