In the catalogue of the exhibition ‘11 Rooms’ the co-curators of the show, Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, London) and Klaus Biesenbach (MoMA PSI, New York) write “there is something reductive in the way that the exhibition format focuses on a static human-to-object relationship”. With this show, their aim was to curate a show that was opposite to that – which was organised at the Manchester Art Gallery during the Manchester International Festival.
In each of the 11 rooms, the visitor encounters different situations of live art pieces, presented by performers and players who have been instructed by 11 different artists. Participating artists include Marina Abramovic, Tino Sehgal, Simon Fujiwara and Santiago Sierra.
In practice, ‘11 Rooms’ delivered that to which it aspired, and it aroused a mixture of fun, enthusiasm and curiousity as visitors wondered what they would encounter in each of the rooms. This was interspersed with an element of caution as they didn’t know what they would view and / or that to which they may be exposed.
Examples of this juxtaposition were ‘Swap’ by Roman Ondák in which a performer asks the visitors to exchange an object with the one on a table lying in front of him and discussions transpire as to the value of each of the items. In the room of the artists Allora & Calzadilla, docents had to encourage visitors to step inside to participate in ‘Revolving Door’. This was a group of ten people portraying a revolving door, which moved slowly or rapidly. For some of the younger visitors, the created effect was so infectious they ‘spun’ around for more than 20 minutes. 
A wonderous experience was encountered in Xu Zhen’s room ‘In Just a Blink of an Eye’. Upon entering the room the first thought that crosses your mind is that you are viewing a performance inspired by a limbo dancer as a man ‘floated’ above the ground. Then, your thought is that it is more akin to the freeze frame shots, time standing still, known from the film ‘The Matrix’. To understand what was being performed, visitors were reading the museum leaflet to extract information. The text stated: “The work is a meditation on the in-between status of marginalised communities, specifically migrant workers, who are symbolically and literally suspended in potentially tragic positions”.
There was a shared fascination, and people were bending their knees curious to find out how it was possible to be suspended with no obvious show of wires holding up the man. As the man was wearing billowing clothes, was there a construction of wood montage underneath the attire supporting him to the ground? It seemed like a piece of David Copperfield magic or Chinese mystery.
The room that provoked guarded and slightly uncomfortable response was that in which people had to respond to questions posed by an eight year old girl embodying a magna character with a robotic voice in Tino Sehgal’s room ‘Ann Lee’. She asked visitors questions such as “Would you rather feel too busy or not busy at all?”
This was a surreal experience as visitors were confronted by the sister of Haley Joel Osment’s character, David, in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction film ‘A.I’. ‘Ann Lee’ was embodied alternately by different girls ranging in age from 8 to 13 years. Some of the girls convincingly played the part of a robotic character that it left the viewers befuddled and provoked nervous laughter when they had to respond to the questions. It was a shared experience as visitors were trying to make eye contact with one another, saying “is this for real?” Another reaction to the work was of a person who even refused to enter the room by commenting: “I don’t know if I can expose myself to a child whereby boundaries may be crossed as children in innocence don’t know the lines of demarcation.”
‘Ann Lee’ is a layered and intelligent work on many levels as it made visitors aware of themselves as human beings, confronted you with your own mortality and puzzled you with questions related to time, and whether reality is better than fiction or the other way around?
‘11 Rooms’ demonstrated that there is a lot of mileage for further exploration to curate these type of exhibitions in the future. It tastes like more, and for a start will be, with the addition of another room in 2012, when ‘11 Rooms’ will become ‘12 Rooms’ at Folkwang Mueseum Essen (Germany) during the International Arts Festival Ruhrtriennale.
Written by Thierry Somers (08/2011)
Picture: Xu Zhen’s room ‘In Just a Blink of an Eye’ (above)
Allora & Calzadilla, ‘Revolving Door’, 2011 © Howard Barlow

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