Monday, September 1, 2014

Performance Arts and the 14 Rooms

A Prelude                                                                   
That, a fair is about selling and buying and sellers and buyers is not a mystery.  That fairs have also turned into a point of convergence for fun, socializing, exploring and eye-warming window shopping however may create a sense that there  may be another motive behind it.  Yet I believe , that the purpose and guiding principles remains deeply ingrained in the buying-selling, even if they may create a feel of being otherwise.  I write this not with  any sense of judgment but rather a reminder to myself (and to other similarly naive beings) who tend to get lost and carried away by the scale and grandness of things, which quite often is designed to do that by triggering awe and sway people off their feet into believing in the necessity of whatever that is.

Art Basel is certainly a grand fair in the art world with a mix of everything, for almost everyone who has
The Signboards
anything to do with arts.  This year (2014) the fair has a new exhibition, ‘14  Rooms’, curated by two well known curators Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist.  The ‘14  Rooms’ (an evolution from the 11 Rooms at Manchester International Festival in 2011) featured at Art Basel for the first time as a grand new entity that seem to rest on the rise and the commercialization potential of performance arts. 

A room each is assigned to fourteen artists from the art world that seemed confined to North America, South America and Europe, but for one artist from China.  Prominent, shiny signboards placed all around Art Basel venues yelled out the star cast: Marina Abramovic, Allora & Calzadilla, Ed Atkins, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Damien Hirst, Joan Jonas, Laura Lima, Bruce Nauman, Otobong Nkanga, Roman Ondak, Yoko Ono, Tino Sehgal, Santiago Sierra, Xu Zhen.  Beside these, there were two more – John Baldessari and Jordan Wolfson.
The press and invitees at the 14 Rooms preview
A rectangular structure, constructed in the middle of a huge exhibition hall at the Messeplatz, had seven cubical rooms on either side and a large space in between for visitors to wander around and ponder.  The wall, infront of the entrance to 14 Rooms, within the larger confine of exhibition hall, displays the archive of an idea proposed by John Baldessari in 1970 - to exhibit a cadaver as an art work.  Alongside are the emails written in 2010 - an attempt to realize the proposal for the 11 Rooms at Manchester International Festival.  The emails were a back and forth communication between multiple agencies to explore the ethical, medical and legal possibilities of the venture.  With this unrealized proposal on death as a prelude, one enters the 14 Rooms hall.  The mirrored doors, that one pulls open to enter each of the 14 rooms, reflect our own image as we approach this world of performances in rooms.


The Performances / Works
If art is about raising questions, beside selling and buying, 14 Rooms does that in multiple ways.  There are questions that the works trigger and questions that 14 Rooms raise as a concept itself.  What is a performance?  What is it’s origin?  What is the ‘medium’ of a performance - the body or any and everything else except for the body?  If the medium is the body, then whose body - the artist’s, who conceptualized it or another person’s, who ‘copies’ the act?  Can a ‘copy’ of performance provide the same meaning?

Outside Marina's room
Marina Abramovic performed ‘Luminosity’ in 1979, where she sat on a bicycle seat jutting out from a wall at a height, legs outstretched and spread apart, feet supported by two planks on the wall below while her outstretched arms move up and down sideways, like a bird flying in slow motion.  A beam of projected white light creates a rectangular frame around her making it look like a painting plastered to, yet jutting out from, the wall.  The audience has to look upwards as she positioned herself about five feet or so above the ground level.  14 Rooms, replicates it exactly except that the artist herself is not present.  Instead three performers do it in rotation.  Bruce Nauman’s ‘Floor-Wall Positions, a set of 28 body positions where the artist remains in touch with both the wall  and the floor simultaneously, was performed by him 1968.  Joan Joanas did her ‘Mirror Check’, in which she examines her naked body through a small mirror, in 1970s.  In 2014, a set of hired performers enact these pieces at 14 Rooms.

