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Review: 13 Rooms, Kaldor Public Art Projects

Tess Maunder  |  in Sydney, 25 April 2013

13 Rooms marks the 27th program Australia's Kaldor Public Art Projects has produced. It's fitting for Kaldor and international curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biensenbach to collaborate, as each figure is identified by their longstanding attention to large-scale projects, working with international artists. 

Intimate space, architecture and experience defines 13 Rooms at Sydney’s Pier 2/3. The exhibition features works by Marina Abramović, John Baldessari, Joan Jonas, Damien Hirst, Tino Sehgal, collaborative duo Allora and Calzadilla, Simon Fujiwara, Xavier Le Roy, Laura Lima, Roman Ondák, Santiago Sierra, and Xu Zhen. The Australian collaborative duo Clark Beaumont were chosen for the thirteenth room.

The most poignant affect this exhibition has upon curatorial discourse is the difference that the curators place between live art and performance art. The curators describe the work in the exhibition as live art, not performance art – perhaps due to the work not always displaying typically ‘performative’ elements. The decision to present the work under the term ‘live art’ enables the audience to understand that work seen in this exhibition is not just a passive viewer experience, but on the contrary requires their own active participation. The live art context relies heavily upon audience interaction in a way that other artforms don't, as it is time-based, relational and evolves subjectively, with the audience’s own contribution and involvement. This terminology shift is further re-enforced by Hans Ulrich Obrist in the catalogue: “The viewers are not simply passive bystanders in each of these works but are directed to take an active role in their approach to performance.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist says “There was a conscious effort on our part to push against the constricting space and timeframe of the traditional exhibition signifying the importance for both intimate audience engagement and a slowing down of the traditional art experience.”

The title 13 Rooms, not 13artists or 13 performances, further emphasises that the experience is not purely about the performative, but instead the relational. These social encounters extend from traditionally voyeuristic behaviour to become a re-active process of cross-examination between the audience and the artwork. The architectural choices implemented at 13 Rooms significantly alter the context in which the public received the work. Each artist’s work is enclosed within it’s own white cube, taking on an exhibition-design typical of biennales and other large-scale exhibitions. However, it is the addition of doors to each space, which distinguishes 13 Rooms from other large-scale exhibitions. The doors decelerate the viewing experience through enclosing audiences within the space for a longer period of time. This architectural choice exemplifies what the curators describe as ‘moments of encounter’; similar the experience one might have when entering a lift with strangers.

Through the addition of doors inclosing each space, the exhibition architecture becomes associated with the domestic, which further drives the level of intimacy experienced with the work. Hans Ulrich Obrist says “There was a conscious effort on our part to push against the constricting space and timeframe of the traditional exhibition signifying the importance for both intimate audience engagement and a slowing down of the traditional art experience.” The constructed situations produced by artists enable the audience to be part of work that is intimate from human to human.

Moving away from connotations with the performative, 13 Rooms raises the question of what quasi-object, time-based and live artwork looks like on an international scale, now. However, the exhibition’s weakness is that it does not engage with any notions of locality, in terms of site, city or even country. It is Han Ulrich Obrist’s first time to curate an exhibition in Australia, and one of Klaus Biesenbach’s few projects in the country, so it would have made a significant impact to hear the curator’s views on the Australian context. Clearly the inclusion of Australian duo Clark Beaumont is positive, but curators need to feel more of a responsibility to engage with a local context especially with large touring exhibitions like 13 Rooms.  These curatorial choices are especially crucial when organising large-scale touring exhibitions to various locations around the world such as the 13 Rooms model. [O]

Based in Brisbane, Tess Maunder is co-director of The Maximillian, an international platform for critical writing.

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