Tino Sehgal does not create objects but rather experiences. Instead of exhibiting inanimate artworks, he produces choreographed yet open-ended and renewable human interactions that may be bought and sold, similar to any such product resulting from artistic labor. Conceptualism, capitalism, and memory are at the heart of his practice, which has both radically transformed the parameters of artistic production as we know it and expanded our understanding of the “dematerialization of the object”1 in the twenty-first century. Through the creation and exhibition of what he calls “constructed situations,” Sehgal proposes that the art museum, for centuries driven by the collection and perpetuation of ideated materiality in all its forms, has become a forum where the politics of social interaction and environmental sustainability are played out in unexpected ways via performative art forms such as dance, song, and the spoken word. While a sculptor may transform stone into a human figure, Sehgal transforms an individual’s energy, intellect, and actions into something altogether different, a new paradigm in art-making.
Sehgal studied dance and political economics in Berlin and Essen, Germany, at the Folkwang Hochschule, before launching his dance career with French experimental choreographers Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy. In 1999, Sehgal joined Les Ballets C. de la B., a Berlin-based dance collective, while continuing to independently develop and perform his own choreography. His earliest cross-disciplinary work, Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century (2000), a harbinger of the concerns the artist would explore in his later works in relation to the immateriality of performance and the museum, was presented in 2001 in the exhibition I’ll Never Let You Go, organized by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. Sehgal’s interpretations of the dance aesthetics of twenty of the greatest choreographers of the modern era, including Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Yvonne Rainer, and Le Roy, represented for the artist a transformation from his past experience in choreographing a single, discrete piece into what might be understood as a conceptual artwork-exhibition of collected performances—in his words, “a museum of dance”2 incarnate.
In 2000, with an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK) in Ghent, Belgium, Sehgal found himself swiftly transitioning from a promising career as a dancer/choreographer to work that more directly traded on the histories and practices of the visual arts and its discourses on conceptualism, without having to abandon his belief in the communicative, even expressive, capability of the material body as a carrier of meaning.3 The exhibition included a single piece that the artist insisted appear on view during museum hours for one week—hardly an unusual request, save for the fact that the work required the continuous presence of human beings, whose physical needs for nourishment and rest necessitated a schedule of shifts. With this work also came an artistic epiphany that was shared with his audiences: what he had created was a work of art much like a sculpture, but quite unlike an ephemeral in-gallery theatrical or dance piece. Sehgal soon gained the attention of the art world4 with his work’s appearance in “Utopia Station” at the Venice Biennale in 2003; solo exhibitions at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France, in 2004; and the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005.
Absolutely essential to the self-reflexive doctrine that drives Sehgal’s practice is a rigorous, personal, and decidedly political belief system borne out of the impact that economic theory and environmental activism have had on his thinking. Unconcerned with the vast differences between the theory and praxis of economics, dance, and the visual arts, Sehgal broke down the walls between these disciplines as he questioned ways that systems of production and distribution might operate within culture as well as commerce.
The artist does not find fault in capitalism per se, but rather critiques the material basis for the production side of the market economy:
“What interests me … is how a product was produced. In most cases, the process has involved someone taking natural resources from the earth and then someone else coming around and transforming these natural resources into a production by some form of labor. This structure is shared by the production process of most things and products in our society. … This mode of production by the transformation of material has been highly efficient: now for the first time in human history, there are societies where basic needs are adequately covered and the immediate dangers of nature have been tamed. But now this mode of production is also becoming problematic: firstly since it is beginning to become counterproductive due to hazardous emissions or to resources becoming scarce. … So the question is whether there is a different way of producing (and thereby generating income) that would be less counterproductive and that would also be of more interest to us.”5
The artist postulates that it is possible to create art in a way that will not negatively impact the environment, produced through nothing more than the expenditure of human energy and exchanged sustainably in a free market system. Ultimately, what he strives for is the “simultaneity of production and deproduction, instead of the economics of growth,” a practice in which the work is produced but at the end of the day is deproduced, in that it no longer takes up physical but rather memory space.6
As he set about building the cycle of production, distribution, and consumption into his art early on, Sehgal struggled to communicate his imperative that the work not stand apart from or in opposition to the customary operations of art-world and economic systems, especially in regard to consumption—a maxim that proved to be most challenging to the art-world status quo and for his critics to reconcile. He argued that in order for the artist to support himself, and in so doing continue to participate in the market economy just like any other working person, the output of his labor (the artwork, his product) had to be purchased and provide income both to the artist and to those in his employ.
