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Don’t Objectify Him: Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim

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.