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The meteoric rise of German artist Tino Sehgal to the point of being represented by no other than Marian Goodman and to being nominated, in the past, to the Turner Prize and to have a one year long exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum raises a series of questions about the place of art in today’s confused culture and society. The Dutch museum press release states: ‘Conceived as a consecutive series of twelve presentations, the exhibition features  different work from Sehgal’s oeuvre each month, enacted in a different gallery space. The survey will build up in intensity, starting in January with a subtle intervention in the heart of the museum’s permanent collection: Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things. In this  work, which is owned by the Stedelijk, a human figure lying on the floor fluidly moves through a number of positions of the human body in reference to works of Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham. In the months after January, the scale of the works will gradually increase, culminating in the summer in ‘situations’ involving a larger number of participants. As summer turns to fall, the works return to a smaller scale, ending in December. Divided over 12 successive chapters and unfolding over a one-year period, Sehgal’s twelve-part survey is not only a prelude to a fresh approach to using the building under the new directorship but also an innovative re-envisioning of the exhibition as phenomenon’.

Sehgal art is about dematerialisation. It is about the manipulation of human relations in the context of, what the ‘artist’ understands as ‘reality’. I think a very good case to further discuss where we are art-wise is the process of purchasing of a work by Tino Sehgal. In other words, if his works are immaterial and only involve people talking in a gallery, how does this guy make a living. Do museums buy his work? How?

Immaterial Art

Artist: It happens at a table – it’s a work for a couple, and they’ve invited some friends over for dinner. The first course starts, and one of the partners stands up and leaves the table. Then, forty-five seconds later, the other person of the couple also leaves the table… The hosts stay away four or five minutes, and then they come back and they sit down at each other’s place. They eat the other’s food. So then, if the guests as what’s up, they say, ‘This is a work by Tino Sehgal entitled ‘Those Thoughts’. The work is actually the thoughts, and the prejudices, of the guests. And I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard about it. 

Me: You’ve never seen it? 

Artist: Well, I’ve rehearsed it, in a restaurant in Venice, but I’ve never seen it. 

Me: Why don’t you just orchestrate one? 

Artist: It would seem a bit self-centered, somehow…

Me: If I were to do it tonight, why would it not be a work by Tino Sehgal? 

Artist: It probably would be, actually. But that’s a more theoretical question. Because, for example, if you build a mirrored cube, which you could, why would it not be a work by Robert Morris?  

Towards a Paper-less and Object-less Art Market?

When Sehgal sells art nothing concrete actually changes hand. When a person buys one of Sehgal’s works, that person acquires the right to have people enact it in the future. There would be no contract, no certificate of authenticy. To complete the transaction, a notary would orally validate the agreement circumventing the paper trail. When Sehgal sold, for example, to Vincent Worms for his Kadist Art Foundation, one of his works it happens as follows. Worms and Sehgal met at the notary’s office under the presence of a witness. Sehgal began by describing the pieces. In ‘This is About’ (2003) a museum employee gives a tour of the collection to a group of visitors and then asks ‘What do you think this is about?’. In ‘kWh” (2002), which also takes place in a museum, someone turns off the electricity, and a group of employees, moving around in the darkness sing how many kilowatt hours of energy are being conserved. The latter struck me as a little obvious. Some of Sehgal’s more interactive work runs the risk of playing too ingratiatingly to the crowd – a little to much pizzazz and his interpreters are are Jellicle hoofers, pawing the family in the third row at the Winter Garden theatre. But, as playful as Sehgal’s pieces are, they are pocked with danger zones and dark spots. Sehgal is refreshingly explicit, for an artist, about his poiltical motivations, but his work is too mysterious to be relegated to the ghetto of ‘eco-art’.

Next, the notary went over some stipulations regarding opening hours (the pieces had to go on as long as the venue showing them was open), installation (by Sehgal or a designated representative), photography (none), and resale (only by oral contract). At least, this is what I think he means, as Sehgal does not allow people to take notes. ‘One day, if we have a conflict with Vincent, we’ll call the witness and say, ‘You were there’, he said. What happens if the witness dies? I am saying this because nearly a hundred dollars are at stake in any of these transactions, but owning a Sehgal piece is a ‘notional concept’. ‘Somehow it exists in my mind, in my body, and in the bodies of the people how know how to do it, and it also exists in their memories, and of those of the people who saw it’, Sehgal has said of his work. The Guggenheim, for instance, bought one of four editions of ‘This Progress’. I asked Sehgal where the others had gone. ‘They didn’t sell’, he said. ‘That often happens’. In 2008, the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, bought a Sehgal piece called ‘This Objective of That Object’ (2004). Yasmil Raymond, former curator at the Walker, told the Times Magazine that it was the most contentious acquisition during her five years there. ‘It was the only time someone on the acquisitions committee voted against an acquisition’, she said. ‘There was a small insurrection’. Should we blame them?

Neo-Nazi Ethics?

The first question that this kind of art rises is the banality of museum purchases and the need to buy ‘the latest’ to appear to be ‘cool’. Is this way museums are starving for money all the time? Is this why Manet’s Olympia and priceless Titians are being taken out of museums (against the law) in order to raise money for museums ever-thirsty purchasing funds? If for this that we need to saturate the rooms with people looking for pointless fashion at the Met? From a more formal point of view, what does this Frankenstein-like post-Nazi manipulation of human relations in a way that could only feel ‘authentic’ to a bunch of idiots say about our culture? Just a thought….