In a lecture at the 2005 Frieze Art Fair, art historian Thomas Crow presented an insightful inquiry into the critical implications inherent in the relationship between works of art and the architecture they inhabit. In particular, he examined the “star-chitecture” endemic to the modern museum and typified by the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the ways in which it functions as a spectacle that competes for attention with the actual works of art it is meant to showcase.
In particular, Crow drew comparison between Richard Serra’s massive Torqued Elipses and Spirals (2003–04) semi-permanently installed in Bilbao, and Andrea Fraser’s Little Frank and his Carp (2001), a performance in which she literally interprets an audio guide’s instructions to “touch the walls” by sensually caressing, and provocatively grinding against them. Ultimately, Crow contended that while Serra’s monumental sculptures fight for autonomy against the sensual and undulating surfaces—or “skin”—of Gehry’s architecture through their massive scale, weight, and substance, Fraser’s performance acknowledges, even embraces, the container’s skin, and uses it to her advantage to critically comment on the fervent public adoration of Gehry’s architecture.
I was reminded of Crow’s discussion on a recent visit to the newly opened Tino Sehgal exhibition at the New York Guggenheim, the original star-chitect-designed museum. If you are not familiar with the enchanting, surprising, and sometimes embarrassing work of Sehgal, you should go to the Guggenheim before you read this review to experience it firsthand. It is best encountered with no expectations or preconceptions. If, however, you have already sampled the combination of mischief and charm that are par for the course in Sehgal’s notoriously disorienting “staged situations,” I can assure you that this newest solo exhibition at the Guggenheim lives up to its reputation.
My own experience began as soon as I stepped foot in the museum, when I was confronted with a minor spectacle positioned smack-dab in the center of the rotunda: a pair of lovers writhing and embracing in slow motion on the pristine floor of the otherwise vacant museum. This “living sculpture” is Sehgal’s 2002 work, Kiss (on loan from MoMA), a piece enacted by professional dancers, dressed casually in sneakers, jeans, and plain shirts, who perform poses and gestures from a range of art historical kisses from Rodin to Brancusi. The couple (one male, one female) cycles through a choreographed loop that takes about 16 minutes, before repeating the sequence. This continues for about an hour, when another pair gracefully replaces them and resumes the same elegant and precise choreography.
I cast a glance upward towards Wright’s iconic spiraling ramp, imagining the scattered onlookers peering down from above as spectators in an amphitheater. Eager to join them and observe the spectacle from above, I too proceeded to the foot of the ramp, becoming increasingly aware of the vast emptiness of the bare bone-white walls, an oddity among New York art museums, which are usually so oriented to material production. Little did I know that I was yet to encounter a second Tino Sehgal work.
No sooner had I taken my first tentative steps, than I was greeted by a girl of about eight, who politely introduced herself as “Orly.” “This is a work by Tino Sehgal,” she confided, gently guiding me to the first gallery near the top of the ramp, where she paused to ask me a question.
“What is progress?” she queried in a clever if slightly mechanical tone. Bewildered by her precocious demeanor and the strangeness of the situation, I stammered something about growing wiser with age. Nodding, she directed me to continue walking, leading me up the ramp a few feet where we were intercepted by “David,” a boy of about 17 years old. After Orly introduced us, she summarized my answer on “progress” to David, and left. Picking up where Orly left off, David gestured for me to move on as he engaged me in a discussion on the same topic.
As I chatted and strolled with David, a woman of about 30 named “Alyssa” walked up to us, interrupting our conversation. She took over, guiding me to continue walking. Soon after, rounding a bend and finding myself midsentence in a conversation about reproductive rights, I realized that Alyssa had suddenly disappeared. Luckily, a kindly older gentleman by the name of “Smoky” was there to greet me, and accompanied me on the final leg of my tour, engaging me in a fascinating personal account of a long-lost brother he had recently discovered, but who had passed away, leaving Smoky with a range of conflicting emotions. “This work is entitled This Progress,” he informed me at the top of the ramp, bidding me farewell.
Having attended Sehgal’s New York gallery debut, This Situation at Marian Goodman Gallery in 2007, I had some inkling of what to expect. In the former case, exhibition visitors were confronted with a room full of “interpreters,” who greeted us with a direct address: “Welcome to this Situation!” they recited in unison each time someone wandered in, after which they engaged in a discussion on a range of philosophical themes, which visitors could watch or participate.
This Progress, first presented in 2006 at London’s ICA, is decidedly less obscure and intimidating than This Situation. A child invites you to participate, and the themes it touches on are universal and accessible to everyone. It is a thoroughly thought-provoking experience to meditate on the meaning of life and to reflect on your own past and future. As a woman of 30, I was aware of my shifting roles as I progressed along the ramp. I transitioned from a protective caretaker to a mentor to a protégée in the matter of 10 minutes. I also really enjoyed the discussions I shared with these people, and the metaphorical mirror the experience provided on my own life span.
Interestingly, Sehgal, aged 33, who has a background in dance (and economics), resists the label of performance art, aligning himself more with “visual art”. He also resists most of the usual trappings of the art market—no press releases are written, no photos are allowed. These pieces are intended to live only the moment and in the memory of those that experience them, an approach that aligns him with performance theorists like Peggy Phelan, who argued that documentation counteracts the lived experience of performance. Significantly, however, Sehgal whole-heartedly embraces the market, selling his ephemeral works through oral agreements rather than written contracts, for very large sums, a fact that has been criticized as an apolitical stance.
In a roundabout way, this brings me back to my opening remarks on Crow’s “Art versus its Envelope.” For me, perhaps the most powerful aspect of This Progress, was the way in which it engendered a completely new experience of Wright’s spiraling rotunda, a structure that is notoriously problematic for hanging artwork (though quite well-suited for chronological surveys). Despite its prominence, I had never really noticed my experience of moving up it before, usually being too absorbed in the art on the walls to pay attention to the feeling of my feet plodding along the sloping and looping ramp. In Sehgal’s work, however, I was acutely aware of my own physical circulation. Like Fraser, who according to Crow, “adheres as closely as possible to the limits of the container” as she rubs against the Bilbao’s walls, Sehgal emphasizes the experience of physically tracing the coiling architecture itself, engendering in the audience a critical awareness of it.
While Fraser is most associated with “institutional critique,” she has qualified the term. “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution,” she wrote in “From the critique of institutions to an institution of critique” (2005). Rather, she argued, “It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.” By comparison, Sehgal flatly rejects the term. In a 2005 interview with Artforum editor Tim Griffin, he explained that he does not aim to “expose or deconstruct the museum’s mechanisms,” rather he’s interested in it “as a place for long-term politics… operat[ing] totally inside the institution.” He continued, “I’m not against the intergenerational function of the museum, I am not against its address or celebration of the individual, but I am against its continuous, unreflected-on celebration of material production.”
What kind of “long term politics” Sehgal may accomplish, or the critical posture he may assume beyond one that challenges materiality in art, is ambiguous. While the long-term implications of his critical approach to aesthetics and politics is a work in progress, it is nonetheless one of the most significant and promising of a generation.