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?