13 Rooms – Skin in the Game


Recreation of the 1977 piece by John Baldessari, Thirteen Colorful Inside Jobs

by Robyn Ferrell

Big names illuminated the eponymous thirteen rooms of the Kaldor Public Art exhibition, 13 Rooms in Sydney, Australia.

Like the previous iterations of the format, 11 Rooms in Manchester and 12 Rooms in Essen, work of Marina Abramovic, Joan Jonas, Richard Serra, Damien Hirst, John Baldessari and others was replayed in a circuit of domestic-scale ‘rooms’, designed for the space at Sydney’s pier 2/3 by Harry Seidler & Associates Architects.

The concept, as outlined by curators no less famous – Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery and Klaus Biesenbach of MOMA  – was a gallery in which ‘all the sculptures go home at night’. Such conceptual curation might open Sol LeWitt’s prediction of an ‘idea that becomes a machine that makes the art’ to an infinitely expanding marketing opportunity.

 Hans, Georg, Damien Hirst, 1992. Performers Curtis and Jeffrey Argent

Some classics re-emerged. Baldessari re-interpreted his 1977 video event of ‘Six Colourful Inside Jobs’ that paid homage to a legendary art origin in Sol Le Witt’s work by paying painters to repaint the room continuously in a changing palette of colours. In the Abramovic room, her 1997 classic performance ‘Luminosity’, of a nude woman poised on a bicycle seat, was restaged using a roster of paid performers. Joan Jonas’ famous ‘Mirror Check’ (1970), in which the artist, nude, examined her own body with a small mirror, was re-played also using paid performers.

Performance art began its trajectory through capital-‘A’ Art as transgressive. It started as a critique of the scripted world of the theatre and performing arts. It linked to traditions of the absurd and conceptual art, resisting commodification in art. It lent itself to the political, exploiting its transient character to evade authoritarian repression in communist Eastern Europe. And it played a part in the feminist politics of the 1970s and the queer politics of 1980s by performing ideas of body, gender and sexuality.

Future/Perfect, Simon Fujiwara

Somewhere along the way, perhaps through the sheer duration of its practitioners, it became the stuff of contemporary art legend. 13 Roomsdisplayed this trajectory in a way that raised a whole new set of questions.

Abramovic’s ‘room’, for example, could not have been further from the extremity of her work in the 1970s-1990s, in which time and time again she staked her own body (and sometimes her life) in the artistic performance. Stabbing with knives, ingesting powerful drugs, performing in fire, walking half the length of the Great Wall of China – in all these, the risk of performance was assumed by the artist’s body, to explore states of consciousness and of endurance.

Even quieter, more recent, work like ‘The Artist Is Present’ (2010) essentially involved Abramovic’s own body. She also staked her celebrity in that show, albeit at the risk mainly of tedium (the performance took 736 hours). As when she performed other people’s performances in ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ (2005), the effect was remarkably different to her latest ‘room’ because her celebrity appropriated the earlier performances into her own oeuvre . To achieve the same effect here, imagine that Abramovic would deputise the bicycle seat performance to Tracey Moffatt, trading off against a whole later chapter in contemporary art.

In Just a Blink of an Eye, Xu Zhen

Meaning leached from Joan Jonas’ work in a different way in its iteration in 13 Rooms. The mirror, when first used in her work, was a fresh metaphor for feminine narcissism and for psychological identity.

The self-examination was ‘mirrored’ in, for example, Luce Irigaray’s influential Speculum of the Other Woman. Its effect was to underline how feminine identity was primarily constructed for a male gaze, and, played out in the self-scrutiny of the make-up mirror, how woman/artist/subject prepared a performance of herself for ‘the other’.

Today, the gendered nature of the gaze has been diluted by consumer cultures that render every body, male or female, as a produced object in search of ‘the look’. To delegate the scrutiny of the artist’s naked body to a slim, young female paid performer risks rendering asinine the anxiety that was invested in the earlier performance.  The piece no longer says anything about gender and the body except to say that the critical moment has come and gone. To re-imagine this performance in respect of contemporary values, the mirror would likely be held by an obese woman or one in a fifty-something body.

Not all performance art relies on the presence of the artist’s own body; ‘instructional art’ famously anticipates performances that may never even eventuate. But in these two re-stagings – Abramovic’s and Jonas’ – the new performance robs the previous one of its radical act in a way that other restagings in 13 Rooms, such as the Baldessari piece, do not.

While the Baldessari iteration, ‘Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs’, may have been only slightly more invigorating than the proverbial watching paint dry, its performance by young Sydneysiders in 2013 didn’t vitiate the original, but added a layer to its conceptual history. In the case of the women artists, their work and their celebrity was born from other art histories. Re-performing these famous pieces in 13 Rooms confirms their place in the pantheon, but papers over what put them there.

Queues were enthusiastic for the Sydney event

The Museum of Contemporary Art opened its own show of performance art in the week following 13 Rooms. Curator Liz Ann Macgregor commented that there had been something of a revival – “if you’d asked me ten years ago if a museum like the MCA would be programming performance, I’d have said ‘oh, it’s not really where it at’ …”

Perhaps what dated was the political edge that Abramovic, Jonas and others brought to it, adopting their own poses nude and with conviction. Even Gilbert & George’s ‘singing sculpture’ performances complete with gilded faces are 40 years old (Kaldor brought them to Australia in 1973). Now the silver-faced ‘living sculptures’ play for loose change further down Circular Quay. Now it’s bad art, echoing the boomerangs and dot paintings made by backpackers and laid out for sale along the railings.

For years, it seemed performance art and other conceptual art like installation evaded commodification, and even stood against it. But 13 Rooms demonstrates that this, too, is passé. Jason Farago has recently argued: “today we have no expectation, when we go to an art gallery, of some pure aesthetic experience beyond the real world of economic flows, mass media or even geopolitics. Now art is simply a constituent component of one giant image stream…”

The promotional material promises that 13 Rooms is ‘a new way of understanding art’, inviting us to ‘open the doors, enter into the rooms and experience a totally new way of encountering art’. Is this just bad marketing copy or do they mean it? Maybe it exposes us (and high time?) to the purist cynicism about the value of art, and the market. We are sold second-hand and used performance as antique and collectable.

As a performance of the production of value in end-stage capitalism, it is a tour de force. The staging of 13 Rooms is temporary – not as a circus, more as a ‘better homes’ exhibition, or a sales expo with café, social media and merchandise for sale. It’s contemporary art as franchise. Perhaps it’s repellent in its superficiality. But it’s true to its time and perhaps to its public, who today are marked not as cognoscenti but as consumers.

13 Rooms is above all an idea about commodity, using the public’s desire-anxiety to be up close to contemporary art as glamorised in museums that are kin now to Disneyworld and Stately Homes. The curators are unabashed about this: Beisenbach comments that an exhibition that is ‘just instructions… in today’s market-driven economy is very important’.

The ploy of ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ selling itself as pure commodity worked like a charm. The queues to get into 13 Rooms on a sunny Sunday afternoon stretched down the Quay, begging the question: What have you got when you take the skin out of the game?

Photographs courtesy of the author.

About the Author:

Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy and Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. Her most recent book is Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context.