On Thursday I went to the first publicly open day of this exhibition – see lots of information and videos at http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/. It’s described as “performance art” and before going I didn’t understand that in almost all cases the artists have trained or sent training instructions for the work to be presented / interpreted by re-performers. There’s a video of one of the curators in which he describes it as “living sculpture”, which at first I found helpful but later made me very uncomfortable about the objectification of the people we stared at. If I think of it as theatre it suddenly switches to “acceptable”. Clearly I’m still sorting through impressions, and I’m in no particular hurry to find any kind of resolution. In this post I just want a brief record of some of what I saw.
The exhibition is at Pier 2/3 – a wharf built in the early 1900s and in the short term operated as a cultural facility while redevelopment (still arts / creative purposes) is considered. Rather annoyingly I didn’t take a photo of the overall setup. The first photo is Air and Inner by Honore d’O, part of last year’s Biennale (see my post 8-Sept-2013), to give just a hint of the interior space.
As you can see, people crouched or lay on the floor to peer inside (there was an angled mirror on a pole for anyone who couldn’t).
Years ago I started a degree in Social Work and had a work placement at a rehabilitation centre. As an experiment a small group of us went to a local shopping centre and took turns being pushed around shops in a wheelchair. Around half the time, if the person in the wheelchair asked a question the sales assistant would direct their response to the one pushing the chair. Is Lima’s work in some way about seeing the person in front of us, about the constraints we put on someone with a disability, about experiencing a limitation in our own movement…?
Above are two photographs of Damien Hirst’s work Hans, Georg (1992). This was the first room you come to after entering the exhibition space, and I think it must be a deliberate choice to start people with something so engaging and non-confrontational. All the twins were chatty, open and friendly. Each pair had been given a clothing allowance plus a choice of reading material. The boys here, musicians in their “real” lives, had chosen Moby Dick (both were on page 45 at the time, although they got a bit confused when during the conversation they wanted to check if they were on the same line). The two girls had gone to different schools, were studying different subjects at different universities. The dots of colour at the back are the same colours, but arranged differently. It seems to be a simple comment about not judging too quickly or making assumptions on the basis of appearances. I’m trying not to get too side-tracked from my main line of study for OCA, so haven’t researched further so far.
On the left above is In Just a Blink of an Eye by Xu Zhen (2005). On the right is Coexisting by Clark Beaumont (Nicole Beaumont and Sarah Clark) (2013). These are two of the real physical endurance performances, together with Marina Abramović’s Luminosity (1997).
Clark and Beaumont are the two artists actually performing their own work. They occupy a plinth together – eight hours a day for the eleven days of the exhibition. They were frequently communicating with each other as they shifted around to relieve pressure on their bodies, sometimes twined around each other, at one point a rather perilous sequence for one to stand up on the plinth. The work was about the process of their collaboration and negotiation – but it was their collaboration, their experience. I was an on-looker, and the intensity of their relationship heightened the feeling of exclusion. This could be part of their intent, but that wasn’t my impression.
No photography was permitted in Abramović’s room. The performance was a naked woman, sitting on a bicycle seat that was mounted a couple of metres up on the wall, lit by two strong spotlights. There were some posts protruding from the wall on which the re-performer could partially support her feet and arms if she wished. For much of the time I watched the performer’s body formed an X, her unsupported arms held up, her heels just touching the supports. For periods she would look straight ahead. Then she would look directly into the eyes of a viewer for minutes at a time. There was no expression, no acknowledgement. Was she even paying attention to me, other than just as a predetermined place on which to focus? It was interesting to watch the other viewers, all standing intensely focused but uncommunicative. I have read about Abramović before, on the OCA blog (http://www.weareoca.com/fine_art/the-artist-is-present/ posted 19 March 2013 – read the comments too, some interesting discussion and information).
There is a series of videos about the exhibition, and in one – http://vimeo.com/63799220 two of the re-performers who are presenting Luminosity speak. One, Kathryn, talks about “sharing the experience with the audience” and being “open and engaging”. The second, Nadia, has the view that while the work is about light, she will have to do a lot of work on grounding and sees herself testing her limits. Nadia quotes Abramović – “art is like a war and you have to conquer yourself” – and that is more what I felt from the work. I did not feel engaged or sharing. I felt I was watching a woman focused on her chosen task of pushing her body and mind further than she had gone, determined to conquer this personal everest. I had the image of an ascetic nun, pushing herself through self-discipline and mortification of the flesh to find enlightenment – an image strengthened by a body position so crucifixion-like.
Since visiting the exhibition the thing I’ve been puzzling over most, the thing I find strange about many of the works is the relationship between the artist and the viewer. In some works the viewer became an active participant – conversing, swapping, perhaps by meeting a gaze. In Marina Abramović’s work in particular a communication may be intended – but the artist herself isn’t there, isn’t listening, and the re-performer didn’t seem to really see me. If the idea is to pay attention it’s odd to be absent. I suppose the answer could be in my assumptions. In most artforms something is created and presented, the viewer or listener perceives or interprets, often at a different time and place – there is no feedback loop. I thought performance art was more intimate – but why, given it is a “performance”?
There were other works, but I’ll finish with one where I did experience a connection, where I felt like a person and not an audience. This was Xavier Le Roy’s Untitled (2012). Again no photo, but this time because in a sense there was very little to see. The door was fixed partly open. The room was unlit. Walking in I was aware of the carpet underfoot, just a sense of the sound of movement, other visitors standing and looking into the darkness on the other side of the room. As my eyes adjusted I began to see a something, a form moving on the ground. There was a woman sitting near a wall, occasionally warning people that they were close to something, and I sat in the dark beside her. We sat in the darkness watching, sometimes chatting quietly. The world slowed down. I could see, or almost see, two bodies wrapped around each other, slowly rolling and moving around on the floor. A toddler ran up and patted the shape. A group of young school children came in for a while. The woman asked what they thought it was – “an elephant” one said. We chatted about the work – the woman was a friend of Xavier Le Roy, was one of the performers but acting then as their watcher. She didn’t want to answer directly my question about the meaning of the work, but drew me out, helped me to explore my own reaction. It was a warm, peaceful, engaged experience. I’m sure it was physically demanding on the performers, but that seemed to be more something they accepted as necessary to achieve their objectives rather than the whole point of the thing. There’s a photo at http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/xavier-le-roy, but it looks quite artificial, which feels odd since this work was the one that felt to me most genuine.
The exhibition closes 21 April, so if you’re in Sydney you’d better hurry up.
13 rooms, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach: http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/
Pier 2/3: http://www.arts.nsw.gov.au/index.php/creative-spaces/arts-properties/pier-23/