Diaspore - Otobang Nkanga
Performer lies suspended in Xu Zhen's Room
Ed Atkin’s ‘No One is More Work Than Me’ had a graphically generated talking head displayed on a flat screen, continuously trying to ‘sell’ his presence while a masked performer sits next to the screen trying to engage, interact and at times disengage with it.  Otobang Nkanga’s ‘Diaspore’, a progression from her earlier work, had upto three performers (all of African origin) on a floor designed to look like a topographical map, holding a potted ‘queen of the night’ plant on their head or shoulders while singing or talking to it with numerous references to uprooting, longing and resilience among others.  Roman Ondak’s ‘Swap’ began with a performer bringing a single item into the room to engage the audience in a swap.  The process of swapping continues till the last day leading to multiple swaps and interactions that occur during the process.  ‘In the blink of an eye’ by Xu Zhen features a performer fixed in an almost impossible posture with the entire body bent backwards from the knee as if suspended against gravity.  All these pieces - seven of them - use the ‘body as a medium’ and some were even performed earlier by the artist him/herself.  Yet at 14 Rooms the artist remained absent from 3.5 meters high, 5*5 meter rooms, designed by the celebrated architects Herzog and De Meuron.

The question that emerges therefore is ‘who’ is engaging the audience and with ‘what’?  Is performance about a connect between the artist, through his / her body, with the audience (as suggested during the infant days of this still young child to segregate it from the other more defined performance acts)?  Or is it about creating a ‘concept and storyline’ (as in advertising or film world) and have others perform it, even when the work could be performed by the artist?  Is this the influence of the theatre or the film industry where the one creates products, as also in the more established and  establishment oriented visual arts?  With Marina particularly, this approach becomes somewhat ironical in view of her earlier work ‘The artist is present’ and even more so when one reads here recent interview (published on May 12, 2014 in the Guardian), where she re-asserts, “The medium is the body”.


The ‘Body and Performance Art’ connect has been a given since performance began to emerge in the West as a ‘new’ and ‘different’ art form in the art arena.  14 Rooms is certainly about ‘bodies’ but not of the artists whose works are featured and whose names shine prominently on all ads and displays.  The confusion continues in the catalogue that instructs, pre-warns and informs one what to expect.  The foreword by Sam Keller (Director Fondation Beyeler), Marc Spiegler (Director Art Basel) and Georges Delnon (Director Theatre Basel) ends with a note of thanks to the visitors for “transforming the instructions of the fourteen artists into a milestone moment in the history of performance art.”  The very next write up, ‘Curators in Conversation’ (with a reference to the 13 Rooms at Sydney in 2013) mentions, “It’s not called 13 Performances because it is not thirteen performances.  It’s not called 13 Artists because that would be irritating.  It’s not called 13 Sculptures because that could be misunderstood.  Instead it’s called 13 Rooms”.  The curators further elaborate on their intent of creating an exhibition that is replicable and can be reproduced later by any other curator and set of performers.  They bring in an analogy to music notations that allow classical music pieces to be reproduced and re-performed.  Thus their conscious decision of having “always a human being or more than one person, but not the artist him- or herself.”

That should lay to rest the expectation of the artist being present at the 14 Rooms even if they are still alive and kicking.  The curators’ vision also makes sense of the other set of rooms, some of whom have no performers at all and some with more than one.

Large queues recurred outside this room
Yoko Ono’s ‘Touch’ was a pitch dark room where one could see nothing.  Visitors often ‘touched’ another person accidentally or felt the walls.  She succeeds in taking away the visual sense and force the visitor to shift to other senses, in her quest of addressing the question of touch as a taboo in the society.  Gonzalez Dominique-Foerster’s room with an instruction etched on the mirrored door ‘enter one by one .wait’ triggered much curiosity and expectation of an encounter with the unknown.  No wonder there were huge queues at this door.  Inside, the room had a carpet and a small mirror hanging on the wall where you see yourself as you turn around to face it.  With nothing more there, one tries to exit the room only to realize that it can not be opened from inside.  The visitor must seek another person’s intervention to unlock the door from outside and escape their own presence, unsure of who performed what.

Damien Hirst had look alike twins performing similarly choreographed actions under two dot paintings of his.  At the first look both paintings appear similar, just like the twins.  A closer inspection reveals different colored dots and sequences in each, just like the twins exhibited differences every once in a while.  Allora and Calzadilla’s Revolving Door is designed to involve about 10  performers at any given time, moving like a revolving door in pre-choreographed sequences.  The audience could enter and interact with the various patterns of the door, some which allowed the visitor to pass through while the ‘barricade’ piece forced anyone in the way to move along.  Laura Lima’s ‘Man=flesh / Woman=flesh’ required a person with physical disability to lie inside a very low roofed structure.  The audience had to bend or lie down on the floor to look inside.  Santiago Sierra’s ‘Veterans of the Wars of Eriteria, Kosovo and Togo’ had war veterans standing in a corner facing the wall.  Tino Sehgal’s piece  involved two gallerists competing to create a sentence using one word at a time.

