Art Basel stages ‘14 Rooms’, an exhibition of ‘live art’

A tousled blonde temptress gyrates her hips, her gaze fixed on your face. The masked, bruised body moves suggestively in front of a mirror, grinding her body to a Lady Gaga track. The nightmarish dancer turns even more menacing, uttering: “My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house.” But the scantily clad creation is not real. “Female Figure” (2014) is an animatronic sculpture conceived by the Los Angeles-based artist Jordan Wolfson.

The work features in 14 Rooms, a “live art” exhibition that will run alongside Art Basel, the modern and contemporary art fair, in hall three of the Messe Basel site. Billed as a “series of immersive and intimate experiences” by the organisers, the exhibition includes works by 16 artists such as Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst, Santiago Sierra, John Baldessari and Yoko Ono. Paintings and sculpture are largely banished, and replaced by a “material” that is welcoming and repellent in equal measure: human beings.

Performers and participants will intermingle in separate circumscribed spaces designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The show, meanwhile, is supported by an impressive array of backers, including UBS – the leading sponsor of Art Basel – and two Basel cantons, which provided lottery funding. Local powerhouse cultural bodies, Fondation Beyeler and Theater Basel, are project partners.

The co-curator Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art, outlines the genesis of the project. “I was in Italy on a quest to find works by Caravaggio. Having a day off, I saw a silver painted acrobat performing in front of a teeming crowd outside the Villa Borghese pretending to be a statue standing totally still. For me, it was a revelation about our project.”

There have been various iterations of the exhibition. It was first shown as 11 Rooms at Manchester International Festival in 2011, later morphing into 13 Rooms in April last year at Kaldor Public Art Projects in Sydney. Ed Atkins, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Otobong Nkanga have created new works for the Basel version.

‘Female Figure’ (2014) by Jordan Wolfson

Biesenbach’s fellow exhibition curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist of London’s Serpentine Galleries, explains with customary zeal why the performance intervention is pertinent. “It is interesting how performance scores can travel through time, like poetry. The work can happen again and again; our exhibition is a series of scores which can be revisited later.”

Significantly, this new edition examines how humanity dovetails with advancements in the digital age. On a stark, imposing screen, the London-based artist Ed Atkins will present a shaved and tattooed 3D head, “No one is more ‘work’ than me” (2014). A male actor is also present in the room, bearing witness, while the avatar “spiels its defence of vitality”, says Atkins. “The presence of the actor/performer is something between the avatar and the audience: a point of identification and so a further point of ambivalent authentication.”

Biesenbach emphasises that other works are rooted in a more tangible reality. Nothing, he says, could be more “analogue” than Bruce Nauman’s “Wall-Floor Positions” (1968), in which a performer in the space touches the floor and the wall in 28 different poses. Meanwhile, a woman scans the contours of her body using a handheld mirror in Joan Jonas’s “Mirror Check” (1970), a piece that may well be the ultimate pre-digital “selfie”.

The Nigeria-born artist Otobong Nkanga will direct a scenario featuring up to three women for her “Diaspore” (2014) piece. Each of the performers carries the plant Cestrum nocturnum, also known as Queen of the Night. “In constant dialogue with the plant, these women navigate through a topographical map on the floor which symbolises the idea of dispersal and displacement,” she says.

The ubiquitous Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal is revisiting a work originally made in 2004, “This is Competition”, which involved building a dialogue word by word. Crowd-pleaser Damien Hirst’s installation combines spot paintings and seated siblings (identical twins are perched beneath the dotty works).

Including performance pieces in an art fair raises questions, though, about the status and development of the medium in the past decade. Performance art gained in popularity after the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008, as a reaction to the excesses of the art market. Concept-based and generally devoid of physical objects, it had previously been widely considered anti-market and anti-institution. Has 14 Rooms made the genre legitimate in the marketplace?

‘No-one is more ‘work’ than me’ (2014) by Ed Atkins

“Performance has been recognised as a legitimate source of ideas for contemporary art for at least 60 years. It’s never been easy to sell performance but the results [works produced by performance artists] have sold. Yves Klein’s ‘Anthropometries’ body paintings are a good example,” says the Rome-based dealer Lorcan O’Neill, who is devoting his stand at Art Basel to works of the 1960s and 1970s by Italian artist Luigi Ontani. “All of the work available is based on his early performances and we’ll show three videos, from 1969, of performances made in galleries [priced around €40,000 each],” says O’Neill.

This field is still very much a specialist, niche area with only a small selection of major museums and a handful of collectors prepared to invest both financially and intellectually in “live” works that must usually adhere to complex sets of instructions provided by the artists.

Most collectors subsequently turn to tangible items: documentation of performance works in the form of films and photographs. “Editioned live” works have, however, become more acceptable in the past five years.

