A journey through Tino Sehgal's staged situations — and a talk with the artist
MUSIC Tino Sehgal doesn't like objects. But it's not just the thing-ness of things he shuns; it's also the traces of things. In addition to refusing any recordings of his work, Tino (his last name is too "thingy" even for me) also refuses to deal with artist statements or written contracts, or anything, really, that might leave a material residue. (Digital photos? Sorry, they can be disseminated and printed.)
Tino is formally trained in dance and economics (not visual art). One starts to wonder if he doesn't share the same eccentric anxieties and crackpot economic theories Ezra Pound did about usury. Pound loathed interest precisely because it left a trace; it created a thing (money) out of a non-thing (borrowed time) and refused to disappear. And this usurpation competed with the clean, rigid images and lines of Pound's Vorticist vision and poetics of precision.
Despite Pound's and Tino's shared aversion for extraneous excess, there is one fundamental difference: if the Vorticist and Imagist movements attempted to "capture movement in an image," then Tino's work is attempting to release movement beyond the image — and into the realm of lived experience. But before I delve into the ontology of materialism, let me walk you through his current show at the Guggenheim Museum. (Those who plan to see the work in person should stop reading now.)
With a steady flow of people ahead and behind, you pass through the revolving doors at the Guggenheim's entrance and are spit into the atrium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda — a naturally bright, open chamber that resembles an indoor shopping mall with circulating escalators, or the inside of an enormous Energy Dome (that Devo hat) flipped upside down and bleached white. Either way, when you look up, you feel vertigo. When you look back down, you see Tino's first piece, Kiss (2004), and you start to feel dizzy again, but erotically so.
Kiss is two young things caught in a slow, exaggerated embrace of seamless looped sequences blending makeouts and dry humps all at about the speed of 2 frames per second. The couple is entirely absorbed into each other as they transition from standing to lying down and back again. And you become entirely absorbed in their absorption. It's like watching a soft-core in slo-mo. You start to get aroused, but then a grandmother chides her grandson in that grating "New Yawk" accent, and your gaze breaks. You roll your head slowly, exhaling, then head for the ramp nearby.
After the first bend an elated, eager child steps in front of you and offers his hand. "Hi. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal, would you like to follow me?" "Sure," you say. Then the precocious or extremely caffeinated kid asks you what your understanding of "progress" is, and you respond a bit sarcastically, "It's a word." But the kid doesn't give a shit what you think or say; he's just cataloging your responses in order to hand them off to the next interlocutor — a teenager with an opinion.
"You think "progress" is a word?" asks the confident teen, who anticipates your answer with a reply before you're able to split your lips. You argue back and forth about the merits and semiotics of progress, and whether or not it's even a real thing. The philosophical banter is fun for a moment but then you realize the jerk is basically repeating everything you say but with a contradictory spin. So you quicken your pace and by the next bend in the road the succeeding generation's representative inserts an anecdotal non sequitur in stride.