Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach are amongst the most important curators working today—Obrist at the helm of London’s art-meets-architecture-meets-performance hub, the Serpentine Galleries, and Biesenbach leading the MoMA’s edgier younger sibling, PS1, in Queens, New York. But before the two became art world celebrities, they met on a late-night train between Innsbruck and Venice. Over a decade later, they would come together in their first curatorial collaboration, producing “11 Rooms” of “living sculpture” for the Manchester International Festival in 2011. “11 Rooms” would then become “12 Rooms” in Germany and “13 Rooms” in Australia before landing in Basel this summer for “14 Rooms.” Open through June 22, the exhibition explores performance art through the lens of 16 renowned artists and the spatial limitations of 14 empty rooms, featuring works from the 1970s to the present by artists from Marina Abramović and Damien Hirst to Joan Jonas.
In a conversation between Biesenbach and Obrist, we learn of the birth of “Rooms” and its perennial rebirth, the role of architecture in the exhibition, and the granularity of performance art, including the meaning behind the term “living sculpture.”
On their first encounter in the early 1990s
Hans Ulrich Obrist: We serendipitously met on a late night train at 3am between Innsbruck and Venice at the very beginning of the 1990s.
Klaus Biesenbach: It’s remarkable considering our numerous collaborations since then, that our meeting was by chance.
On the birth of “Rooms” (“11 Rooms” for the Manchester International Festival in 2011), the rebirth of “Rooms” for Art Basel 2014, and the term “living sculpture.”
KB: Hans Ulrich and I came up with the concept for “11 Rooms” after a trip to Rome—sparked in part after viewing Villa Borghese, with room after room of sculptures, and a silver-painted street performer who was outside.
HUO: And so in conversation, we decided to curate a sculpture gallery; one room after the other, but in each room it would be a “living sculpture,” to quote Gilbert and George, always a human being or more than one person, but not the artist himself. We were discussing the idea of rules of the game of exhibitions…
KB: Right. While one could say that it is primarily semantics, it is arguable that living sculpture is a specific type of performance art.
HUO: It is time-based art, but it is not performance. It has to stay in duration. “14 Rooms” is a classical sculpture gallery when the works are there during opening hours from 11am to 7pm, but when the last visitors leave and the museum closes its doors, all the sculptures go home, too.
KB: Potentially these pieces can be reinstalled, reenacted, which is why the show tours and has evolved. This is intended as a dialogue.
HUO: Only one more room than “13 Rooms” in Sydney, but it was so difficult to pick just one artist.
KB: So we decided to add two; including an additional room by Jordan Wolfson, to serve as an epilogue.
On site specificity, immersion, and the evolution of “Rooms.”
HUO: We have learned that it’s not only the content of the exhibition that is important, but also the particular environment where the exhibition takes place—each show changes from city to city. And it will only be shown in one city each year, so it has a slow progression. It’s a house where we add one room per year and it produces a score, an archive of all the instructions of all the pieces we included in the show. The show can then be restaged later; we can redo it. So it’s also connected to the “do it” project, but very different as the artists are involved in the realization. As Boulez told me, it’s about the score of the score; all the information which comes from the artists that fine-tunes the piece to record this score of the score is also very important.
KB: Although “14 Rooms” is taking place during the week of the biggest art fair in the world, its architectural situation sets it deliberately apart from the fair, as an independent exhibition organized and situated separately as a public space—to encourage social interaction among visitors with the art and each other.
HUO: As Stephen Truby shows in his wonderful text on Victorianism in architecture, the Mystery House grew with many secluded rooms with only a door. Herzog & de Meuron go beyond any seclusion; they mirror the space into infinity and open it up to the city the design the exhibition as part of two neighborhoods in Basel with two entrances to avoid it from becoming an architecture of solitude and make it a truly public space.
KB: While there are only 14 rooms, it is important that viewers let the works rest between one another. Perhaps it’s when you view it once and see all the works that you begin again. And the separate rooms leave you the space to do that—they create distinct, private moments that are separate in some ways from regular life.
HUO: Often the experiences are very different from room to room. In some it is an encounter, in some it is a conversation, in some it is movement. It is not only 14 rooms, it is also 14 totally different experiences. The rooms repeat, but the experiences widely vary.
KB: We learned a lot from each of the three previous projects, however the impromptu public space created in Sydney during “13 Rooms” initiated new levels of engagement. The long line for the show in Sydney Harbor spread the exhibition and engaged the city in an organic way—something we wanted to bring with us to Basel.
HUO: Normally exhibitions have a very limited lifespan, but our exhibition can continue to exist indefinitely in the form of instructions; someone could easily revive “14 Rooms” in one hundred years [from now]. We intend the project to continue for many years: 2015, 15 rooms, 16 rooms in 2016.
KB: Hans Ulrich and I could easily continue our project for years, if not for decades—it has only just begun.
HUO: We could also imagine that the exhibition is permanently installed. One day, when I met the legendary playwright Eugene Ionesco, as a student, he told me this amazing story of his “Cantatrice Chauve (Bald Singer),” which was performed for more than four decades every single night in Paris. He told me it’s more permanent than many public sculptures, which are removed after a couple of years; the idea of these pieces is that they could go on forever.
Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach by Casey Kelbaugh Photography