Art Basel 2015

Strange Situation: Tino Sehgal, Enemy of Purchasing Objects, Talks With Tina Brown at a Dinner for Credit Suisse in Basel

"Hands are weird aren't they?" is not a thing that Tino Sehgal said to Tina Brown.

“Hands are weird aren’t they?” is not a thing that Tino Sehgal said to Tina Brown.

Tino Sehgal once claimed that he had not bought anything in over a year, and broke only because his girlfriend thought their apartment should have some curtains. His works exist only in his head and in their execution, they are forbidden to be reproduced in any way, and they are sold by verbal agreement. Which makes him an interesting choice to chat with Tina Brown—former editor of such sybarite bibles as Vanity Fair and Talk—before the annual dinner hosted by Credit Suisse, a bank with assets totaling $872 billion, which would buy a lot of curtains.

The interaction between the fair and the banking world here in Basel is constant and natural, akin to the interaction between the fashion world and Art Basel Miami Beach, or the interaction between the startup world and fairs in New York. In Basel, banking’s simply the local industry. So why not note the commingling of art and commerce and drink champagne on Credit Suisse’s dime?

Perhaps this was Sehgal’s thinking when he agreed to be the latest artist to volley the serves from Brown here in Basel—last year it was Matthew Barney, to amusing effect. In any case, introductory remarks stressed that beyond just propping up the art market financially, Credit Suisse is one of those banks intent to have a arm devoted to art endeavors, a fact that was brought up a number of times.

“It’s the very establishment, Credit Suisse—you wouldn’t really expect it to be on the bleeding edge,” Brown said in her typically breathless tone.

(Another revealing moment: while introducing her co-hosts, Pamela Thomas-Graham, a top executive at Credit Suisse, made a bit of a slip-up. “And I would like to thank Richard Chang, who is a great investor—er, I mean, collector,” she said.)

At any rate, we had a conversation to get through before we could eat, so the dynamic duo of Tina and Tino took the stage. The artist sat down and started to shrink in the seat, visibly uncomfortable in front of the small group that happened to include some of the more powerful dealers, collectors and curators on earth. Apparently it was a little bright up there.

“Why are there… theater lights?” he asked.

“No, we don’t want theater lights,” Brown said.

“My work, actually, it’s like theater without the theater lights,” he said. “What that means is the theater lights produce a kind of separation — you can see me, but I can’t see you. That’s what we call absorption. We’re creating a situation in which Tina and me are in this situation together and you can partake in this situation as if you were a part of it. So that’s what these lights are doing—and they are really blinding me…”

“Is there any way we can actually turn down these lights,” Brown called out to a crowd of people who looked around cluelessly. “They are a bit bright.”

“Well, actually, it’s helping me answer the question!” Sehgal said.

They kept on bantering in a loose, friendly way, which is sort of surprising considering the sheer mass of self-confidence assembled onstage and the fact that Sehgal was casually dismissing all the things he doesn’t like: showing anywhere but prestigious museums, anything performed on a stage, the chair he was currently sitting on, Santiago Sierra.

At one point, Brown made some offhand comment about his art as “rebellion against capitalism,” and boy oh boy, did that set off Sehgal.

“Rebelling reminds me of teenage and reminds me of the 20th century and I’m not too interested in either of those things,” he said.

You heard it here first: The 20th century doesn’t interest Tino Sehgal too much.

Then, using George Balanchine as a starting point, Brown asked why he creates works that don’t exist in the world, saying, “Is that what you want? To have nothing?” with genuine incredulity.

“The second generation are teaching the ballets, which means these dancers didn’t know Balanchine, they never danced under him,” he said. “But it was passed down. You could take the English language, like we’re doing right now, and it’s going to be passed on from body to body, from mother to child. It’s not going to disappear, they learn it from the mother, they don’t go to the library to learn how to speak—Messi didn’t go to the library to learn the rules of football.”

There were the inevitable forays into the artist’s seemingly incompatible fields of study, economics and dance—“You’re a dancing economist who became an artist who constructed situations!” Brown said as if she’d been waiting to say that sentence all her life—before circling back to an inevitable topic: so, what’s up with that art fair with all those insanely expensive things for sale? Does that really grind your gears, Tino?

“Given we’re at Art Basel, a temple of objects, any thoughts on this year’s show?” Brown asked.

Sehgal paused, and brought up the Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ecosystem that he created on the messeplatz.

“It’s very 2015,” he said. “It looks good, it’s social, it’s inclusive—now, if it’s art or not, I’m not sure it matters. It’s a certain kind of approach to contemporary life, and I don’t think this thing could have been possible seven years ago.”

And then time called for Tina Brown to end the conversation.

“We could talk for much longer,” she said. “But I think we’re now going to construct a situation called ‘Dinner.’”

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