Tino Sehgal at The Guggenheim Museum

Tino Seghal’s Kiss (2004) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

* * *

You had to hand it to the young couple simulating sex on the cold, granite floor of the Guggenheim Museum: their stamina was impressive. Trim, attractive, and fully clothed—casual, mind you, in t-shirts and jeans—they intertwined with balletic grace. And they didn’t stop, at least not for the hour or so I strolled through the rotunda. The physical control necessary for their unceasing, slow motion pas de deux was enviable, as was their focus. While there were museum visitors looking on with grave intent, not a few nudge-nudged and wink-winked. Most made a beeline past the couple, heading directly to the museum’s new dining hall, an overpriced meal being preferable, I guess, to amorous goings-on.

Kiss—that’s the title of the performance—is the brainchild of Tino Sehgal, a Berlin-based artist who specializes in “situations” and the subject of an eponymous exhibition at the Guggenheim. A student of dance and political economics, Sehgal enlists performers (some professional, some not) to participate in events that actively set out to involve the viewer. My first encounter with Sehgal occurred about a year ago. Coming upon an impromptu gathering at Marian Goodman Gallery—students, from the looks of them—I was surprised when they abruptly confronted me and started going on about some or other philosophical argument. I headed for the exit, flustered. This Situation, I subsequently learned, was Sehgal’s American debut.

An avowed anti-materialist, Sehgal ups Conceptualism’s ante. The Conceptualists, after all, never truly abandoned the object: there was always some thing to put on display in order to illustrate an idea. Sehgal does away with things altogether. He abjures catalogs, documentary photographs, and preparatory instructions and drawings. A Guggenheim brochure informs us that Sehgal “considers visual art to be a microcosm of our social reality, as both center on identical economic conditions: the production of goods and their subsequent circulation.” Sehgal isn’t, however, an anti-capitalist. Though bills-of-sale are frowned upon—too real, don’t you know—he’s not above selling his “pieces” through oral contracts, complete with a notary at his side. A Sehgal can cost up to six figures. The only concrete object the artist deigns to handle, it seems, is cold hard cash.

Kiss isn’t the only Sehgal event at the Guggenheim. There’s also This Progress, a work for which the entire rotunda has been emptied. In its current stark and pristine state, I found myself bedazzled by Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building; one realizes how truly eccentric and magisterial (and overweening) the place is. Then Ze’ev, a boy about ten years of age, circumvented my awe. He approached me with a question: “What is progress?” My response was fairly generic. Guiding me up the ramp, Ze’ev pressed on, asking what role technology might play in progress. Before I could reply he drifted from my side and was replaced by Adam, a teenager. Adam asked whether Utopia was achievable or, in fact, desirable. When I mentioned that “utopia” literally translated from Greek meant “no place,” Adam’s interest seemed piqued. But Descha, my next guide, would have nothing of it.

Descha—I took him to be around thirty years old—picked up on Adam’s conversation by comparing Utopia to the “American Dollar.” (I know: the logic escapes me, too.) When asked if I thought they weren’t equal as theoretical constructs, I replied that one would have an easier time buying a bagel with a dollar than with anyone’s notion of Utopia. But my time with Descha was up; he sprinted into the stairwell and was replaced by Deirdre, an older woman of self-stated Irish descent. Her topic was whether governments should impose restrictions upon what their citizens eat for the sake of the greater ecological good. “Are you willing,” she asked, “to give up your morning cup of coffee to become a locavore?”

“Locavore” was a new one for me—the term describes someone who eats only locally grown food. As such, it was the only interesting thing I took away from This Progress. As for the rest of it: What nettles isn’t the political basis for Sehgal’s topics, though rote affirmations of utopia and totalitarianism are plenty worrisome. Rather, it’s the claim that Sehgal’s stunts somehow tap into art’s essence. When I asked Ze’ev, Adam, Descha, and Deirdre how they came to be involved in This Progress, each of them demurred with the same faint air of amusement and kept to their talking points. The message was clear: No exchange of ideas, please, we’re Situationists. But art isn’t a one-way bromide voiced by appealing stand-ins: it’s infinitely richer, more complicated, lively, and messy. Sehgal is too much the control freak to allow anything as unruly as all that. Instead, his disembodied art embodies all too well the smiley-faced condescension that is the contemporary vanguard’s defining characteristic. In presenting Tino Sehgal, the Guggenheim has emptied itself of art in more ways than one.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of The New Criterion.


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