The conceptual framework of this set of works necessitates the use of ‘other’ performers, in synch with the curators’ vision, where the artist acts as a director or instructor.  Together, the collection pushes us to think about the associations that have been built overtime around performance arts.  Do we need a more encompassing term like ‘live art’ or something else, to address these time-based, experiential works?  Is the 14 Rooms a challenge to the academia and critics, who label and tie concepts within the frameworks of definitions that keep getting narrower in a supposed search of an assumed ultimate truth?

Defining or Limiting?
Laura Lima's work
Personally, I am very comfortable with the idea of ‘no labels, just a flow’ or at best loose and overlapping labels, that can allow one not only to breathe but stretch and jump  around too.  The apprehension that unless we define something properly it will not be academic enough, or may lead to confusion, rests merely on our definition and understanding of confusion from a seemingly market-based approach which actually allows a much larger collateral damage to pass by unnoticed.  It is these narrow definitions that divide health care, which concerns with a living human body, into numerous departments and specialties, each focusing on tiny organs and parts of  the body, forgetting the being in its totality.  It is such definitions that segregate health, poverty and food in the administrative departmental structures of governments.  And it is precisely this approach of narrow definitions that pitches art against science and so on and so forth needlessly, as if knowledge comes in man-defined compartments.

While labels tend to confine and frame thoughts, as well as people, and condemn them to specific roles and visions, they are of some use to academicians; in furthering researches and encoding large processes and events into shorter phrases or just a word.  They allow exchange of ideas and communication within the academic fraternity much faster while maintaining a ‘we know more / better’ kind of sense too.  In case of performance art, the child that is yet to completely conform to norms and that continues to assert its identity as a free-ish form, it seems to be that in-between kind of time of push and pull before the animal gets tamed, claimed and framed by the institution in a precise definition.  It is that wild, unpredictable and ephemeral nature which makes it an exciting form in the present time.  And the same properties become a reason of discomfort for the establishment that struggles to find a common ground to address and claim it.

The End or a Beginning?
Ed Atkin's piece
Most of the works at the 14 Rooms, barring Ed Atkins’ and Santiago Sierra’s, were reproductions or slightly evolved versions of previous performances of the selected artists.  Was it then mainly a historical archive, and if so, of what, since the curators reject the term ‘performance’?  Sifting through these questions, one walks out of the 14 Rooms inner hall into the outer to find a fifteenth room, the ‘Epilogue’ as the curators suggest, pushing the boundaries even further to reckon with the digital age.

Enter the room and a woman-like machine dances infront of a mirror, with it’s back to you.  What apparently freaked out many visitors was that it looked them in the eye through the reflection in the mirror.  The tete-a-tete with a human-like non-human by Jordan Wolfson makes one wonder what next.  Even the term ‘Live Art’ goes for a toss now. 

The show that began with thoughts of displaying the dead, ends with a non-human dance. Certainly no other ‘label’ could have suited these rooms more than ‘14 Rooms’ itself.  What remains circumspect though is the purpose of this exercise. Is it extending Art as a practice or a mere entertainment for the crowds that could be encapsulated in a more-evolved-circus than just a circus.

Art and artists (like any other knowledge domain or people who question) are known to challenge existing notions and evolve beyond the given boundaries every now and then.  If nothing else, the 14 Rooms exhibition has certainly managed to create some amount of confusion.  The ephemeral, that has been considered a hallmark of Performance Art, and formed the essence that posed a challenge to the market-driven art world, vanishes at the 14 Rooms even from the pieces that were once labeled ‘Performance art’ and considered ephemeral.  Is the basic premise of 14 Rooms therefore resting on containing and packaging Performance or Live Art into tangible products for the market that had long struggled to make sense of it or is it really a push for its form to expand beyond the clutches of conventions and definitions?  I would love to believe that the tilt is towards the later but then, a fair is about buying and selling and buyers and sellers, ofcourse along with some fun and entertainment too.

Parvez Imam
(The writer was involved with photo and video documentation of the '14 Rooms Workshops' led by the Art Education Team of Beyeler Foundation.  The workshops were held from June 16-20.  The photo-documentation evolved into an exhibition of selected photographs at the same venue and ran from 17th - 22 June, 2014.  The above article is a result of the same project )

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