August 17, 2012 9:42 pm

Life brought to art

To ward off the homogenisation of experience, it is important to shape exhibitions as long-duration projects

For me the making of exhibitions has always had to do with dialogue: a concentrated, in-depth, focused dialogue with artists, who keep teaching me that exhibitions should always invent new rules for the game. This summer those rules seem to be prioritising live experiences.

In July I was in Arles for To the Moon via the Beach, a show conceived by Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno, who co-curated it with Tom Eccles, Beatrix Ruf and me for Maja Hoffmann’s Luma Foundation. At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors discovered an arena – the town’s ancient amphitheatre – filled with tonnes of sand. Over four days, sand sculptors transformed the site from a beach to a moonscape, which formed an ever-changing backdrop to a series of 22 artists’ projects. Daniel Buren planted small flags like Neil Armstrong’s; Peter Fischli and David Weiss created two sound-emitting stones; Rirkrit Tiravanija had a harmonica-playing musician walk through in a spacesuit; Pierre Huyghe sent across a masked actor with a colony of bees on his face; Pilvi Takala made candid images of the show’s visitors; Douglas Gordon lit a fire.

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Everything was visible – no difference was made between production, presentation and exchange. In its impermanence, its temporality, it was a reminder that visual art’s engagement with time has a long history, from the Stations of the Cross to Cubism’s exploration of the fourth dimension. Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector points out that John Cage called Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings “clocks of the room”, with the viewer’s shadow shifting across them over the course of each day.

The American composer is a key figure in the movement towards “live art”. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth, which will be celebrated next week at the Ruhrtriennale with a performance in Essen of his Europeras 1 and 2. These have no action and no leitmotifs; the music is polyphonic and without hierarchy; each instrument plays on equal terms. The music does not go with the costumes and the costumes don’t go with the action – but Cage succeeds in showing the life of all the old musical and theatrical elements of the opera. He makes music with the happenstance of the stage.

Cage’s open scores and instructions are part of the DNA of 12 Rooms, a group exhibition that Klaus Biesenbach and I put together for the Manchester International Festival, and which will also be shown at the Ruhr. In each of the titular rooms, the viewer will encounter a different live art piece, presented by performers following the artists’ instructions.

According to Tino Sehgal – one of the participating artists – the notion of “art” that was generated by sculptors and painters in the early 19th century, and was fully articulated and established by the 1960s, is detaching itself from its material origins and venturing into other realms in the 21st century. 12 Rooms embraces classical sculpture, but places a human on the pedestal. When the last visitors leave and the museum closes its doors, the sculptures will walk out as well. The show will journey to other cities for years to come and will slowly grow as, with each reincarnation, a new room will be added.

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In Halberstadt, Cage completists can experience ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), a 1987 piece for organ. In his open score, Cage decided not to say just how slowly it should be played; the Halberstadt concert started on September 5 2001 and has an intended duration of 639 years. This work was an inspiration for the Serpentine Marathons, which Julia Peyton-Jones and I have been organising since 2006. These are 48-hour events where artists are given time to explore a concept – which this year is memory. It’s a fitting subject for the current Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, which uncovers the material traces of the previous 11 pavilions that have occupied this site in Kensington Gardens.

Such dialogues between artists and places, between audiences and exhibitions, are thrillingly catalysed by the forces of globalisation. There is an amazing potential for new encounters among today’s fast-proliferating array of art centres. Yet homogenisation is a danger too, as the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has pointed out. For her, exhibitions are a way to resist the pressures towards an ever more uniform experience of time and space, by keeping the visitor in the art moment a little longer.

If that is to happen, it’s important to shape exhibitions as long-duration projects and to consider issues of sustainability and legacy. Fly-in, fly-out curating nearly always produces superficial results; it’s a practice that goes hand in hand with the fashion for applying the word “curating” to everything that involves simply making a choice – radio playlists, hotel decor, even the food stalls in New York’s High Line Park. Making art is not the matter of a moment, and nor is making an exhibition; curating follows art.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London

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