A journey through Tino Sehgal's staged situations — and a talk with the artist
"So the other day I lied about something really petty ... You ever do that? Lie about stupid things?" Or "After I graduated law school, I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer and am now doing voluntary work...." Or some other minor/major consciousness shift where one becomes concerned and aware of one's life and its recursive trajectory. This is where the conversations actually start to "progress" and you find yourself engaging with a stranger who otherwise feels like an old friend — albeit a needy, unstable one.
At this point there are maybe two revolutions left in the rotunda. Your adult friend gets siphoned off somewhere into the building's innards, and a weathered, smiling face greets you in relief. The two of you walk slowly as the senior agent massages a memory and focuses on the importance of restoring phenomenology. Your attention oscillates between boredom and intrigue as you offer "ums" and "uh-huhs" and the occasional "wow, really?" Then you reach the end, and Wisdom vanishes.
You start to wonder about the disingenuous aspects of Tino's pieces — how some of the conversations felt artificial and scripted, not genuine and spontaneous — and if the experience was real. Like really real. As real as the people or walls you bumped into along the way, and as real as the vertigo-induced anxiety now screaming through your body as you look over the hip-high ledge and down the spiraling corridor at Kiss below. Kiss is now in its dry-humping stage and looks 100 percent flat, like a 2-D painting — a painting depicting a deformed centaur's suicide: three legs, two heads, and one arm sprawled in an outline. But then it moves. Slightly.
"When you look at a painting," Tino tells me in an interview back on ground level, "you know that you might like it or you might not like it, but you don't have a similarity to it. With my work, the medium of the work is the same as you. And as a visitor, one has all the resources there as well."
The interactions, Tino assures me, "are not scripted. They might repeat something sometimes, but that's not what they're supposed to do. They get information about you, and then they react to you. It's a loose structure." The only restrictions the conversationalists have: "They can't talk about art, and they can't talk about the piece itself."
It's this last part, the refusing to talk about itself — refusing, for instance, to call itself "This Is Progress" — that makes Tino's work surpass a role as just the latest "Death of Art" incarnation in the Fountain and Brillo Box evolutionary chain. And because Sehgal's work desperately needs you — an audience member, a participant — to exist, a sustainable and open relationship develops and lasts even after the museum's doors close.
CCA Wattis Institute is currently hosting Tino's first U.S. solo exhibition, a constantly evolving work incorporating pause, through April 24. It's on a much smaller scale than the Guggenheim's Sehgal show, but well worth the visit.
Through March 10
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Ave., N.Y.
Through April 24
CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
1111 Eight St., SF