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.
"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