Tino Sehgal: this article isn't about the artist

By Martin Herbert

In the receding winter of 2010, I found myself standing on Fifth Avenue in New York, caught up in a lengthy conversation with a total stranger, a middle-aged woman. We’d both halted at a stoplight, and she’d turned in the midst of speaking to someone else and realised, laughing, that she was addressing herself to me. Carrying on regardless, she pointed out that talking to strangers was apt, since she’d just come from seeing – or participating in – Tino Sehgal’s This Progress at the Guggenheim, discussing progress with four progressively older volunteers, child to pensioner, while ascending Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic spiral. So had I, and we chatted about Sehgal until I wondered aloud whether in doing so we were still, somehow, part of his work. In the loquacious afterglow of This Progress proper, we allowed that we might well be.

Sehgal, whose commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is unveiled this July (having first been mooted in 2008), is a UK-born artist of Indo-German parentage, in his mid-thirties, whose works since 2000 using human interaction as their medium constitute what is probably the most radical, far-reaching, beautifully generous art programme of his generation. And which do so despite, or more probably because of, Sehgal’s complete refusal of physical art objects or artefacts (including photographic documentation). Joseph Kosuth once told him that, in his opinion, everything pertaining to the artwork, including critical commentary, folds into its sphere; Sehgal didn’t agree at the time, he says, but the conversation has stayed on his mind. And certainly his ‘art that leaves behind no trace’, as The New York Times put it – right down to his insistence on memorised oral contracts for the sale of his work – paradoxically leaves traces everywhere. It’s just that none of them are physical.

So this piece of writing, and any responsive thoughts that you might have, are perhaps still part of the work, if hardly a major part of it. And, relatedly, although I had lunch with Sehgal a few weeks ago while a digital voice recorder swallowed our conversation, this isn’t an ‘interview’ piece, in that it doesn’t privilege the artist’s thoughts on the work and have everything else flow from those. That’s as per his request: if Sehgal believes, or hopes, that we are post- the age of art objects – a conviction that reflects a wider sense that the degree of material production on the planet is wholly unsustainable – then he sees his own commentating voice as another excess, inimical to his art’s emphasis on flowering outward via cocomposing, and equivalent to being asked to play tennis with himself. He sees criticism as a necessary process in the ‘two-sided game’ that is art, and blames its crisis at least partly on a fascination with the opinions of artistic ‘personalities’. (One of the first things he asked me, solicitously enough, was how, as a critic, I’d survived the seven years since we last met.) If, as someone working for an art magazine, one agrees to these seemingly domineering strictures – no quote-heavy, personality-driven writing; no photographs – it’s perhaps for the same reason one engages with Sehgal’s art proper: for the pleasure of participating in something that feels new.

His work, indeed, is a call for different models from start to finish. Sehgal arrived at his dematerialised format the unconventional way, by electing to be dual-trained in economics and dance, and in 1999, transitioning, he made Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century, a choreographed ‘museum of dance’ in one body, referencing 20 different dance styles (from the Ballets Russes to Merce Cunningham) fragmentarily performed nude by Sehgal. The following year, encouraged to focus on art by curator Jens Hoffmann, he made Instead of Allowing Some Thing to Rise Up to Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things (2000) for a gallery context, a continuous performance work for two figures appropriating bodily movements from Bruce Nauman’s video Wall-Floor Positions (1968) and Dan Graham’s double-film projection Roll (1970). If first-wave conceptualism maintained a slim handhold on the object via documentation, Sehgal here pointedly detached it. Kiss (2002) would similarly make reference to art history, its two live, clinching figures assuming kissing poses from a panoply of historical representations, Rodin to Koons. I asked Sehgal why he wanted to engage art history in this way; he asked me why I think he might have done. I wondered for a second about how artists maybe need to lay out their territory with some explicitness early on (I thought, specifically, about Untitled, 1997–2003, which features both an ensemble table-dancing to Destiny Child’s Bootylicious and a spoken lecture about economic growth), and hazarded that Sehgal wanted to figure a prior world of objects against an art that refuses them. (For our purposes, it doesn’t matter what he said in response.)

