Considering “Tino Sehgal”

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Editorial Note: This post marks the initiation of a new AWS series entitled “Considerations.” With some regularity, we will turn our readers and commenters’ attention towards a particular artist, work or enterprise that the AWS editors believe merits a sustained critical discussion. The idea, of course, is not to have the last word on the subject, but rather to see what people are thinking about certain contemporary artistic practices and the issues, or problems, that they raise.

For the past year, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in  SF has served as a platform for the presentation of works by Tino Sehgal, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. By now most of us are familiar with Seghal’s offerings: performance pieces which lay the barest of frames around sometimes quotidian and sometimes quirky human behavior. For those in New York wishing to see an example of the latter, The New Museum’s show, After Nature, includes Sehgal’s Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), which is constituted by a young woman writhing in slow motion on the museum’s third floor.

What distinguishes Sehgal’s work from the legacy of happenings and post-Cagian performance, of course, is the artist’s refusal to allow reproductions or documentation of any sort accompany or supplement his work. Not only does this make the works’ commercial existence somewhat tricky, given that such transactions have a habit of being fairly document intensive (and note that Sehgal has never voiced any kind of anti-commercial sentiment), it also points up the problem of where and how the work actually exists.

More recently, this liminal status has begun to elicit more metaphorical readings of Sehgal’s pieces. Echoing Seghal’s inclusion in After Nature, Marisa Olson (writing at Rhizome.org) observes that this “lack of physicality is at least partly a response to the earth’s dwindling resources.” Nevertheless, Olsen does go on to note that Sehgal’s “primary medium is…conversation–whether it’s an initial one in the gallery or the oral narrative that perpetuates and historicizes his practice outside of the gallery.”

But can “conversation” justly be said to be Sehgal’s medium? In a talk given as part of “Not for Sale: Writing on Performance and New Media” at Performa 05, Bennett Simpson (curator at Boston’s ICA) argued that the medium most central to Sehgal’s activities was the artist’s persona itself, insofar as it is the biographical subject “Sehgal” that gives these works their consistency. After all, with no “fixed, tangible medium,” nothing that Sehgal does can necessarily be said to “belong” to him, or, for that matter, to any of the institutions or collectors that “acquire” one of “his” works. And yet, it hardly seems like Sehgal’s motivations are communitarian in nature, even if they do emphasize the social.

So how do we consider “Tino Sehgal”? Are his works “conversation pieces”? Are they meditations on a dwindling environment? Is he the apotheosis of the artistic “persona” (and its institutional supports)? Or is it something else entirely?

6 thoughts on “Considering “Tino Sehgal”

  1. If an artist’s activity lies outside the realm of physical objects, is it art? According to current art theory, most certainly yes. It is one of endless open possibilities for art in a pluralistic time. It would be easy to end the conversation right there.

    My question is, what does this extra-objective or non-objective practice suggest? What meanings does it convey, or even, in a sense, embody? That depends on the space the artist inhabits–where the only tangible dimension of his activity takes form and achieves recognition– which is society. The meaning of a withdrawal from object-based art-making necessarily depends on the social context in which this gesture is made.

    Thus we get to the ridiculous (in my view) assertion that the “lack of physicality is at least partly a response to the earth’s dwindling resources.” God save us if this is our path to the zero-carbon-footprint future. But such an assertion is interesting because it connects the artist’s gesture to the prevailing attitudes of the moment. The critic’s notion may be absurd, but it injects meaning into the artist’s non-production.

    In the society in which I grew up, late-stage communism, the “passive resistance” of the artist, expressed in the refusal to create physical objects, was understood by all who were parties to the art conversation to be a political gesture. There was a whole group of artists who practically never made art–and this is precisely what made them artists.

    This refusal was, on the one hand, a testament to the likelihood that their works would, if exhibited, be censored. On the other hand, they amounted to a rejection of the idea of participation in a public sphere that was deemed to be politically corrupt. Absence of physicality achieved meaning because of the absence of freedom. It was a kind of monastic withdrawal.

    I suppose something similar may lie behind the reluctance of some artists today to create physically embodied work. I recommend Sarah Thornton’s soon-to-be published book, “Seven Days in the Life of the Art World,” which devotes a chapter to the LA artist Michael Asher, of CalArts “Crit” fame, who proudly sold only one work of art in a commodity form during his long career–in 1966.

