In Respect of the Experience of Art, Tino Sehgal

The fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosts a generous portion of its permanent collection and some of the museum’s most famous pieces—a continuously rotating assemblage of 20th-century work starring various manifestations of Pollack, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Ruscha. One that has always captured my attention is John Baldessari’s 1966-68 eggshell coloured, painted text canvas, What Is Painting. Spelled out in neat, black type, the work asks passing museum visitors that very question, with a three-sentence answer theorised in matching text beneath. The irony (at face value) is simple brilliance – the work Baldessari has created is, in fact, a painting. And adding to the flat absurdity, in its answer the artwork states, ‘Art is a creation for the eye that can only be hinted at with words.’ 

When discussing this work, Baldessari has said, “I’ve always been attracted to anyone that can blatantly say what art is. I just like that kind of audacity, or ignorance, one or the other”. The artist slyly unveils the irrefutable trap of trying to define something so open to interpretation as art itself, but the sentiment of What is Painting, washed over with wit and humour as dry as its own paint, hints at the value in the pure experience of art. The idea that art is something to be breathed in and visualized, and not merely an object capable of fitting within the parameters of description, definition, or any other form of documentation.

For London-born, Berlin-based artist, Tino Sehgal, art might exist almost entirely as experience, ephemeral and undocumented, complete within the eye of the beholder. Like Baldessari, Sehgal spins a strange mirror on the art world, questioning the expectations and structures that underpin it. A dancer and a former student in political economy, Sehgal’s conceptual performance work is unscripted. It is never recorded. It exists as constructed performance, documented in memory alone. Sehgal has been labeled a fierce immaterialist for his refusal to create anything that might be considered a material object or take physical form. Photography, video and wall plaques to describe and reference his work are prohibited; media releases promoting exhibitions are especially vague. 

Perhaps this is because the best way to approach Sehgal is to be unknowing, to remain not briefed, even ignorant. If art is to exist as pure experience – then the viewer should not be akin to any idea of what will play out. I first witnessed Sehgal’s work earlier this year, with no real sense of what I was about to encounter. A relatively inexplicit press document had listed Sehgal’s most recent artistic accolades – the Gold Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale and a nomination for the often-controversial British Turner Prize, an award that spotlights talent in innovative media and has become known for goading the question, ‘Is that really art?’ In Sehgal’s company are past winners and nominees: Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, Damien Hurst and Steve McQueen.

I approached the towering stone columns of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales intrigued and harbouring a nervous curiosity. I made my way past the slew of tourists suspended about the stone steps, moved through the archway of the ornate marble foyer and stopped. What was it that I was looking for exactly? After enquiring with one blank-faced attendant, I was directed towards a corner of the foyer, “The performers are over there,” he waved. A little perplexed, I tiptoed over and gazed hopelessly upwards and across into the galley of the museum. There were no oddly clad actors or out of place figures – just waves of visitors and precisely positioned gallery staff. 

Only moments before confusion swallowed me entirely, three uniformed gallery attendants jumped up, dormant puppets whose strings had suddenly been pulled and tightened. The group encircled one unsuspecting museum guest, dancing and shouting the title of the performance repeatedly, with brimming excitement, “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!” The lonely visitor who had been swept up, almost literally, by the attendants-cum-performers, managed fits of embarrassed laughter, shock, and slimy awkwardness. The quiet museum experience and that lone visitor’s expectation of mute paintings and silent sculptures muddled with hushed reflection had been utterly ruptured by Sehgal’s absurd, loud foyer intervention. I watched the stranger pass through into the museum, peering over their shoulder to check if the disguised attendants were still following. They had instead resumed their dormant pose, waiting to drum up their repetitive chorus around the next, quietly composed individual. 

This particular rendition of Sehgal’s 2005 Venice Biennale piece, This is so contemporary was imported to Australia by John Kaldor (an ardent collector and veteran philanthropist) as a part of the programming of Kaldor Public Art Projects, a non-profit organization that has bolstered some 40 years worth of experiential art projects in public spaces. In 1969 Kaldor invited New York-based artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to cover 2.5km of Sydney coastline and cliff in billowing white sails and rope for Wrapped Coast, at the time the largest single artwork ever fashioned. Vistors meandered across the surface of the fabric for up to an hour in order to traverse the entire piece. As a brilliant arrangement of art, spectacle, and environment, Wrapped Coast existed to be experienced.

