Kaldor Public Art Project #27

13 Rooms
Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay, Sydney
11- 21 April 2013

With record-breaking crowds that snailed around Sydney’s Pier 2/3, a pop up bar, ‘Parlour’ night events (curated by local collective SuperKaleidoscope), an education hub, special access events for disabled and disadvantaged visitors, and ‘super curators’ at the helm, 13 Rooms indicated that the state of performance art has clearly changed from being a ‘transgressive fringe act to part of a greater event culture’.1

Adopting the festival format, this project was first commissioned by Manchester International Festival (UK) in 2011 as ‘11 Rooms’, it reemerged the following year as ‘12 Rooms’ for Museum Folkwang, Essen (Germany), and now as ‘Kaldor Public Art Project #27: 13 Rooms’the addition of a room with each venue inserting local performance based practice into this international dialogue.

Presented as a series of rooms, visitors proactively placed themselves into the situation by opening a door and stepping across the threshold. This imposed action carried a sense of curatorial authorship which was laid over, and extended the instructional nature of these performed works, from artist to curator to viewer. Simply, these scripted performances flipped to inter-subjective situations, and the role of protagonists became blurred.

While this ongoing project has raised the obvious question of shifting definitions and commerciality of performance art in our times, it has also addressed the long-held consequence of this art form’s ephemerality. How does a curator extend the shelf life of ‘the performance’ without turning it into a road show? It is a fine line to negotiate, and while the structure of this project physically created a surprisingly intimate, individual experience, given the crowds, it also got rolled up within the spectacular nature of the event, sitting in conflict with the historic ethos of these works. How then do we approach this collection of performances?

John Kaldor states, ‘I really feel this is a new way of looking at art…a coming together of visual art and performance art in a new way’.2. Whether we vacillate in accepting this ‘new’ line or not, that two of the world’s most renowned curators, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, and Klaus Biesenbach, Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator MoMA in New York, have collaborated to realise this project demonstrates its currency within international contemporary trends.

A good place to start to understand this shift—this popularisation—is the cultural phenomenon of ‘flash mobbing’, those seemingly spontaneous performative gatherings in public spaces, first witnessed in New York’s Macy’s store in 2003. We live in the age of the moment. 13 Rooms taps into that vernacular; the project employed 140 dancers and artists who followed choreographed instructions for a spontaneous encounter. The parameters of context have changed.

Slide forward to 2010, to Biesenbach’s landmark MoMA retrospective Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, that made her historical performance accessible to a larger audience; to The Tate Modern’s dedicated ‘Art in Action’ performance space and festival in 2012, ‘The Tanks’, and to nomination of British performance artist Spartacus Chetwynd for the 2012 Turner Prize, an artist who ‘confuses the boundary between performer and spectator’.3 We are witness to an incremental shift and popularisation of performance art within the mainstream. It is an institutional success echoed by Sydney-based collaborative Brown Council, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s ‘workout’ of temporary body works by seven artists over seven days directly following 13 Rooms.

It is not surprising, then, under this banner of resurgence and vitality that 13 Rooms has been framed around the tag ‘living sculpture’, a term first used by British pair Gilbert & George to describe their 1969 action, The Singing Sculpture. Kaldor restaged this piece in 1973 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the third of his projects and, fittingly, a 40-year marker to 13 Rooms. Coexisting (2013) by the Brisbane duo Clark Beaumont provided an erudite segue to this history, the only artists who performed their own work in 13 Rooms. A great coup for this young collaborative, they solidly held their own within this international roll-call.

The pair silently occupied a pedestal throughout the run of 13 Rooms, a terrain of endurance and compromise. It was a continuous work performed regardless of whether a viewer presented in the room or not. While they most literally embraced Gilbert & George’s vernacular of the ‘living sculpture’, their interest in constructs of ‘identity, female subjectivity, intimacy and interpersonal relationships’ connected tightly with historically important performance works by Marina Abramović and Joan Jonas, whose Luminosity (1997) and Mirror Check (1970) respectively, explored politics of the body.

While we seemed to have moved beyond that baggage with the re-presentation of these performed pieces—time altering tone—they remain palpable in their very ability to challenge and test our physical and cognitive limits. Biesenbach added, ‘In this exhibition you don’t think about an original, it’s actually more about the variation’.4

While the physical demand remained with Abramović’s performer, awkwardly balanced mid-wall on a bicycle seat in blazing nudity, 13 Rooms transferred that challenge to the viewer through silent confrontation. How long did one choose to stay in the room? It was Laura Lima’s piece Man=flesh/Woman=flesh – FLAT (1997), however, that co-joined the artist and viewer who was forced down ‘on all fours’ to view the performer squeezed within a mere 45cm cavity, a dim lamp magnifying its claustrophobic shock.

This kind of brokering of physical limits and our own endurance for disorientation, and confrontation, was most blatantly set by Allora & Calzadilla’s Revolving Door (2011), where audiences were corralled by the pummeling charge of dancers choreographed by Rafael Bonachela of the Sydney Dance Company. It subjectified and extended that spatial negotiation so eloquently stated by Clark Beaumont to the audience.

With each door came a range of emotions: the intense smell of paint and retinal burn of colour in John Baldessari’s Thirteen Colorful Inside Jobs (2013), a dialogue of barter in Roman Ondák’s Swap (2011), the unsettling movement of figures in a blackened space in Xavier Le Roy’s Untitled (2012), or the silent confrontations of Santiago Sierra’s Veterans of the Wars of Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Iraq and Vietnam Facing the Corner (2013).

While less splashy or spectacular as a performed work, Simon Fujiwara’s Future/Perfect (2012), I would argue, spoke more to the pulse of change in this medium. A figure lies within the cocoon of a tanning bed, headphones on, learning a foreign language. The transformation is both external and internal. It posed a metaphor for our own transformation as viewers, our perceptions and understanding of performed artworks altered over the course of these thirteen encounters.

While that largely described the reactions of the crowd which snaked its way around Pier 2/3, it perhaps does not accommodate a ‘knowing’ audience whose agenda was more about seeing this rare smörgåsbord of historic works. 13 Rooms, however, does not have that same sense of time as these works had in their making and moment, rather it is a bit like speed dating, moving from one room to the next. There is a contemporary drive that compels the crowd to move on, hungry for stimuli. And in that the demand has shifted. It has become mainstream. The brilliance lies in the hand of curators Obrist and Biesenbach to recognise this, employing the door as a device to slow movement and consideration, and in so doing 13 Rooms salutes, documents, and defines performance art within the popular domain.

Allora & Calzadilla, Revolving Door, 2011. Performed by Sydney Dance Company at Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms, Pier 2/3 Sydney. Photograph Gina Fairley. 

Clark Beaumont, Coexisting, 2013. Performed by the artists for Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms, Pier 2/3 Sydney. Photograph Gina Fairley. 

Joan Jonas, Mirror Check, 1970. Performed at Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms, Pier 2/3 Sydney. Photograph Gina Fairley. 

Simon Fukiwara, Future/Perfect, 2012. Performed at Kaldor Public Art Project 27: 13 Rooms, Pier 2/3 Sydney. Photograph Gina Fairley. 

notes: 

1. 13, Kaldor Public Art Project 27, ex. cat., Kaldor Public Art Projects, 2013, p.31.

2. John Kaldor, press statement, 2013.

3. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/turner-prize-2012 accessed July 2013;.

4. Klaus Biesenbach, 13, Kaldor Public Art Project 27, ex. cat., Kaldor Public Art Projects, 2013, p.5.