Not content to leave the conversation there, he extended his argument to describe our current moment not as “an age of production of things,” but rather one of the “production of subjectivity.” He explained, “As people have to make an income they are constantly trying to think—consciously or not—what do other people have a demand for and how can we produce something for this demand? … Because what we have demand for, as an affluent society or as the rich peoples that we are in the West, is a differentiation of our personality or a demand for differentiation of our subjectivity.”7 Here Sehgal imagines a time in the future in which needs are met and wants are satisfied not necessarily by the exchange of objects but by interpersonal exchange, one that aids us in defining for ourselves and for others, our personality (our character, behavior, emotions, attitudes), and ultimately our subjectivity (who we are). The individual will trump the material; our coffers will overflow with “an inter-subjective wealth.”8
To date, Sehgal has created what might be roughly broken down into at least four bodies of work. The first group of works is composed from carefully choreographed movements, and as such, are more akin to dance. A number of these reference various artists and artworks from art history, such as Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), which quotes body movements from pieces such as Bruce Nauman’s Wall-Floor Positions (1968) and Dan Graham’s Roll (1970) and Kiss (2004), in which great embraces from the history of art are enacted by two interpreters on the gallery floor; and This variation (2012), in which vocalizations, singing, and sound break through a pitch-black gallery where the aural takes precedence over the formal or discursive. Unlike his more conversational pieces, such as This objective of that object (2004), the works in this first category take a more traditional approach to the relationship of the audience to a static work of art—the visitor has the option to gaze passively upon the interpreters or to simply listen, as in the case of This variation. Here interaction is neither necessary nor invited. According to the artist, with these pieces he “was trying to fulfill all conventions to make my work comparable to a traditional sculpture. … From there on, I just wanted to become more specific to my own medium. I have people enacting my work and they can become much more than just a solid material can. … I create situations which use the capacities of these people, and make them increasingly more complex.”9 For Sehgal, the molding and modeling of his corporeal material in this first category is a meditation on animate form rather than subjectivity, which is a key concern in other works.
The second group of works is more declarative in nature. Instead of the visitor taking in a form, they take in a message. Falling within this category are pieces such as This is propaganda (2002), in which museum guards sing “This is propaganda, you know, you know,” and then state the artist’s name, title of the piece, and the date; This is new (2003), for which a museum staff member approaches a visitor and reads a newspaper headline from that day; and perhaps his most humorous work, This is contemporary (2004), for which a museum guard dances and sings “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” when a visitor enters the space.
The final category includes This is exchange (2002), in which visitors are offered money to converse about the market economy; This is progress (2010), in which visitors amble while in a conversation with four interpreters of varying ages on the nature of “progress”; and These associations (2012), in which concepts of individualism and group behavior occupy seventy interpreters who share personal anecdotes with members of the public. Each of these pieces amply reveals Sehgal’s acuity in distilling the spoken word, natural and choreographed movement, game strategies, institutional behavior, and social norms in a single piece. There is a marked escalation of scale, complexity, and ambition in these works. Rather than occupying the same amount of space as a single life-size figure on a pedestal (such as two entwined bodies kissing), the entire gallery becomes a site for congregation, epiphany, and exchange—one of productivity rather than contemplation.