    Refusal to enter objects into the art-world’s commercially influenced theater of operations is, in such cases, usually meant to be a statement about the inevitable corruption of physical objects themselves. It gives expression to the artist’s conviction that he must refrain from wading into such a narrow, unscrupulous terrain, because by doing so, he will have automatically compromised the intentions of his work. Absence of physicality signals not the absence of freedom in the political sense, but the absence of spaces in today’s society that are untainted by commercial agendas.

    Personally, I find this type of resistance a bit outdated, safe, and ineffectual. Outmoded, because it advances a romantic, sacralized idea of art, and because so many artists have been there and done that–or I should say, didn’t do that. Safe, because the gesture of withdrawal has few negative repercussions beyond making it a bit harder to earn a living as an artist (dissident artists in one-party states were at risk of genuine persecution, whereas today’s non-physical artist enjoys a hearty welcome into the art world and its academic industries). And, finally, ineffectual, because artists in a free society can express their meanings through less coded means of communication.

  2. Two points:

    1. This withdrawal from the ‘production’ of things is not always entertained as an anti-commercial gesture; it also mirrors the move from manufacturing to service (or knowledge) economies (no, Asher did not sell any ‘objects’ but he was certainly paid a fee for executing his projects).

    And 2. Your point about withdrawal as a political strategy is well taken; but I think that it is more a point about visibility than actual production. ‘Monastic withdrawal’ (good term) implies a kind of private practice of making, rather than a refusal to make at all.

    More generally, I don’t think it’s a question of the ‘non-physical’ counted as art (it’s a problematic categorization anyway, like the more hackneyed and in my opinion false term ‘dematerialization’; we really should reframe these discussions in terms of time–i.e. durability, or ephemerality) but of how gestures like Sehgal’s come ‘mean’.

    I agree that the ‘resource deprivation’ metaphor is a weak one (not least because it’s a metaphor) but the ‘conversation’ question is interesting to me: Is the work primarily linguistic? Phenomenological? Is this kind of work one that pressures the possibility of some kind of ‘pure unadulterated experience’? And if so, does this make it retrograde (i.e. modernist)? In the end I’m less interested in the Is it Art? question than in one that asks What kind of Art is it? Is it an art of the ‘persona’? Of the ‘meme’?

    And in the end, I think these questions are viable exactly because Seghal’s are in no way acts of ‘resistance’. If anything, in my opinion, they are exercises in ‘exfoliating’ the forces at work underneath the surface of our beloved art world.

  3. I would say that Seghal is himself more a product of the machinations of our seedy art world than any kind of astute commentator. The odd fact that he’s been given multiple exhibitions over long periods of time at the Wattis and previously here in London at the ICA has nothing to do with some groundbreaking reconfiguration of the idea or length of a ‘solo show’, as the blurbs would have it, but simply because his buddy Jens Hoffman is, or happened to be, the curator.

    Yes, Seghal works in the liminal space between art forms (he trained as a dancer) but most of his interventions don’t go very far beyond the anti-establishment antics of Cattelan and his Wrong Gallery cohorts. He doesn’t build enormous funfair slides, carousels or waterfalls like Carten Höller or Olafur Eliasson, but he’s just as guilty of the current obsession with turning art into spectacle. And the heyday of performance art and Fluxus turned over many of the interactive, theatrical elements of Seghal’s art long ago.

    The lack of product is interesting, not for any environmental concerns or dematerialisation issues, but because he plays with current market concerns of value and labour. He’s been known to write up contracts as part of his works, stating how much people should be remunerated, like Santiago Sierra only with Actor’s Equity. What kind of art is it? Faddy.

  4. The artist’s refusal to create a physical object, even the photo document of a performance, is an implicit critique of the status quo, a dogmatic assertion of non-compliance. As Andras notes, the significance of this gesture depends entirely on the prevailing power structure, on what in fact is being rejected. It can be a potent argument when aimed at a corrupt, repressive political regime that would be quick to censor the content in any case.

    But in our current climate, that of widespread liberal acceptance and a marketplace eager to embrace the sales potential of any work, to eschew the object is to self-consciously identify yourself as pure of commercial taint. This is understood, even if Sehgal “has never voiced any kind of anti-commercial sentiment.” In fact, his avoidance of an explicit subtext is itself a tricky, dandified pose. He is not just disinterested in creating an object, he is divorced from any discussion of the sales thus alleviated. Yet he is amply rewarded with the accoutrements of the international art star, signaled by his inclusions at the Nu Mu and CCA Wattis. As mentioned, “today’s non-physical artist enjoys a hearty welcome into the art world and its academic industries”.

