Don’t Objectify Him: Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim

Friday, January 29, 2010

Walk into the Guggenheim between now and March 10th and you will find it empty. There are no paintings on the walls, no sculptures in the rotunda or multimedia installations that require dim lights and headphones. What you will find instead are people – several dozen of them scattered along the bare, spiraling ramp of the museum – ready to engage in chatty, cerebral dialogue about what we, the viewer, consider progress -  among myriad other topics. Welcome to "This is Progress," a work by Tino Sehgal, a London-born conceptual artist who produces only ephemeral performances that he refers to as "situations." Insert Jersey Shore joke here.

Sehgal allows no documentation of his work (no photos, video, or audio), nor does he allow the creation of any objects related to it. There is no wall text, no certificates, no hernia-inducing catalogues loaded with artspeak. In fact, when I showed up for the press preview, there was no speechifying by curators and no press releases (all museum shows should be this awesome) – just the experience of walking into an empty museum wondering what exactly I was in for.

Accompanying me was Susanna Heller, a Brooklyn-based painter - and, coincidentally, a Guggenheim Fellow - who responded to a call by WNYC to be part of this highly unusual experience. (Since the only existing record of Sehgal’s work are the people who experience it, we thought it’d be prudent to take back-up.)

So what did we see and do? As we ascended the ramp, we were greeted by a young girl (about 8, missing front teeth, seriously cute), who asked us to follow her. Soon, she was peppering us with all manner of grown-up questions: What is progress? What does progress mean to us? Could we provide examples to support our answers? As we spoke, we strolled slowly up the ramp and were deposited in the hands of a young man in his late teens, where we continued the discussion on somewhat more adult terms. As we continued up the ramp, we were relayed to another performer and another. On some occasions, the questions we were asked were in keeping with the theme of progress; in others, they came completely out of left field. We discussed painting, man's relationship to nature and tried to understand why humans venerate the objects they do. Trying to recount all the details here is like trying to reconstruct a particularly intense dinner party conversation: It was fascinating while it happened, but on the retelling can seem trite and pretentious.

By the time we reached the top of the museum’s ramp, we’d had some pretty intense dialogues – with complete strangers – about ideas, society and ourselves. I didn’t want it to end. Neither did Susanna.  In fact, as soon as we finished, we went right back down and did it again and had a completely different set of equally intriguing discussions.

The piece was compelling on a number of levels. For one, the Guggenheim looks spectacular without art. (Proving the theory that Frank Lloyd Wright’s building is unkind to any object but itself.) Two, Sehgal’s piece completely kicks us out of our museum-going haze – that rush-through-the-galleries zombie mode that all of us, at one time or another, have fallen into. Picasso: Check. Kandinsky: Check. Pollock: Check. Off to the gift shop.

At one stage in her life, Susanna, now 53, worked as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During that time, she said that she saw countless people arrive in galleries, glance at a painting, read the wall text and then leave. Most people, she told me, would spend more time looking at the wall text than looking at the work of art. What Sehgal’s piece forced us to do was engage the art – literally, to talk to it, to think about it, to answer its probing questions. We had to chew on ideas, our own and other people’s, to engage in the sort of debate that art is purportedly supposed to generate, yet often doesn’t. (Too often, it’s about how much stuff cost.) For Susanna and I, the experience was a conversational rush – energizing, thought-provoking, mind-boggling. It’s the sort of experience that will make me look at traditional works of painting and sculpture in a fresh and curious way. Ultimately, what Sehgal demonstrates is that sometimes you have to empty out the museum to truly appreciate what’s there.

Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim is up through March 10, 2010.


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Comments [8]

Spiritual Curator

How exactly is this visionary? And, no offense to the museum goers, but have you ever just started a conversation with somebody while in a museum? Do you really need to be forced to talk? Hmmm...where have I seen the before? Could it be that tino's pieces are more or less agrandized versions of street performers? Could it be that his ideas are more or less recycling John Cage's work (see 4'33" if you want to review good work already done)...OR, could it be that Tino has found a way for people to pay for quasi-structured conversation? Wait! I know where I've seen this:

Hmmm...I think I'll have my conversations and discussion for free, thanks...THAT'S progress.

Feb. 01 2010 06:04 PM
phoebe from Soho

I took my sister to see this exhibit, without knowing what was 'supposed to happen'. For some reason, no one greeted us, and we had a very surreal and somewhat paranoid experience walking up the beautiful spiral with no art. We slowly figured out there were "actors" involved, and that we had not "been picked". We slowly realized *everyone* else had an actor with them except us. It was a very odd experience. We left feeling as though art had been taken away from us, very empty and confused. We even wondered if we were somehow unapproachable -- did we act too curious? are we too tall? (we are both very tall!) too loud? (we both like to talk alot). So, it sounds like an amazing exhibit, but I really feel like I completely missed it.

Feb. 01 2010 04:22 PM
Simon from NYC

I went to the Guggenheim on Friday afternoon and absolutely loved the Sehgal exhibit. I'd like to point out that this review makes no mention that there are two Sehgal works being shown: "This Progress" (not "This is Progress") and "Kiss". Immediately upon entering the museum you see a couple in a constant slow-motion extremely intimate make-out session. After watching for a few minutes you realize the couple is doing a choreographed "phrase" and they eventually switch roles (male did female, female did male). If you're lucky one of them will stop and look at you almost confrontationally. It is as if they are controlling the entire rotunda with their gaze and having a very intimate sexual experience at the same time. If you get close enough to them you'll here them say every so often, "Tino Sehgal, Kiss, 2002, MOMA, New York". All this happens to the viewer before he or she ascends the ramp. Once you get to the top and are finished experiencing "This Progress" don't forget to look over and see the couple from above still rolling slowing around on the floor kissing. "Kiss" was quite fascinating and if the reviewer didn't notice it, I would recommend they go back.

Jan. 30 2010 08:38 PM
Tasnim from New York City

My music teacher once compared abstract art to beautiful music (without words or songs). If it leaves you with a pleasant experience, a thrill and a desire to go back and experience it some more than it is art, whether a painting or a piece of music. This is what I experienced at the Tino Sehgal's: This Situation at the Marion Goodman Gallery two years ago and again when I visited This Progress at the Guggenheim on Thursday. It was a thrilling experience and I want to go back a few more times. In this case the object of art is real people and you yourself. We are creating art as we visit the museum. How interesting is that!

Jan. 30 2010 05:35 PM
Carolina A Miranda from Brooklyn

I'm with Josephine on this one. I was skeptical about this before I went in - and ended up being completely taken with the piece. Try it, you might like it.

Jan. 30 2010 05:24 PM

I think you should give it a try. Call it art, call it a conversation, call it a ham sandwich, it's energizing and beautiful and an experience that will never happen to you at any other time in any other space with anyone else.

Jan. 30 2010 01:03 AM
Lindsay from milford PA.

Suppose I showed you a piece of blank paper.Would that be Art to you or Tino?
Seems like it to me.
Contemporary Art is Marketing.
Get it?

Jan. 29 2010 05:56 PM
Russell Mehlman

First let me say I hate bs artspeak, and love the (one on one) Guggenheim experience of viewing visual art. This show is just another bit of audience dependent, psychodrama performance art, being performed in the perfect theater for it, The Guggenheim. BTW I'm a self taught, narrative, figurative painter who loves to make art, but has no interest in conceptual art, and little to no interest in looking at other people's visual art.

Jan. 29 2010 11:41 AM

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