Is it just art or is it progress?
Can you keep a secret? But please don’t tell anyone, because if you do, knowing how the art world is, no one will go see the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim. No, its not that the museum’s walls are completely bare and that the admission price continues to be the same. No, its not that there is an uninhibited couple endlessly kissing amidst the Rotunda. No, its not that the show is not worth visiting —on the contrary. Ok, here it is: the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program.
I imagine that no one will agree with me, but that’s OK— I have my reasons. Sehgal took a situation that takes place daily at the museum —people having directed or undirected conversations— and extracted the art from the equation. (In the spirit of disclosure, I used to work at the Guggenheim’s education department there for seven years, organizing the museum tours and talks, which may have colored my experience, but I think that is besides the point).
For those of you who still have yet to visit, here is a report: As I went up the first ramp a 9 year-old girl greeted me. “Welcome, this is a piece by Tino Sehgal. Can I ask you a question? What is progress?” As we walked up the ramps, I spoke about wanting to become a better person when you grow up. While I was trying to explain that, a teenager appeared and took over, while the 9 year-old disappeared. “Can you elaborate?” As I labored to understand myself what I had meant after a few minutes a tall guy in his 30s arrived speaking to me about sprinting, which tied somehow with progress. He was replaced a bit later by an older man in his 60s who told me: “you know, my two best friends are alcoholic, and I wonder what that’s about.” This conversation became the most existential of all, so much so that neither of us had realized that we had reached the top of the ramp and my interlocutor was so absorbed by it that he temporarily forgot that he was part of an art piece. “Oh my god”, he said. “Usually I am not here by this point”. Then he added: “Thank you. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal” and left. Finally alone, I felt a bit of melancholy at that point, I am not exactly sure why.
The piece in essence uses the most basic technique of a gallery tour, which is to extract the information of the viewer, only that in this case the object from which one starts the conversation is not an artwork on view but the viewers themselves. It also is based on the principle that in discussing art what we truly learn is not an abstract concept that is bestowed upon us, but the personal meaning that we construct on our own either by conversation with others or with ourselves. I also find it interesting that Sehgal calls his actors “interpreters”. But to say something is educational is the kiss of death in art, that is why it is better not to tell anyone.
But then again, I know I am being facetious about this work being education: in truth, while I have been up and down those ramps in museum tours, I had never had a conversation like that. Something strange and different had happened. So, aside of whether Sehgal may or may not be championing the causes of museum education, my question for all of you is: how do you feel about artworks that are only about social interaction? Do they represent progress?