This objective of that object, which belongs to the latter group, centers on the agency of the visitor in the face of an unorthodox and decidedly oblique invitation from complete strangers to participate in a work of live art. The piece takes place in an empty gallery, devoid of any other artwork. The space, the dimensions of which must enable the interpreters and visitors to move freely, is activated when a visitor enters the room. With their backs turned toward the visitor and without making eye contact throughout the situation, the five interpreters10 breathe deeply while moving into a loose circle formation around the visitor. They begin to chant, at first almost inaudibly and then rising to a crescendo, until the following sentence is plainly heard: “The objective of this work is to be the object of a discussion.” Unless the visitor reacts to this provocation, the interpreters whisper their refrain one last time, then melodramatically fall facedown onto the floor, as if expiring in unison. This marks the end of the situation. If the visitor does in fact respond with a question or a statement, the interpreters stand up and energetically proclaim, “We have a comment! We have a comment!” They then ask, “Who will answer? Who will answer?” to which one will respond, “I will.” If they have heard any of the responses before, an interpreter will add, “It is a question that we have heard before!” The discussion ensues as they evaluate and analyze the visitor’s comment(s) or speak about what they have heard in a manner similar to the way an art critic would discuss or critique an artwork. The interpreters also have the option of speculating on the cultural attitude informing the comment. At any point, one of the interpreters may put an end to the discussion with a drawn-out articulation, “So …,” to activate a chain of eight words, each spoken by a different interpreter: “So-no-more-comments, so-no-more-questions.” With this, all interpreters but one lean back and spin out of the room. The interpreter who remains is then available to answer the visitor’s additional questions in a more candid fashion and, if asked, may reveal the name of the artist, the title of the piece, and the year the work was created.11 If at any moment as the piece unfolds another visitor enters the gallery, the current conversation abruptly ends and the process begins anew.
Sehgal gives his interpreters a fairly wide berth for the types of free responses they may offer, while also leaving it up to their discretion to speak with or about the visitor; but with either option, the artist directs them to be forceful (even aggressive) in their communications.12 Dorothea von Hantelmann has also observed that “although visitors are able to influence the course of the discussion by contributing to what is being said or interjecting a comment, they nonetheless never attain a position equal to that of the players, in part because of the formal arrangement of the situation.”13
The experience of this piece is unlike any other work in the Walker’s collection. From the outset, there is likely to be unparalleled unfamiliarity on the part of the visitor with the mechanics of what is happening as well as uncertainty regarding “the objective” of the work and who holds the keys to unlock its meaning. Perhaps it is the assertive staging (interpreters facing the walls, not the visitor) in addition to the choreographed movement and vocalization (breathing, chanting, collapsing) that readily communicates a mediated and premeditated experience rather than genuine repartee. Never is there a complete normalization of the exchange.14 Although this realization may bring about discomfort, self-consciousness, and even alienation, these same feelings may also breed meaningful exchanges of ideas. This is not so much of an encounter with a work of art as a commitment to become the work. It boils down to the question of will—you are “hailed” by the work, but are you willing to respond to it and in so doing become its object and subject?15 The performance of subjectivity is also played out in the grammar of Sehgal’s titles and the scripted statements embedded in his works. For instance, many of his titles begin with the phrase “This is.” Von Hantelmann has accounted for this as “a kind of mimetic trick to communicate the situation and transport the questions of content and meaning into the here and now. They emphasize this situation, place value on what happens at this very moment, in precisely this intersubjective relationship.”16
Much has been written about Sehgal’s rigid strictures against any and all forms of documentation, including written agreements or certificates of authenticity, photographs, videos, sound recordings, scripts, transcriptions, wall labels, catalogues, and even press releases. What could possibly be the reasoning behind this embargo? Again, the artist stays true to his mandate that no material transformation (from tree to paper) or consumption of natural resources take place in the production of the work and concomitant exhibition. In addition, he makes intrinsic to his process the disposition of stopgap measures in order to prevent ephemera related to his work from accruing monetary value. He points to the Fluxus movement as an example to make this point regarding the feeding frenzy that has occurred among collectors of primary documents, of which the Walker Art Center in this case is unapologetically “guilty.”17 According to the artist, “Experience with movements like Fluxus shows that documentation can easily become a kind of sacred relic, and that it is impossible to control this process. Fluxus actions and happenings were aimed at the single, ephemeral, auratic moment of their realization. … Therefore, they were dependent on documentation in the end. My work, on the contrary, has the possibility built into it that it can be shown again and again, even in 30 or 200 years. Therefore, this question of documentation is less virulent.”18
Michel Guthier has provided still another accounting for what he calls Sehgal’s “grapho- and icono-phobic protocol”:
“It marks the extension of the artwork’s mode of existence to the mechanism of its socialization. Because the piece is performative by definition, so are the modalities of its transmission, in both the aesthetic and business meanings of the word. Sehgal is rooted in a time in the history of art when the artist can no longer ignore the fact that an artwork can never be presented in society in the form of a naked and autonomous realization. It is surrounded by a mechanism to complete and protect it by forcing upon the pubic, if not an instruction manual and an interpretation, at least some kind of approach. Thus Sehgal does not want documentation that is peripheral to the work to rob it of its performative character.”19
Sehgal provides us with a given—that nothing ancillary will exist that can be bought and sold, and for as long as the artist is alive, the essential work will be passed down from the artist (and the artist’s chosen representatives) to generations of curators and collectors. In the short history of the art world, this in itself is radical; but when put in the context of human history, it is a mere blip—we have bequeathed histories, genealogies, laws, prayers, memories, and rituals to our descendants, not to mention stories, dances, poems, and plays, since we have had the powers of speech. Sehgal, too, is positioning us to inherit his fortune of well-wrought ideas and actions via training, cognition, and memory. Memory is the only true recourse to documentation through the oral recounting of experience; for example, the rules of the game that brought about the actual events. Group memorization thus becomes the standard mode of “conservation” of the work—one that insures its preservation, perpetuation, and authenticity.
