Imagine a large empty factory hall in the middle of which you have a square room with doors into 14 smaller rooms…
You are of course curious about just what is happening behind these doors and there is a brochure explaining it in details. But still – you have to get in, be there…experience the mysteries that a closed door always evokes (and not the least when there is a guard who let’s you in one-by-one after having been waiting in a queue for some time).
“14 Rooms” has been created by Foundation Beyeler, Art Basel and Theater Basel, three very prominent cultural institutions in Basel and it is curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist. It is situated close to the main Art Basel Fair but independent of it and the one-day entrance ticket is CHF 18. 14 Rooms is about performance art.
Here are some examples of what you actually experience:
In Yoko Ono’s room you see nothing. The installation, or whatever you want to call it, is pitch dark and called “Touch Piece” which she created for the first time in 1963 and now here. You walk in a see nothing – also not when your eyes have adapted. In the brochure you are encouraged to touch whoever you bump into there and thereby challenge your sense of intimacy and privacy, as it’s expressed. The touches I experience were very avoiding – a little laughter perhaps, an “Oh, sorry” and no attempt to really touch, rather a confusing about meeting some stranger there in the dark and avoiding a touch.
As I had been in there a couple of minutes and carefully set one foot in front of the other I sensed not another human being but a wall. I followed it around to the entrance point and think that by then I was alone there.
I honestly can’t tell you what I felt or thought. It was merely a little fun, a little tickling and I liked to hear people’s laughter or nervous “Sorry” – remember, we are in Switzerland and everything is uptight even in an experimental setting like this. Perhaps there is something outdated in 2014 about an idea from 1963 and that at that time it was revolutionary and lead to more than avoidance? (No photo possible).
Otobong Nkanga’s “Diaspora” (2014) was more lively: two black women carry a Queen in the Night plant in a pot on their heads and sing, speak to the plant and, sometimes perhaps, to each other and the visitors. Much of the text is about loneliness and feeling to be outside , being picked at. And the floor is painted as a topographical map. (Photo possible – as all other visitors did it against the rules).
Laura Lima’ room – an idea from 1997 – is only 45 centimenters high. Far back in the room a disabled person lies on his/her stomach near to a single lamp. You have to get down on your knees or lie down to see this room. (No photo).
Joan Jones’ room is called “Mirror Check” and was originally created in 1970. A naked woman inspect her own body with a round handheld mirror from the top of her head to the underside of her feet. First one woman does it – slowmotion – and then another does exactly the same. (No photos allowed).
Santiago Sierra’s “Veterans of the wars in Eritrea, Kosovo and Togo facing the corner” (2014) intends to get us to think about war and how society treats its veterans upon return.
This is all that happens in the room.
While it is certainly important to think of that issue, I silently wonder whether this silent, motionless performance – or non-performance – makes me think of that?
Perhaps I instead concentrated on some other visitor’s reaction or picture-taking, perhaps I wondered why he had red sneakers, perhaps I was just thinking of 14 Rooms as some kind of entertainment going in and out of rooms with more or less secret things happening? I really don’t know. (As you can see, photo taken).
I won’t give you all the rooms – just the flavour. Xu Zhen’s room was called “In Just A Blink of An Eye” (2005). And here is one of these text that I have come to really dislike over the years which are a lot of words with no meaning excerpt for elites who think they understand:
“A person floats mysteriously in mid-air, froen in time and space as if defying the constraints of physics. The work engages with the notions of the body as material and the materiality of the body, testing the limits of physical and cognitive possibilities as we try to comprehend what we see.” You got it?
OK, what do you see when you enter?
You see a young woman, feet on the ground, leaning so much backward about 40 centimeters over the floor and not touching it that you ask: Mmmm, how has this been done? Then you discover that the clothes on her arms and legs are surprisingly thick and that she is resting emotionless on some kind of frame supporting her body from underneath.
There is absolutely no floating and I would dispute that it has anything to do with physics or the “materiality of the body”, or whatever philosophical. Here is a photo from the internet, not mine:
I know what you think: He doesn’t get it. It great art but he just doesn’t!
That’s OK. I don’t pretend to be an expert or connoisseur. In all these rooms I felt an absence of life, of humanity, playfulness and experimenting. Things happened in slowmotion – or the performers didn’t move at all, frozen. It was performance – indeed fine – but not life itself I met in these rooms. It was anything but wild…rather it was repetitive, monotonous – slightly on the side of lifelessness.
I’m glad I saw it – also because “14 Rooms” have had quite understanding, if not enthusiastic, reviews. And I gladly admit that it is not an art form that appeals to me.
On my way out of the factory hall, into the sunny Sunday, I am struck by what to me is a paradox: how the mentioned life- and motionlessness goes through everything in spie of being performed by living human beings – while there is much more life in the paintings and sculptures of both Art Basel and SCOPE.
In this sense of course the curators are right in calling it an anti-dote to Art Basel as such. I am also all in favour of developing some new elements every year and, thus, keep Art Basel fresh, surprising and pointing to the future.
But, frankly, I am not sure this is it.
PS 1 – There was also an informal performance art attempt on the opening day. A female performance artist in the nude trying to buy a ticket and get in. Somehow that was more lively and provocative than the above. But – we are in Switzerland: Milo Moiré as her name is was told to get dressed. She did. And got in. I wonder whether she had H. C. Andersen on her mind – at least she calls it “Art fairs – a Script, dominated by bills.” Which is certainly true.
PS 2 – Just a couple of days after Art Basel, Huffington Post carried this article about performance arts.