“I think Tino’s a very important artist; he’s really shown a new way of conceiving, or looking at what is visual art, in its broadest terms,” Kaldor tells me. “He really changed the way we perceive art – the object or the non-object.” While Sehgal’s creations might be fugitive, fleeting and incorporeal, they are still sold for a price and passed on (with strict performance instructions) as an artistic commodity. Sehgal’s purchase process is selective and verbal – Sehgal explicitly describes the piece to his buyer, and a notary validates the agreement orally, evading any conceivable contractual paper trail. 

And ownership is certainly an abstract concept. ‘Somehow it exists in my mind, in my body, and in the bodies of the people who know how to do it, and it also exists in their memories, and of those of the people who saw it,’ Sehgal has explained in an interview with The New Yorker. For Kaldor, the acquisition procedure was interesting. “It really goes back to the very basis, I suppose, like in the olden days, when you had agreements with a handshake, not written contracts. He just doesn’t want to leave any physical trace behind… Perhaps in some ways, it’s a reaction to art being so objectified and so hyped at the moment.” 

Interestingly, the idea of acquiring immaterial and experiential works has not yet run waves through the art market. In a lecture entitled, Selling the Unsellable: Bringing Experiential and Ephemeral Works of Contemporary Art to Market, art historian Noah Horrawitz indicated that while two thirds of the market was consumed by paintings and drawing, photography and sculpture made up most of the last third, only a tiny 1% remains and is described as ‘other’ . While citing Lawrence Weiner and the 1960s, avant-garde idea that artwork can exist only as an idea, before an object, Horrawitz states that while this ‘other’ has not emerged fully in the market, artists working within the spectrum have still established a great deal of art world credibility – Sehgal included. 

Presenting art that doesn’t materially exist is challenging for a museum otherwise full of objects, documentation, references, and recordings. “Normally with our projects, we have brochures, we have written education programs,” says Kaldor. “We couldn’t do any of that because of the very strict guidelines that [Sehgal] imposes. We had a living brochure, so you know people [are] there to explain the project because we couldn’t do a brochure. So it was very challenging. We tried very hard to stay within his requirements.” 

Indeed, Sehgal’s determination to leave no footprint or material trace extends into every aspect of his work and life. The artist gave but one interview as coverage for the Kaldor Public Arts Projects performance in Sydney – but this was not necessarily due to a reluctance to speak with media. Arguably enough, Sehgal’s work lives and breathes from within art press – perhaps it is most concrete in the written stories and opinions of those who have encountered it. Sehgal is fiercely environmental, “He doesn’t fly so it’s always a bit too hard of a challenge,” explains Kaldor. During the course of the Sydney exhibition, Sehgal was travelling to Brazil by boat and was as a result, utterly unreachable. He carries no mobile phone. 

“I like the work, This is so contemporary,” Kaldor says. “Because it’s a happy work, it takes people by surprise. The reactions that we had were really very interesting. I would say 90% positive, although there were a few people that complained that they were surprised and taken aback. ‘It’s not something that should be in an art gallery,’ – there was that comment. But all in all, it was quite positive.” Sehgal’s work demands a reaction and a level of personal engagement – you cannot help but become a part of the situation as it is laid out before you, even if your response is to refuse it. ‘The situative is the core of my work,’ Sehgal has explained. ‘It must be personally participated in.’ For the 2010 piece This Progress, Sehgal emptied New York’s Guggenheim of all of its artwork, and positioned children, teenagers and young adults throughout Frank Lloyd Wright’s ascending spiral gallery. As visitors climbed upwards, they were asked to define the notion of ‘progress’. This Objective of That Object (2004) also summons spectator conversation. Performers form a circle around one visitor, chanting the title of the work and reacting to the visitor’s action. In the case of inaction, they sink to the ground. 

Sehgal’s work is as much outside of materiality as it can be in a world built up with objects, artifacts and physical memorabilia. It throws light over the real value in what is insubstantial and salutes the pure experience of art, and of human experience more generally. Undoubtedly now Sehgal has scaled most summits of the art world, with shows at Tate Modern, Guggenheim and dOCUMENTA in Germany in 2012. Perhaps it is the mystery – via the man himself, his work or the combination of the two – that becomes the appeal of the experience. When commenting on his practice he has said, ‘We want something immaterial from material things. So, why take the detour via objects?’ Art is something that has been created to be seen, to make us feel something new, next, different. Does it need to take up a tangible form? And where does it endure if it is not solid or substantial? “I think the strongest presence, will be in people’s memories,” Kaldor offers. “Of course all the things that are written up will give an underpinning, an idea, but the strongest will always be people’s recollections, their own experiences.”

This piece first appeared in print for MUSEUM magazine. 

Image, John Baldessari, What Is Painting, 1966-68

Art, Op EdSammy PrestonMUSEUM