Six Iconic Performance Pieces You’ll Find in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach’s “14 Rooms”

Marina Abramović, naked on a bicycle seat suspended high on a wall; a rotating cast of identical twins seated before a pair of Damien Hirst spot paintings; Joan Jonas examining her nude body with a small hand-held mirror. These are three of the seminal performance works to expect versions of at “14 Rooms,” an exhibition curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist that will soon be unveiled at Art Basel. The exhibition, which features well-known performance artists who’ve been allotted single white rooms to activate as they wish, first launched as “11 Rooms” for the Manchester International Festival in 2011, and in subsequent years, has grown to “12 Rooms” in Germany, “13 Rooms” in Australia, and for the Basel iteration, swells to “14 Rooms,” featuring works from the 1970s to the present by a lineup of artists that reads like a who’s who of performance art. As the Herzog and de Meuron-designed rooms open to the Basel crowds, in an age where performance art has become mainstream (think Jay-Z’s serenade to the art world at Pace Gallery à la Marina Abramović) we offer an introduction to six of the legendary artists—and many iconic works—who have paved the way.

1. Marina Abramović, Luminosity, 1997

As Klaus Biesenbach once said, “Marina is never not performing.” At age 67, having pioneered performance as an art form since the early 1970s, Marina Abramović, the Serbian-born “grandmother of performance art” is known for fearlessly challenging her body’s physical and mental limitations—one of her most ambitious projects being a 730-hour piece from her 2010 MoMA retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” where she sat motionless in a chair, inviting viewers to partake in untimed face-offs. On the heels of being named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2014, at Art Basel, Abramović brings back a work first performed in 1997, and again at “13 Rooms” in 2013, Luminosity, in which a nude performer mounts a bicycle seat raised high on a brightly lit wall. “It’s really a work about loneliness, about pain, and about spiritual elevation. About luminosity and about the transcendental quality of the human being in general,” she once said.   

2. Damien Hirst, Hans, Georg, 1992

“If you have an identical twin, use the opportunity to be part of Damien Hirst’s performance,” the Art Basel website announced prior to “14 Rooms.” In 1992, just a few years after Hirst emerged in London among the Young British Artists with his “Freeze” exhibition and the year after his formaldehyde-preserved tiger shark made its grand debut, Hirst recruited identical twins to sit beneath two of his colored spot paintings at Cologne’s Unfair art fair. “Identical twins are kind of like a crazy aberration, you know, they make you look again,” Hirst once said of the work. “What I need [them] to do is sit in front of two spot paintings, which are two different random arrangements of the same colored dots.” The work, which was shown again during the Tate Modern’s “Pop Life” exhibition in 2009, was featured in “13 Rooms” in 2013 and will be included in “14 Rooms,” featuring a rotating cast of twins. “For a few hours of the day you can be immortalized in an artwork by Damien Hirst,” the artist promised.

3. Joan Jonas, Mirror Check, 1970

At 78 years old, Joan Jonas, a stalwart of the New York art scene since she first emerged in the 1960s, has been selected to represent the United States at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015—and after a half century of innovation in performance, video, and body art, her “14 Rooms” presentation is an opportunity to revisit one of her earliest works, pre-Venice. Mirror Check, first performed by Jonas in the 1970s, is among the artist’s early works employing mirrors as props, and features a performer who is carefully scrutinizing her nude body with a hand-held mirror. “It was a logical development and kind of abstraction of a solo work, standing nude in front of an audience, examining one’s own body with a mirror very slowly,” Jonas has said. “It’s a very simple piece. There is the stipulation that it has to be done by women because that’s how it was originally performed and seen, and meant to be seen because it’s about a woman looking at her own body, having control of that gaze.”

4. Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Revolving Door, 2011

Since they first met during a study program in Florence, Italy in 1995, artistic duo Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla have been known to explore the intersections of art and environment. When commissioned to represent the United States Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, the pair created five installations; among them, an overturned 52-ton military tank capped with a treadmill and an Olympic runner, and a pipe organ equipped with a music-playing cash machine. During “14 Rooms,” Allora & Calzadilla will present their work Revolving Door, first commissioned for the inaugural “11 Rooms” in 2011 and performed again during “13 Rooms” in 2013, which features a line of dancers whose choreographed movements act as a human door, allowing visitors to enter the space—and moving them throughout, once inside.

5. Roman Ondák, Swap, 2011

Slovakian conceptual artist Roman Ondák, who represented his country at the Venice Biennale in 2009, is known for performances and installations incorporating everyday situations. In 2011, when commissioned to produce a piece for “11 Rooms,” Ondak created Swap, a work where a performer is asked to sit at a table with a single object and await visitors to the room. Upon entry, the visitors are given the opportunity to barter any of their personal items for the object on the table. As Time Out Sydney reported, “$50 was swapped for $100, which was then swapped for an artist’s sketchbook; a wristwatch was reluctantly swapped for a David Malouf book—the trader unaware that Malouf himself was in the room; a master’s thesis was swapped for a lipstick kiss on brown paper.” At the end of the day, the performer is allowed to leave with the final object, and as the piece returns for “14 Rooms,” one can only imagine the bounty to be bartered from Basel-goers.

6. Xu Zhen, Just the Blink of an Eye, 2005

Xu Zhen, the Chinese conceptual artist who gave Artsy and NOWNESS a tour of his Shanghai studio earlier this year, has been called the Maurizio Cattelan of China for the humor and irony he injects into work, and aligned with Ai Weiwei for his like-minded political provocations. The latter was exemplified in a 2008 performance where Xu placed a live African toddler and a mechanical vulture together in a gallery space, outfitted as a rural African landscape. In the work he’ll present at “14 Rooms,” In Just the Blink of an Eye, Xu creates an optical illusion where a body appears to float mid-air—as if caught in the midst of a fall—though the performer is actually resting upon a metal frame. When Xu showed the work at James Cohan Gallery in 2007, as part of PERFORMA 07, he enlisted two immigrants from New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood; the source for his Basel performers has yet to be disclosed.

“14 Rooms” is on view Saturday, June 14th through Sunday, June 22nd, 2014, at Hall 3 of Messe Basel. “14 Rooms” is a collaboration between Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel, and Theater Basel.

Learn more about “14 Rooms” and explore Art Basel on Artsy.

Cover Image: Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh Photography