Exhibition in Sydney 11-21 April 2013
13 Rooms is an exhibition, “a magic formula of iconic artists who have pioneered the field of performance art” according to the brochure. I headed to Sydney ready to be inspired and amazed by being present at an exhibition of what is one of my favourite forms – performance art.
My first response was a low groan. Entering the space I could’ve been forgiven for expecting to receive an allen-key on entry. There was something oddly ‘Ikea-esk’ about the exhibition. A rustic warehouse on the pier full of evenly sized and well-placed white boxes with silver handled doors just like an Ikea furniture showroom. Open the door, enter the room and view a piece of ‘performance art’. Whilst being dismayed at the somewhat banal mise-en-scene before me, like a well-behaved spectator I opened various doors, entered identical rooms and saw what was on show. Much of the art inside the rooms to me was everyday and kind of bland. Some moments were ‘interesting’ (a term I loathe when describing art) and at times bordering on engaging. Clearly this wasn’t performance art. It was I guess as the curator Klaus Biesenbach said a ‘sculpture gallery’ where one views ‘living sculptures’. The directive was that the works were to be performed by someone other than the original artist, an unusual course for performance art works to take. I reflected on my own thoughts about performance art and its history of attempting to challenge and break boundaries, its history of being cutting edge. There was nothing edgy here.
Performers re-performing works of performance artists such as Marina Abramovic is full of questions and contradictions, given that performance art is known for exploring the ephemeral nature of live art moments. Abramovic however has made this act of re-presenting performance art part of the contemporary art culture. Initially through her Seven Easy Pieces at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where classic works by the likes of Vito Acconci and Gina Pane were reproduced in 2005.
I spoke with one of the women re-performing Abramovic’s work Luminosity and was interested in what the context was for the performers. Each performer did a 30-minute ‘shift’ per day of the show they were working on. When the ‘change of shift’ happened we spectators were bustled out of the space whilst performers changed over. This blows a hole in the foot of durational work surely? Considering Abramovic’s original work went for about 7 hours. I wondered how such work was a true rendition of the original, and what as a viewer I missing out on. Without the capacity to engage in the endurance aspect of Abramovic’s work, which is so much at the heart of her own rhetoric, I felt a bit robbed. From the point of view of the performer, surely they weren’t experiencing the different stages of the marathon performance of the original 7 hour work. From the point of view of the audience our desire to engage in a work as an ‘endurance spectator’ was removed. The performer I spoke with expressed that she felt a lack of engagement with the work as she wasn’t its creator. As a trained dancer she felt that she was enacting some extreme choreography. I enjoyed my 30 minutes being a spectator of a woman recreating Abramovic’s work, but as an artist who has engaged in durational performances I had a lot more ‘spectating’ left in me than I was permitted to give. I would have relished a few hours in the room to really feel and meditate on the work.
The question of Australian performance artists also lingered in my mind, due their notable absence. If an exhibition of performance art is to occur in Australia, should three of our most internationally renowned artists of the form be excluded? The likes of Mike Parr, Stelarc and Jill Orr were nowhere in sight. All three were producing cutting edge performance art works both here and in Europe when Abramovic was during the 70’s and beyond – so where were they? I noticed that Kaldor used them to market the exhibition on the program Artscape aired on the ABC, yet excluded them from the exhibition. The only locals were two young artists collectively named Clarke Beaumont who get 10 points for being in their own work for the full duration of the exhibition. Unfortunately though sitting on a plinth in a very ‘everyday’ manner in the middle of the white room didn’t really rock my socks.
What stands out with 13 Rooms is that the art world is ready to commodify performance art. I guess the easiest way to do this is to turn the original works into saleable live sculptures as the curators suggest. But is this in the spirit of performance art? Many scholars would argue not I am sure, and for my part I see it as a slight lack of imagination on behalf of the curators. Perhaps creating exhibitions with current performance artists on display would be more risky. Perhaps the general public and their kids wouldn’t come. But must the space be converted into an Ikea furniture showroom? And must the entire exhibition have an overarching feeling of politeness? Nudity alone is not really challenging when propped on a wall, and the audience interaction I witnessed or was part of just felt repressive and boring. Writing this last paragraph just filled me with a profound sense of how truly pedestrian the event was. I guess marketing and money is key for the Kaldor crew and if they want the school holiday brigade to come to these things, then pedestrian they must be. Or must they?