    Sehgal’s “liminal status” is not necessarily a new development, just a fine tuning of strategies begun by an earlier generation of performers and conceptualists. They did document their work, but this was not generally felt to be a flirtation with the marketplace. It was for the ages, so that succeeding generations would have some record of their efforts. This was the model: they actually felt they were producing non-collectible work. It was sold, if at all, within a narrow circle of friends and aficionados. The marketplace was much smaller then, and perhaps they were being naive. Because the market has since proven to be hungry, adaptable and willing to absorb even the most anti-commercial gesture, just so long as it produced an object for sale.

    Sehgal’s strategy of non-documentation benefits from hindsight. It acknowledges what is by now a given: that the market is able to sell any object. In this sense, by denying us a physical product, he is engaged in an intelligent, rearguard action to control variables of perception and presentation (much like American film director John Ford, who, when he did not have final cut, shot scenes in a particular way, with limited coverage and only certain angles, so that it could only be edited one way.) Sehgal might be a bit of a control freak, attempting to limit or channel the context of his work. Ossian’s citing of written contracts tends to support this view.

    Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) was a cynical take on, among other things, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and other pared down, non-objective strategies in 70s SoHo. Wolfe, of course, was suspicious of anything not painting-sized, framed in gold and hung above a divan, and he questioned the sincerity of most contemporary art. But he could be entertaining. He slyly addressed the “psychological doubletracking” of many artists, their need to outwardly reject the marketplace while simultaneously looking over their shoulder to make certain their rejection was being duly noted by agents of money or power: collectors, curators, critics or dealers. Wolfe likened this to the violent Apache Dance, in which one partner struggles, rejecting the blandishments and insinuations of the other again and again, before finally succumbing with a cry and a swoon. Has Sehgal’s background in dance inured him to a similar performative dialectic, a rejection of object making that, in its very denial, looks coyly over its shoulder to watch itself being noticed?

    That said, I do enjoy the metaphor of Sehgal as an “exfoliator” of art market forces.

  5. It’s been difficult for me to respond this without a sense of embarrassment, as I can’t live up to the statement ”By now most of us are familiar with Sehgal’s offerings.” What is this familiarity? I work hard at understanding works I’ve directly experienced, and have been avoiding conjecture. In this forum it’s the sense of being called upon to enter a conversation without authority, and even to allow that conversation to have authority without pictures. It makes an art critic nervous! What is this perpetuating narrative, where does it come from and why?

    While the artist doesn’t permit documentation, he does provide interviews as his preferred dis-semination. I like his thoughts on the museum, “…the exhibition format is the most contemporary format we have, because it addresses the individual. No other ritual in any other culture addresses the individual. That’s something completely Western, completely innovative and quite young — only 250 years old.” In staging situations in the museum, his work does not aspire to the dematerialization of art as performance, but to a production of art that knows its frame – he admires Daniel Buren’s retrospective at the Pompidou in 1992, and I understand his relation to the institution to be not unlike what Daniel Buren describes in his famous 1970 essay “Critical Limits.” But Sehgal’s withdrawal of the object and image and dependence upon the body and language places a different emphasis on the nature of spectacle or simulacra, one that hauls the notion of the individual into its place and in the context of a situation.

    There might be more than metaphor at work in the artist’s own words on nature – excess production has created a situation in which human life no longer seems possible in nature. It seems that conversation and dance should take the place of a depleting object-oriented excess. These remain a mode of production, not only in the sense of capitalist production but in the sense of the production of the individual of a capitalist society. I don’t pick up here a simplistic nostalgia for nature as uncommodifiable – nature, as “we,” is produced. One can participate in this situation with unease and discomfort, indifference, or enthusiasm.

    I was not there but will offer the following: To enter “This Situation” (at Marian Goodman last year) is more complex than simply being addressed by several others from one’s own position as an “I”. My understanding of this piece is that several professionals from distinct disciplines, philosophy, for example, surround and “face” the gallery visitor with their backs turned, expounding from their various disciplinary histories and discourses, in response to an utterance of whatever kind from the gallery visitor. And that in a fairly intense way this involves the physical, social body, “after nature.”

