Apr 19 2013

In Sydney, Sculptures Breathe

by Michael Young

SIMON FUJIWARAFuture/Perfect, 2012.

Curators Hans Ulrich Obrist of London’s Serpentine Gallery and Klaus Biesenbach of New York’s Museum of Modern Art brought “11 Rooms” to the Manchester International Festival in 2011, “12 Rooms” to Essen the following year, and now come another year, another room. Last week, as part of the 27th Kaldor Public Art Project, “13 Rooms” opened at Sydney’s historic Pier 2/3.

Installed in 13 specially created rooms, and recruiting over 100 performers, the show includes works by Marina Abramovic, Allora & Calzadilla, John Baldessari, Simon Fujiwara, Damien Hirst, Joan Jonas, Xavier Le Roy, Laura Lima, Roman Ondák, Tino Sehgal, Santiago Sierra, Xu Zhen and local Australian duo, Clark Beaumont. The cast of acclaimed international artists creates what the curators are calling “living sculptures.” 

Director of the Kaldor Public Art Projects John Kaldor said at the opening, “Living sculpture . . . amounts to a new way of looking at art.” His memory, however, proves short. As early as 1973, Kaldor himself brought the concept to the city with the artists Gilbert & George, the eponymous, spray-painted duo who stood for hours on a table in the Art Gallery of New South Wales while singing to the depression-era music hall song, “Underneath the Arches.” But everything that is old is new again, and art is no exception. Living sculpture seems to be enjoying a renaissance in Sydney.

In the 13 rooms, some works are profoundly moving, some participatory, some hilarious and others eye-popping displays of endurance. Here is a tour of the show . . .

Obrist and Biesenbach are indeed their own double act, Obrist self-deprecatingly calling the team Ping and Pong. With their antics, one could be forgiven for thinking that they were one of the performances.

Obrist (left) and Biesenbach (right) at the media launch of “13 Rooms” at Sydney’s Walsh Bay. 

The most disturbing piece in the show is Santiago Sierra’s Veterans of the Wars of Afghanistan, Timor Leste, Iraq and Vietnam Facing the Corner (2013), in which individual veterans of these wars stand with their backs to the audience, as if transfixed by the glaring white space.

While Sierra’s work leaves the viewer staring at the futility of war, Roman Ondák’s, Swap (2011) provides comic relief. Here, visitors barter with a chatty and charismatic performer with whatever objects they happen to have in their pockets. Pens are swapped for packets of mints, cheap necklaces for cards blessed by Buddhist monks.

Clark Beaumont, the Brisbane-based duo plucked from obscurity, are the only Australian artists in the show. In Coexisting (2013) the young women perch for eight hours every day on a small plinth barely large enough for one. Unfortunately, the work falls flat, as their constant personal interchange lacks any emotional engagement or sense of endurance. Fresh out of art school and found via YouTube by the co-curator’s assistant, the artists seem like ducklings learning to swim among a pool of Olympians. One wonders if they can survive further iterations of this project. 

International artists were not present in Sydney, except for French choreographer Xavier Le Roy, who spoke enthusiastically about his room, Untitled (2012). Le Roy’s work is often funny and always entertaining, but here is exhibited in a space so dark that one’s eyes can hardly distinguish what is being silently played out. Are those two bald men embracing on the floor or two bald women one of whom perhaps is, or is not, wearing a fat suit? Maybe this was Le Roy’s private joke.

The breathtaking beauty of Abramovic’s Luminosity (1997) placed the work head and shoulders above anything else here. The nude woman who balances against a wall, appearing like a pinned, displayed butterfly, demonstrates how art—whether described as performance, installation or, as here, “living sculpture”—must strive to achieve a level of excellence and intensity if it is to be more than mere entertainment. 

At times “13 Rooms” does indeed come perilously close to being mere entertainment, with each room more spectacular then the next—think Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005) or Revolving Door (2011) by Allora & Calzadilla, which will undoubtedly be the hit of the show.

Ping and Pong, meanwhile, share no such concerns. “Think of ‘13 Rooms’ as a classical sculpture gallery,” Biesenbach said, “except that at 7 o’clock the sculptures get to pack up and go home. It will last forever.” 

See “13 Rooms” at Pier 2/3, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, Sydney. Open daily, 11 am – 7 pm, until April 21.