Sehgal is not troubled by the fact that oral transmission of information makes the work extraordinarily vulnerable to the ravages of forgetfulness, inattention, and disagreement. To the contrary, he finds the inevitable attrition of his original intent provocative as a gradual and inevitable aging process that will continually reflect cultural shifts taking place in a given time or place, a process of evolutionary renewal that is out of his control. According to Sehgal, there will be a “continuous involvement of the present with the past in creating further presents instead of an orientation toward eternity…”20 In other words, the artist anticipates that with every installation of the piece, there will be a “new present” during which some kind of subtle transformation of the work will take place (that will be internalized and perpetuated by its custodians), which in turn will bring about what might be viewed as a generational standard for what the piece is at any present moment. This standard jettisons the customary mandate for preservation of the artist’s intent at the moment of creation as a way to keep decomposition at bay. When it comes to each work in Sehgal’s oeuvre, memory is the ultimate tool in the conservator’s toolkit—that “it exists in my mind, in my body and the bodies of the people who know how to do it, and … in their memories and of those of the people who saw it”21 ensures its preservation, which is one of the important roles of any collecting institution.
The Walker Art Center was the first institution to complete Sehgal’s promulgated system of production and distribution through the purchase of This objective of that object. The formal agreement of the terms of the oral contract of sale occurred on Friday, March 5, 2010, at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York City. The artist, the gallerist, a notary, and I, along with five other individuals representing the Walker and the gallery, were present to negotiate the terms of the contract and act as witnesses to the events that unfolded over the course of nearly two hours.22 After the perfunctory greetings and introductions, Sehgal began by explaining the process. He would articulate five clauses dealing with the artist’s authorization of the first installation at the Walker—the proper training, hiring, and pay of players whom he also refers to as “interpreters”; the minimum time frame during which the piece would be on view; the prohibition of photographic and any other means of documentation; and the acceptance and perpetuation of the actions represented by these clauses, if the piece were to be deaccessioned—after which he would invite questions, comments, and changes, one clause at a time. After consensus was reached on the part of the artist and the representatives from the Walker, Sehgal restated the clause and moved on to the next. This procedure was repeated until all five clauses were discussed and agreed upon. The artist concluded the meeting by ratifying each clause in succession, followed by official (and congratulatory) handshakes around the table.23 What saves this process for veering into the absurd is Sehgal’s seductive and uncompromising commitment to his own rules of engagement. It is the clarity of his intent that entices and convinces one to play by these rules. The notion that Sehgal’s works not only demand but also thrive on action is the signal importance behind his artistic breakthrough. As the artist notes, “There’s no possibility not to act, so everything you do, even if it doesn’t seem like acting, produces an effect.”24 The metaphorical power of this fundamental statement in the current climate is not simplistic, nor is it utopian, but rather meant to stand for the possibility of empowerment on the part of the museum and its visitor. Everyone who participates in Sehgal’s work is expected to act and reflect—to act, reflect, and remember.