    Regarding Jonathan’s question about what a conversation might be, not unrelated is a piece by Falke Pisano, which I saw in curator Christian Rattemeyer’s “Elephant Cemetery” at Artists Space in 2007. In the video lecture and text of “A Sculpture Turning Into a Conversation,” Pisanoprovides a discourse on the history of the modernist monument and the possibility of a sculpture standing on its own as a conversation, in the manner of the nouveau roman. I rather liked it.

  6. Simultaneous with Catherine’s post yesterday, I was at the Nu Mu, mostly to view Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness in its 50 minute entirety. The Sehgal piece was, as always, being performed. Instead of allowing some things to rise up to your face, dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), which I have now seen twice, consists of an actor dressed in black, writhing on the floor, apparently re-enacting movements from late 60s-early 70s video works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, when the two were working with choreographers and dancers at Judson Church. As Sehgal states in interview, it functions as both his critique of their aesthetic praxis and his continuance of the “game” they began.

    Bruce Nauman put himself in the studio, turned the camera on and eventually brought his videos into the museum. From a certain perspective, he was importing the aesthetic of Judson Church into the museum via video … From my point of view and from my interest in things like the spoken word or singing or dance, he kind of lost the decisive thing on the way, which is how they produce – this simultaneity of production and de-production. You do a movement and then it’s gone. You say a word and then it’s gone. This is exactly what Nauman lost on the way because he made the work into a material fixation. Then Dan Graham took the game further by saying: “Yes, Nauman is interesting but he never reflects the use of the camera. I am going to redo his work but integrate the camera into the work so that you can actually see the camera.” If this was a game that one could play, I was going to do the same thing again, but take out the material support, the video screen and the video player. To maintain the simultaneity of production and de-production which they were losing in their import, I would have the person immediately there in the space. On the other hand, I wanted to acknowledge that bringing something like movement into the museum had already happened. My point was to do this import again but in a decisive other way.

    Sehgal’s performance piece, of course, enjoyed the same central AC and lighting (neither carbon neutral), the same physical institutional support as other art on display. So on this basis it does not seem to deserve an ecological halo. But the “dwindling resources” critique is not about acting “green” so much as freeing art from the glut of material overproduction present in contemporary society. I recall a similar argument being made 30 years ago for Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and the appropriation artists: that with a surfeit of images from advertising, TV, movies, even art history, there was no need to create new ones, merely to re-assemble, to create new context from what already existed. Certainly there is a difference between “no new images” then and “no production of objects” now, but I hope the point is taken: of a moral/economic imperative defining aesthetic choices. What seems to interest Sehgal is the incorporation of de-production into production as an inherent, simultaneous condition, a sort of automatic sweeping clean. This is the basis of his ecological responsibility. As stated in another interview,

    …I’m interested in the transformation of actions and the simultaneity of production and deproduction … because I think that the appearance in Western societies in the twentieth century of both an excess supply of the goods that fulfill basic human needs and mankind’s endangering of the specific disposition of “nature” in which human life seems possible renders the hegemony of the dominant mode of production questionable.

    A Google Image search under “tino sehgal” locates the occasional renegade performance shot, but mostly finds pics of the artist in rehearsal, run through, interview and social situations. So while a general interdiction against documentation of performance seems to be maintained, I cannot imagine anyone with a cell phone not being able to snatch an image and post it online. The point is that the artist does not incorporate this practice in his work.

    As noted in my first post, Sehgal is positing a critique of the status quo. By eliminating the prop of the object, replacing it with actions that immediately and inherently de-produce themselves, he is creating a model which, as Jonathan notes, “exfoliates” the surface to reveal sub-dermal constructs and supports for the art world and the larger economy. This is intellectually and socially provocative. But the result of this aesthetic strategy, of refusing the object and adhering to transitory, repetitive and ruled-based performance, without documentation, is to throw all validation for the work upon discourse, upon interviews and explanations, and ultimately upon the persona of the artist himself. It places him at the inviolate center, a result he by no means failed to anticipate or desire. An art object can assert an autonomous existence, can be imagined (even if just for a moment) without also conjuring up its creator. By eliminating the object, Sehgal retains ultimate (if playful) control as the single durable point of reference.

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