Nilani Trent, a New York-based art adviser and collector, says: “I have been offered work by Sehgal and it is well priced and seemingly, perhaps deceptively, easy to recreate with very specific instructions, much like a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. As a collector myself, this is something that appeals to me as I loan long term most of my great works to museums anyway.” For the younger collectors Trent works with, buying photography is “still the best way for them to support the artist and build their collections”.

‘Wall-Floor Positions’ (1968) by Bruce Nauman

She adds that 14 Rooms also subverts expectations, and could help combat fair fatigue. “I often walk through the fair with blinders: everything is predictable. I can literally tell you what’s going to be in every booth before I get there. Performance art makes even a seasoned viewer stop, think, react, interact in a way most people never experience at an art fair, or with art in general,” she says.

Since the 1990s, art fair organisers have striven to demonstrate that their trade shows are not just driven by monetary concerns, reflected in eye-watering prices and profits (most fairs now marry cultural and commercial elements through, for example, VIP programmes, public art commissions and talks forums).

The 14 Rooms works are not for sale, says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel. “The show says more about how Art Basel is developing to reflect the broader scope of the art world rather than any market correlation,” he adds, observing that the fair has a history of presenting performance-related work such as “Art on Stage” in 2007 and 2008, and “Il Tempo Del Postino” in 2009.

Obrist and Biesenbach are convinced that a fair setting provides the best context for the exhibition. “This is a counterpoint, and antidote, to the fair,” Biesenbach says. “We have taken the show out of the museum but in a way 14 Rooms is also a draft for a museum to come.” Obrist says the show should not only attract an art crowd but people from Basel and the region. “As [the artists] Gilbert & George say – art for all.” This performance art spectacle – with its sexed-up robot, twins and avatars – should be enticing.

Art Basel runs June 19-22,

Art Basel

June 19-22 Messeplatz 10, 4005

Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Pumpkin’ (2014) at Victoria Miro Gallery, Art Basel

Now in its 45th year, Art Basel will present 285 galleries from 34 countries across the world exhibiting modern and contemporary works of art. They will fill the halls of Basel Messeplatz, one of which will be devoted to Statements, Art Basel’s emerging artists section. Seven further sections include Unlimited (for giant-sized works), and Edition (for prints and multiples). As well as the galleries who have become regular exhibitors at the fair over the years, there will also be a number of exhibiting for the first time such as A Gentil Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) and Herald St (London). And Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, will chair a panel discussing “The Artist as Choreographer” as part of Art Basel’s Salon and Conversations programme.

Art Basel Film

June 19-22 Messeplatz 10, 4005

Running alongside this year’s fair, Art Basel hosts a week-long programme of films by and about artists. Highlights include a screening of three short films by Manon de Boer, the Dutch artist known for her films and sound pieces that explore memory and the relationship between sound, image and body. It will be followed by a Q&A with the artist and Art Basel Film curator Marc Glöde (Wednesday 11pm).

Kazimir Malevich

To June 22 Kunstmuseum Basel St Alban-Graben 16, 4010

The gallery’s extensive collection of Kazimir Malevich’s prints and drawings is on show until the end of the fair. Malevich declared his vision of the “world as objectlessness” in a Bauhaus publication in 1927, illustrating his ideas through a series of prints and drawings that are shown here alongside a new translation of the book.

‘The New Beetle’ (2006) by Charles Ray

Charles Ray

June 15-September 28 Kunstmuseum Basel St Alban-Graben 16, 4010

Focusing on the sculptor’s output since 1997, the exhibition includes “Boy with Frog” (2009), an oversized naked boy dangling a frog that evokes the manner and figuration of Jeff Koons and Katharina Fritsch.

Gerhard Richter

To September 7 Foundation Beyeler, Baselstrasse 101 4125

An exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist will be on display at Fondation Beyeler throughout the fair. The exhibition will feature some of the artist’s key series including the “October 18, 1977” (1988) cycle. The work depicts members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the group of West German terrorists many of whom committed suicide in prison on October 18 1977. Richter used newspaper clippings and press photographs to create this haunting series of 15 paintings. Other works include Richter’s “Annunciation after Titian” series (c1970s) in which the artist explores varying degrees of abstraction in his depictions of Titian’s “Annunciation” (c1564).

LISTE Art Fair

June 17-22, Burgweg 15, 4058,

Since 1996 this fair has given a platform to emerging artists. Nineteen years later, LISTE is a significant part of the international art scene and the fair offers visitors the chance to invest in contemporary works by new talent. About 80 galleries from 30 countries will display works from young artists and emerging galleries. LISTE’s popular performing arts platform Performance Project – now in its 10th year – will also return with a programme of works that focus on sound, choreography and dance.

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