Such works were in some ways warm-ups for the evanescent situational art that Sehgal has made since, where the viewer’s entry into a space triggers an action from a primed volunteer, and in which intangible social interactions are given primacy. These can be brief and beguilingly gnomic, as when an invigilator greets one by quoting a headline from the morning newspaper (This Is New, 2003), or lengthy. This Situation (2007), Sehgal’s densest work, involves six performing intellectuals who will interrupt an ongoing debate to greet each new visitor who arrives and then resume their routine – one delivers a quote (uncredited; some, pointedly, are about how societies evolve from material scarcity) and the others respond, philosophically, open-endedly.

There is a rule, or there are a few rules, and the art spins out of them, sometimes simply and effusively – guards parading up and down shouting ‘This is so contemporary!’ for instance (This Is So Contemporary, 2003) – and sometimes darkly, baroquely. Frieze’s Jörg Heiser has described visiting Sehgal’s Brussels gallery in 2009, finding the gallery owner apparently depressed and unhappy about the direction Sehgal’s art had taken, discussing it lengthily and delicately with him, and only later realising that they were ‘doing the Sehgal piece’. At the Manchester International Festival last year, Sehgal presented Ann Lee (2011), the latest and surely the most tender in Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s generative ‘Annlee’ series: here, the manga character they purchased and ‘freed’ is played by an eleven-year old girl, who talks – with escalating complexity – about her life being passed between artists. (At a previous MIF, he’d shown Untitled, 2007, the one piece he’s made not involving people, a whirling choreography for stage curtains.)

Sehgal’s umbrella term for all this is ‘deproduction’, and it sits in stark opposition to a culture of consumption. But at the same time there’s a fundamental lightness and graceful allusiveness to his projects that prevents them from looking like, say, dour eco-minded gesture politics, and a spaciousness that admits of all kinds of readings. Take their relationship to the idea that Web 2.0 has turned users into content providers for corporations; it’s possible to argue, and I put it to Sehgal, that his art perhaps both critically engages with that idea and offers a redemptive countermodel of ‘working for free’, and does something similar with regard to the traduced notion of the ‘experience economy’. ‘I think that’s reception; that’s what I’d call reception,’ replied Sehgal. ‘If you make that connection – it’s something I’ve never thought about, but you say it and it starts convincing me. That’s not my point, yet I think it’s very valid. But it’s not my intentionality.’

Beyond this, though, what a Sehgal structured situation does, when it really works, is make you question why art needs materiality. Not only do other things, such as visitors and performing bodies, become sculptural and imagistic in the absence of a focus for them (as was made very clear when every single artwork was removed from the Guggenheim’s rotunda), but words, dialogue, accrue a weight of their own as content, and there’s an intangibility to them that allows easy accumulation. A Sehgal show is the sum of its interactions: this is true, perhaps, of any artwork, yet it’s harder to look at a painting and visualise the thoughts that have passed before it, that it has inspired, than it is to stand in the Guggenheim and see dozens of invigilators conversing with dozens of visitors, each conversation flying in a different direction, the whole thing endlessly self-replenishing thanks to the wild vagaries of human subjectivity. To quote the title of Ed Ruscha’s 1977 painting of a blazing hearth, No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk. (Although ‘things’, of course, aren’t what Sehgal is after.) The talk, the sociable and weightless making, is partly yours, and the result, arguably, is the most persuasive example thus far of an art that actually delivers on relational aesthetics’s promise of rebalancing composition between artist and audience. (If I remember rightly, my stating this led Sehgal to stare intently at his pumpkin salad.)

The Turbine Hall, meanwhile, will comprise the artist’s largest and most dramatic stage to date. As for what’s being presented there? Well, I asked, and Sehgal replied. But, to reiterate, this isn’t about him.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue.