Performance Art Takes Center Stage at Art Basel 2014 with “14 Rooms”

Photos by author unless otherwise indicated.

In addition to the staggering 233 modern and contemporary galleries at this year’s Art Basel (June 18-21, 2014 in Basel, Switzerland), notable were the separate spaces devoted to screening films by and about artists, performance art, and works that elude the (physical or conceptual) parameters of standard gallery spaces. The fair also encouraged dialogue by hosting daily lectures, artist talks, and panels.

One such discussion, moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, focused on the topic of the artist-as-choreographer, and took place early one morning, before the crowds descended. The speakers carried dual roles as dancers, choreographers, curators, and/or artists, and as such shared novel perspectives and anecdotes: Alexandra Bachzetsis, artist and choreographer, told that she selects performers based on the specific presence she wishes to convey, opting to focus less on the choreography than the people themselves, while Xavier Le Roy, dancer and choreographer, encouraged artists to accept that their works will take on lives of their own – a pertinent issue for pieces that can be executed posthumously. Yves Laris Cohen, artist and choreographer, spoke of his desire for a captive audience, and Isabel Lewis, dancer and artist, elaborated on the rejection of objecthood in her “occasions” – the name she’s coined for her works – explaining their attempt to exist not on a particular stage or exhibition, but in a specific and unique moment in time. The common thread connecting these ideas was the complex logistical considerations of orchestrating live artworks. It was evident that these art practitioners carefully consider aspects such as presence, unpredictability, unknowable audience movement, and site-specificity. What I did not realize at the time was that such conceptual frameworks would provide a constructive base for my whirlwind tour of Art Basel, which emphasized experiencing art rather than merely looking at it.

Matias Faldbakken, 20,000 Gun Shells, 2011.
Matias Faldbakken, 20,000 Gun Shells, 2011.
Giuseppe Penone, Matrice di linfa, 2008.
Giuseppe Penone, Matrice di linfa, 2008.

During the morning’s panel, the stillness in the room was continually shattered by what sounded like the violent smashing of glass. Upon entering the fair’s “Unlimited” section, the noise revealed itself as hundreds of empty gun shells sliding across concrete. Part of Matias Faldbakken’s installation 20,000 Gun Shells, the golden casings strewn across bare floor created a cacophonic, slippery ambulatory experience for visitors who were invited to walk across them. Following the crowds to Giuseppe Penone’s piece, a split-open pine tree laid end-to-end cradling a river of fragrant sap, viewers were whisked away from the busy industrial hall into a verdant mountain landscape. With sense of scale challenged and senses engaged, the beholder was primed for the next stop at Art Basel: “14 Rooms.”

Santiago Serra, Veterans of the Wars of Eritrea, Kosovo and Togo Facing the Corner, 2014. Photo courtesy ArtBasel.
Santiago Serra, Veterans of the Wars of Eritrea, Kosovo and Togo Facing the Corner, 2014. Photo courtesy ArtBasel.

At the center of a vast, steel-grey hall was the inevitable white cube, and within it, 14 doors waiting to be opened. Among them was Santiago Serra’s Veterans of the Wars of Eritrea, Kosovo and Togo Facing the Corner (2014). Entering the space, visitors were immediately struck by the scene before them: in the corner of a brightly lit room a man wore casual, contemporary clothing, head bowed and fingers interlaced behind his back. He did not move or interact with viewers; he only silently faced the seam of the two walls. What side of the war had he been on? What had he seen? Does he suffer from PTSD? What does he think of being an object in a commercial art fair? Small but meaningful marks of his humanity, such as his wedding ring and worn sneakers, made me feel compassion for this fellow human being. Serra’s simple gesture packed a heavy punch, confronting the art-going public with its message of the human cost of war and its challenge to consider the lived experience of war veterans.

Xu Zhen, In Just a Blink of an Eye, 2005. Photo courtesy W Magazine.
Xu Zhen, In Just a Blink of an Eye, 2005. Photo courtesy W Magazine.

