Olympia’s Revenge, or, What was left of the Body in the Mirror. The 14 Rooms, Art Basel 2014

Mechtild Widrich
Art Basel 2014, 02.07.2014

In Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the protagonist explores a parallel world behind the mirror. The animated objects and characters are partially from Wonderland, but—and this is important for interpreting the book—their personalities have changed. Besides Carroll’s typical examination of language and perception, the reformulation of the characters results in confusing instances of overlapping and divergence for readers familiar with the first book. Their knowledge of it is at once helpful and disturbing, a further moment of disorientation within an already distorted causal world. The suspiciously mild-tempered Red Queen is perhaps the strangest example of this shift.
  The architecture designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the 14 Rooms on display at this year’s Art Basel seems to function in a similar way: fourteen glazed doors are inserted in the modest white walls, seven on each side, granting a view to the original fair architecture up above. In the rooms behind, fourteen performance works, for the most part re-performances, are on view. We see Marina Abramović’s Luminosity of 1997, which was already shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 as a so-called “delegated performance” in the context of her retrospective The Artist is Present.

14 Rooms, Art Basel 2014Fig. 1

At the time, her decision to use young “bodies” mostly from the theater and dance scene to re-enact in shiftwork originals that often required great stamina caused a lot of largely negative murmuring in the media. Where is the authenticity of the performance, if the Promethean suffering body of the artist is missing? What does it mean to delegate a public self-experience? And which role does the context of such re-performances—radically inflated from small galleries or private spaces to major art institutions—play in the belated and renewed reception?
  Abramović has been an uncontested pioneer and controversial protagonist of so-called re-performances, the re-enactment or restaging of actions of the 1960s and 70s, since she presented Seven Easy Pieces—classics such as VALIE EXPORT’s Aktionshose: Genitalpanik, Vito Acconci’s masturbation piece Seedbed or Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure—on a pedestal cordoned off with tape in the atrium of New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2005. The Seven Easy Pieces vacillated between manifest claims of authentically saving mythical pieces from anonymous misuse in advertisement and music videos and the all but opposite effect, namely, the discreet monumentalization of these works already canonized by art history (often concurrently: the MoMA, for example, acquired a video copy of the super 8 film of Seedbed in 2007). At any rate Abramović brought crucial questions regarding the genre to the fore. As disappointing as the newest repetition of Luminosity might appear in the small, overcrowded room, touching only through the tangible strain of the naked woman on an uncomfortable bicycle seat mounted to the wall before the numerous art-fair visitors, the work is paradigmatic for the state of performance in the year 2014: roles are being swapped and the body no longer vouches for any kind of authenticity.
  The press release (and the majority of the press) sees it differently: performance has finally made its entrance at Art Basel too. Some theorists might reply that it has thus reached its endpoint, just like the 15th and 16th parts of the 14 Rooms titled Archive and Epilogue, are dedicated to death and dehumanization. John Baldessari’s records of the correspondence and notes on the idea of exhibiting a dead body, proposed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970 but not realized, are captivating due to the reliable combination of stringent conception and sensitivity, while Jordan Wolfson’s Epilogue (Female Figure, 2014) is the most spectacular and clamorous work on display. Two (and when overbooked up to four) persons at a time are guided into a room with a doll attached to a mirrored wall through a metal bar in the center of its body. Blond, busty, erotically dressed and soiled, with an eerie carnival mask and a droning voice, it begins dancing and talking, seeking to establish eye contact with the visitors mostly through the mirror (allegedly controlled by an assistant behind the mirror).

14 Rooms, Art Basel 2014Fig. 2

As sensational as the work may be, the disconcerting effect derives less from the doll than from the dynamics of the fifteen minutes that it curates, during which for the most part strangers encounter each other in the room. The doll quite literally mirrors our own inhibitions, and the alternating feelings of  fascination and disgust evoked by the platitudinous eroticism; above all, the play that captivates our gaze symbolizes the chances and frustration of the claims of live art: the questionable position of the viewer as an agent on an equal footing with the performer, proclaimed since Allan Kaprow’s happenings; the transgressive quality of direct instead of represented nudity; the general political dimension of employing the body as material; and not least the alleged unrepeatability and thus commercial worthlessness of ephemeral art. With Wolfson’s work, all these claims appear in reverse: it is Olympia’s revenge on our desire not simply for true experience in the avant-garde experience of art, but also, quite cunningly, on our desire to consume our own voyeuristic satisfaction and our interest in the pornographic without a bad conscience—in the name of art.
  But we might have to change our paradigms if we want to give the genre a chance: 14 Rooms, which like so many spectacular performance projects in recent years was conceived in the frame of the Manchester International Festival (2011 under the title 11 Rooms), is a slightly altered and expanded cooperation project with the Theater Basel and the Fondation Beyeler (curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach). The three new works (Ed Atkins, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Otobong Nkanga) were indeed substantial but not very illuminating, since the debate on live art and its documentation and repetition that has flared up in the past years was only integrated in a very subtle manner. Works that openly confronted this problem were therefore more path-breaking. Bruce Nauman’s as always clearly conceived work, based on the video performance Wall Floor Positions (1968/2014), directly addressed the question of presence and media conveyance: performers attempted to re-enact from memory the body positions shown in the video.

14 Rooms, Art Basel 2014   Fig. 3

As an exploration of the relationship between presence, past and expectation, and thus memory, history and the present, the piece pointed to the radical dependency of perception on previous experience and showed in an effective and unpretentious manner that the process of change affecting a work after each performance through its reception is an essential component. Yoko Ono’s Touch Piece (1963/2014) also works, maybe because of its simplicity. It is basically a dark room in which people walking about bump into each other, meet one another, or startle and retreat. Since the context (in this case the fair) is what creates the work in the first place, it changes as our ways of handling bodily contact also changes. In contrast, Joan Jonas’ Mirror Check (1970/2014), a slow examination of one’s own body in a mirror, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste through the shift to delegated bodies. Allora and Calzadilla’s Revolving Door (2011/2014) explores in a playful and convincing way the objections of Amelia Jones and others in the past years concerning the authoritarian demeanor of performance artists.

14 Rooms, Art Basel 2014   Fig. 4

The piece links architecture and the phenomenological exploration of space with questions related to active and passive cooperation, without messianic undertones. Equally convincing are Roman Ondák’s good-natured barter exchanges (SWAP, 2011/2014), Tino Sehgal’s delegation of sketch-like re-performances to his gallerists, which won an award in Basel in 2004 (This is Competition, 2004/2014), and Santiago Sierra’s simple placement of war veterans facing the wall in one corner of the room (Veterans of the Wars of Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Iraq and Vietnam facing the Corner, 2013/14). Sierra raises disturbing questions that have nothing to do with war guilt: The same piece was displayed in 2011 in Manchester (11 Rooms), 2012 in Essen (12 Rooms) and 2013 in Sydney (13 Rooms). How does this tour of the international art circuit get along with the supposed seriousness of the message? It is obvious that in the year 2014 we do not expect an “unrepeatable” performance any longer—but whether this aggressive repetition must be understood as a conceptual statement in the sense of a history of violent conflicts with exchangeable bodies that repeats itself eternally, or whether it turns into a successful guest appearance in the manner of opera remains, as so often in Sierra’s disturbing oeuvre, open, reminding one of the Red Queen, whose friendliness in Carroll’s sequel never quite makes sense to us.
  Back to the hall of mirrors, to which the visitors return after leaving each room: what remains interesting here is less the notion of self-cognition than that of the impossibility of being able to replace one’s own image with the image of an other. In its distortions of reality, the evident divides that emerge quite rapidly between seeing, knowing and sensing, and the resulting destabilization of our categories of thought—be it those of performance or simply of the conditions of “real” experience—the 14 Rooms, even if the concept is not above criticism, point far beyond performance itself. In the end, they reveal a longing of an art world (and of the society to which it belongs), despite its awareness that only very little can be found apart from media-based pseudo-experiences with perfect capitalist exploitability, to grant art the possibility of being a place to dream, and hope, especially amidst the roar of the art fair. Or, as Baldessari says of his “possibly impossible project”: “The subject is not the cadaver. The subject is rather the issue of breaking and mending aesthetic distance.”

14 Rooms
14th of June 2014 - 22nd of June 2014, at the Art Basel 2014,
Fair Basel, Hall 3

Fig. 1
Marina Abramović
Luminosity, 1997/2014,
11 Rooms Manchester International Festival
Photo credit courtesy Manchester City Galleries

Fig. 2
Jordan Wolfson
Female Figure, 2014
Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London

Fig. 3
Bruce Nauman
Re-enactments of Wall Floor Positions, 1968 (video)/2014,
Presented at 14 Rooms in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel in 2014
MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG

Fig. 4
Allora & Calzadilla
Revolving Door, 2011
Presented at 14 Rooms in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel in 2014
MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG

Mechtild Widrich is assistant professor with tenure track for Contemporary Art History at the School of the Art Institute Chicago and 2013-14 Research Fellow at Eikones/University of Basel. Her book "Performative Monuments" has been published by Manchester University Press in 2014.

Translated by Karl Hoffmann