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Living Memory: Tino Sehgal Takes Over Paris’s Palais de Tokyo With 300 Performers, and a Few Friends

Palais de Tokyo's image for the 2016 edition of the museum's Carte Blanche series, by Tino Sehgal, who famously does not allow documentation of any sort of his work. COURTESY PALAIS DE TOKYO

Tino Sehgal does not allow his works to be documented through photographs or videos, but here is Philippe Parreno’s drawing Tino Sehgal’s Annlee, drawn at Palais de Tokyo, 2013, pencil on paper.

COURTESY PALAIS DE TOKYO

Passing through a curtain of shimmering, transparent beads, you enter a vast, bare white space with people milling about. Suddenly a young girl walks up to you, gazes into your eyes and leads you into a long, empty gallery. “What is the enigma?” she asks. She guides you over to a slightly older person, a young woman, who interrogates you about the idea of progress; she, in turn, takes you to yet another, yet slightly older person, who asks yet another philosophical question. The situation, while utterly simple, is also unsettling, anxiety-provoking. Should you answer or silently listen, follow or flee? Even though you should feel safe with these self-possessed young people, a bit of insecurity remains, especially in the nervous atmosphere that currently pervades Paris.

Heading downstairs, you shuffle into an empty white room, where a bunch of visitors are plunking themselves down on the floor and waiting. Someone enters the room from a door in the back corner, stands in the middle of the room, and begins to sigh heavily and repeatedly. A handful of people who have been standing, facing the wall, begin to whisper slowly and in unison, “The objective of this work is to become the object of a discussion.” You shift uncomfortably as they repeat the phrase, their voices becoming progressively louder and more assertive, never looking at you or at one another. Are you supposed to move, ask a question, say something, get up and leave?

Fans of the British-born, Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal will quickly recognize his signature here: rather than showing material objects (drawings, paintings, sculptures, videos, installations), he creates experiences—he calls them “constructed situations”—that depend on each visitor’s comfort level and boundaries. He requires that his works never be documented in any material form: no wall captions, no explanatory texts, no photographs or films, nothing that might leave a trace. The work is limited to the immediate encounter itself. Afterwards, only a memory of it lingers.

View of the exterior of Palais de Tokyo. FLORENT MICHEL / 11H45

View of the exterior of Palais de Tokyo.

FLORENT MICHEL / 11H45

Disarming and at times beautiful, this exhibition is the most extensive art project to date for the 40-year-old Sehgal, a former choreographer and winner of the Golden Lion in Venice in 2013, who was invited by the Palais de Tokyo to take over all of its immense, labyrinthine space. Sehgal has filled its 140,000 square feet with a selection of his most important works, staging them in collaboration with 300 “interpreters” who perform his choreographed pieces. Fifty of them move continuously throughout the downstairs space, singing a cappella, posing, chanting, jogging, and mingling with visitors, initiating haphazard encounters, and engaging them in fleeting conversations. Enacted concurrently throughout the raw, open spaces, the works seem to overlap, intermingle, and interact with one another, providing his work with a new level of complexity and resonance.

In collaboration with Philippe Parreno, Sehgal also presents the exhibition’s most moving work, based on the Japanese Manga character Ann Lee. First, in a short animated film, the small, blue-haired girl (whose copyright was famously purchased by Parreno and another Sehgal artist-friend, Pierre Huyghe, then passed onto several other contemporary artists) introduces herself. Then, a young, waiflike girl with dark hair walks out and stands in front of the blank screen. Softly, she begins to speak, making graceful, doll-like hand movements, her monologue touching on her transition, from two- to three- to four-dimensional character; she asks if visitors know Huyghe and Parreno, and tells the audience that they have become too “busy to spend time with her.” “Lately I’ve been trying to hang out with Tino Sehgal, but he, too, has also become too busy,” she continues, her speech slower, halting. “Would you rather be too busy or not busy enough? Why?” she asks. “What’s the difference between sign and melancholia?” she goes on to ask. No one answers. For a moment, this quiet young girl, seemingly in-between two worlds, real and unreal, becomes a poignant spokesperson for Sehgal’s work, one that feels like a dream world but at the same time forces us to confront our fears, our loneliness, our strengths and fragilities.

Ann Lee is one of the works by six other artists that Sehgal selected to include in his exhibition. Hovering near the show’s entrance, one finds Parreno’s floating, fish-shaped helium balloons as well as Daniel Buren’s luminous, site-specific installation Quatre fois moins ou quatre fois plus ? (Four Times Less or Four Times More?), first shown in 2004—circles of vibrant color that seem to float on the ceiling. Sehgal has also installed three shimmering beaded curtains by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, including the one at the exhibition’s entrance; and a series of convivial happenings is being orchestrated by Isabel Lewis. Leaky pipes, flickering lights, and puddles of water on the dark basement floor make up Living / Cancer / Variator (2016), an in situ installation by Pierre Huyghe’s on the development of cancer cells. A nearby room shows James Coleman’s 1977 film Box (Ahhareturnabout), projected as a video, in which he has cut archival footage of the famous 1927 boxing match of Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey into a sequence of violent, flashing, throbbing images, which come together with the incantations of Sehgal’s interpreters and blinking lights so that the entire space seems to pulsate to an invisible beat.

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