Just inside the Palais de Tokyo a young man, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, approached me, kept me in place by dancing in my path, and asked—first in French and then in English—“What is a riddle?” At once confused, delighted, and frustrated, I stammered, “What do you think?” as I realized I had become part of a piece (Enigme, 2016) choreographed by Britain-born, Berlin-based Tino Sehgal, an artist known for his refusal to produce art objects or provide information about his work (eschewing wall texts, brochures, catalogues, and photographs).
Given that his “constructed situations,” as he calls them, jibe with museum trends that call for interactive objects and live performance, Sehgal’s institutional success is perhaps not surprising. In 2010 he was the youngest artist to be offered a solo show in the New York Guggenheim’s rotunda ramp, for which he presented This Progress (2006), originally enacted at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Various guides—a child, then a teenager, then an adult, and finally an older person—approached visitors as they ascended the otherwise empty ramp, initiating conversations about “progress.” Last year, Sehgal, who trained in political economics and dance, became the second artist—the first was Philippe Parreno in 2013—given carte blanche to conceive an exhibition for the Palais de Tokyo’s entire 140,000 square feet.
For the resultant show, Seghal presented six situations as well as several artworks by colleagues in the museum’s warren of rooms. He skillfully upended the usual museum experience by replacing the traditional celebration of material culture with face-to-face interactions, a mode of communication that many argue is on the wane as we increasingly connect through tweets, posts, and other forms of technological mediation. With no signage or guidance, the show involved much wandering and wondering. In the lobby, many may not have realized that when they passed by a school of fish-shaped balloons (Philippe Parreno’s My Room Is Another Fish Ball, 2016) and through a beaded curtain (Félix González-Torres’s Untitled [Chemo], 1991), they had already entered the exhibition.
Under a ceiling of brightly lit colorful disks (Daniel Buren’s Quatre Fois moins ou Quatre Fois plus?, 2004–16), a female “interpreter”—to use Sehgal’s term for the individuals trained to carry out his situations—pointed me toward a young boy standing near a door. I approached and he introduced himself, asked my name, and then asked me to define “progress.” I responded, “One foot in front of the next?” As I continued through This Progress, I pondered the titular idea, the conversations around me, the interpreters’ lives, and the way the work would change according to its venue: while the Guggenheim incarnation, for instance, involved walking up the spiral, here the piece involved moving across the sprawling Palais and ending downstairs.
At the center of a high-ceilinged basement space I joined others standing and seated near a wide staircase for These Associations (2012). A swarm of interpreters ran across the room at full speed, only to disperse just as quickly among the chatting crowd of viewers. When they suddenly rushed back together, gathering in a corner, I wondered if any spectators had joined them. Down a dingy corridor, a small room that seemed to be a dead end was actually a highlight. A handful of people milled about. Then five of them, facing different walls and the doorway, loudly proclaimed in unison, “The objective of this work is to become the object of a discussion,” and fell to the ground (This objective of that object, 2004). A visitor tried to leave but the interpreter nearest the door writhed about on the floor, blocking the path. With the doorway obstructed and minutes passing, smirks turned to anxious glances. To have nothing to do but contemplate one’s own thoughts and feelings and imagine those of others became a kind of event, and it was invigorating.