Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Authors on Artists: Shane Anderson on Tino Sehgal


by Shane Anderson

A child asks you about progress. A ticket taker states the newspaper’s headlines. A security guard hops on one leg, announces the title. Another sings about knowledge and propaganda. And another is getting naked. They are waiting for you. People are singing. People are jogging. Dancing. They are confessing their feelings about their grandmother. Someone is rotating on the floor then standing, in a circle. A high school student continues the conversation about progress. Children in uniforms run between your legs and play games without objects with you. Someone will pay you half of the entry fee if you can say something about market economy. A retiree wants to know when you felt like you belonged. Five people fall to the floor if you don’t respond. Others walk backwards, play games in slow motion, discuss radical politics. Two people kiss on the floor, grope for wages. People brush up against you. They whisper in your ear. What are they saying? The beatboxing is too loud to understand them. They are humming like a Theremin. The snare roll from lips is getting ready to drop. The lights flash on, I feels like I’m on ecstasy. The elderly finish off the conversation. I walk back alone. Everything is nearly invisible. And then gone.

In white rooms. Dark rooms. Surrounded by old paintings, neons, cracked mirrors and dusty chandeliers, in ball houses used by Nazis. In a house that belonged to Huguenots, the stench of bodies. On an empty spiral, inside the temple of the spirit. These constructed situations are filling the spaces with experiences we share with the performers and each other. With different names, they are all the same, a radical alteration of the environment, implicating the visitors into situations, using game structures, united, usually, by the demonstrative, an occasional verb of existence and a naïve description: This is Good, This is Propaganda, This Objective of that Object, This Situation, This Variation, This Progress, This Success/This Failure, This is Exchange, This is New, This is So Contemporary, Kiss, Selling Out.

These are all immaterial. There are no objects to buy, no artist signed prints, no secondary documentation, no monographs, no contract or proof of purchase, no list of instructions on how to execute the piece, only an agreement in front of a notary, a name printed in the dOCUMENTA 13 table of contents and corresponding missing pages. There’s also the triangle of trust between interpreters, artist and us. This is much. There are restrictions. We are not allowed to take pictures, we are asked to put away our phones—our attendance is in question. Later we will have our memories, our impressions, our arguments about their meaning and our agreement to return. We can feel quite free, tell our story and maybe even strip. The artist does his best to negate the statement of Jérôme Bel, his one-time mentor, who once suggested, “if you don’t dominate the audience they try to kill you.” The living sculptures or interpreters are gentle, sympathetic, interested, present. Say what you have to say, wear what you have to wear, dance the way you want to dance, sing out of key, call them fascists, lick their cheeks but remember they’re respecting you and they’re asking you to respect them, to respect the moment you’re sharing. Ask about the framework, the numbers involved and you’ll feel like a spoilsport, you’ll be ignored.

There are precedents. Nothing is born in a vacuum, yes, but only royalty care to name their parents in introductions. And their children? There is a genealogy but isn’t the moment and its trajectory more interesting? But then how conscious of the past must we be? In a work that asks us to be present? What about cultural amnesia? Watch a World War II documentary. Will you remember anything you didn’t see before? Or am I too sensitive to the spectacle of television? Do I get lost too easily? Surely a book is for learning. A book is for learning. But then touch a building in Mitte, on Mittelstraße, across from Ishin. Put your finger into its pockmark, graze a bullet hole. Trip over a Stolperstein and remember the horrors of war, that it has happened and could happen at home.

But then what am I doing? If a work attempts to create an experience and deny documentation, to erase all traces, am I a traitor? If so, is this text like the Gnostic sect, the Cainites—should we thank the man who received the thirty pieces of silver? How important are my intentions? And what about censorship? Can the artist be likened to a tyrant? Is our boredom so immense that not even objects satisfy it, that we are beginning to consume experiences like chips? Are we equipped to handle them readily, openly, without or with little prejudice?

In a conference on solar airplanes, Sehgal once posed the question: “How can I narrow this gap between what I say, what I believe in and what I do?” This is one of the reasons I admire him, that I think these beyond minimalist gestures are not mere posturing, not just jabs and jokes but are based on political convictions. Sehgal is not making political art, he is doing it, as others have suggested, the other way around and through his ‘I’d prefer not to’ fly or carry a mobile phone or live in rented or mortgaged space, he is offering a glimpse of a world that isn’t dominated by stuff, made in slave ships, punched by a clock. He is an example against those jetsetting without regard for what comes next, knowing that they’re only one more flight away from sitting behind the desk. And so, isn’t our usual occupation of the present carved out already? Isn’t leisure time just the hooves and tails of work time? Can we free time? Is the art world, which allows a larger dose of criticality, the best place to do this? Is the art world a world in itself or does it spill out on the pavement?

Sehgal is not a luddite, he does not deny the advantages of the modern world but rather the fetishes. His works are an important aspect of this equation. They are suggesting that there are still experiences to be had and shared. There is humor, play, music, emotion. It is very simple. It is sometimes confusing, overwhelming. But for that I’m thankful.


Shane Anderson is a writer/editor/translator living in Berlin. He is the author of Études des Gottnarrenmaschinen (Broken Dimanche Press). Other writing can be found in Lungfull!, Still, Everyday Genius and the program for Matthew Barney's KHU. His poetry has been translated into German, Spanish and Euskara. Currently, he edits the online magazine brokentoujours.eu