Moving away from this work, “14 Rooms” now had my full attention. Xu Zhen’s piece, In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005), was much lighter conceptually and visually. A performer was frozen in a position that took its cue from street performance, break dancing, and hip hop culture. The person, clad in baggy urban street wear, blinked and gazed up at the ceiling. As if trying to decipher a magic trick, visitors kneeled to get a better look and searched the performer’s face for a hint of emotion. The piece was spectacular, albeit limited in its interaction with the public.

Bruce Nauman  Re-enactments of Bruce Nauman's 1968 video Wall Floor Positions Presented at 14 Rooms in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel in 2014 MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG
Re-enactments of Bruce Nauman’s 1968 video Wall Floor Positions, 2014. Presented at “14 Rooms” in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel. Image courtesy MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG.

The next room featured a performer holding a series of strenuous physical positions. Without the aid of hidden contraptions, he meticulously executed Bruce Nauman’s choreography for Wall-Floor Positions (1968) from memory. Performed in its minimalist setting, this piece resembled an architectural drawing insofar as it created a structure by bridging horizontal and vertical planes. This drawing, however, took place in real time and featured trembling muscles, intense focus, and deliberate movements. I sat on the cold floor, riveted, and watched the white wall grow dark with the performer’s foot and palm prints until his replacement slipped silently into the room to continue his arduous task.

Otobong Nkanga Diaspore, 2014 Presented at 14 Rooms in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel in 2014 MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG.
Otobong Nkanga, Diaspore, 2014. Presented at “14 Rooms” in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel. Image courtesy MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG.

By 2 o’clock the atmosphere in Hall 3 was boisterous with lines of visitors growing and crowds vying for space in the small rooms. As their doors opened, sounds escaped from within; inside one such room, a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a soulful voice belted out African songs while balancing a plant on her head and slowly tracing a path along a topographical map on the floor. Otobong Nkanga’s piece, Diaspore (2014), engaged human voices seemingly chosen for their ability to convey pride, suffering, history, and hope. As the performers’ gaze drifted past (or through) visitors, it was as if the resounding voices aimed to reach a distant audience, literally or metaphorically.

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
Allora & Calzadilla, Revolving Door, 2011. Presented at “14 Rooms” in Basel by Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, Theater Basel. Image courtesy MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG.

Allora & Calzadilla’s Revolving Door (2011) was set within a circular space open on either side. Unaccompanied by music, a row of professional dancers marched around the room to create a kind of revolving door. Looking on from the safety of the entrance, I laughed as dancers closed in around one visitor and his expression changed from amusement to mild panic and ultimately surrender. Once in the space myself, however, I, too, dropped my solemn art-watching guise as I was chased around until I could dart out one of the exits. It was thrilling to share the stage with professional dancers, and yet unsettling to be an obstacle to the execution of their choreography. Further, the dancers did not simply move unilaterally; they changed direction, stopped, sat down, held hands, clapped, broke into two rows, wove between each other, sped up, and slowed down. To merely stand at the periphery was not to fully grasp the artwork; Revolving Door made strikingly clear that physical engagement with performance art is, in some cases, not only advisable but necessary.

As I continued to wander from door to door, the words of the speakers from that morning’s panel returned to me. Observing the performers, I understood why Alexandra Bachzetzis focuses on the individual character that each person brings to a work, intentional or not. I pondered how artists like Yves Laris Cohen might feel about producing a work for an art fair, where the pace is fast and attention span short. Witnessing how improvisation and spontaneity animate the pieces, I agreed with Xavier Le Roy’s reasons for conceding total control of one’s artwork. And, as shown by the crowds of visitors eagerly waiting to experience art being performed live at a particular place and time, Isabel Lewis’s notion of “occasions” was critical to the success of “14 Rooms.”

This year’s Art Basel drove home a broad point: undeterred by separate entrance fees, art-goers will stand in lengthy lines to participate in unique art experiences. And for good reason. Taking center stage at Art Basel, performance art was affirmed as a medium with vast potential for rich collaboration and exploration between visual art, music, dance, and the dramatic arts, all while encouraging visitors to reflect, giggle, gawk, and even shuffle awkwardly in the face of an advancing line of unsmiling dancers.

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