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On Tino Sehgal

Taken from my postings on the Artworld Salon thread Considering “Tino Sehgal”, with the addition of images found online.

First post:

The artist’s refusal to create a physical object, even the photo document of a performance, is an implicit critique of the status quo, a dogmatic assertion of non-compliance. As Andras notes, the significance of this gesture depends entirely on the prevailing power structure, on what in fact is being rejected. It can be a potent argument when aimed at a corrupt, repressive political regime that would be quick to censor the content in any case.

But in our current climate, that of widespread liberal acceptance and a marketplace eager to embrace the sales potential of any work, to eschew the object is to self-consciously identify yourself as pure of commercial taint. This is understood, even if Sehgal “has never voiced any kind of anti-commercial sentiment.” In fact, his avoidance of an explicit subtext is itself a tricky, dandified pose. He is not just disinterested in creating an object, he is divorced from any discussion of the sales thus alleviated. Yet he is amply rewarded with the accoutrements of the international art star, signaled by his inclusions at the Nu Mu and CCA Wattis. As mentioned, “today’s non-physical artist enjoys a hearty welcome into the art world and its academic industries”.

Sehgal’s “liminal status” is not necessarily a new development, just a fine tuning of strategies begun by an earlier generation of performers and conceptualists. They did document their work, but this was not generally felt to be a flirtation with the marketplace. It was for the ages, so that succeeding generations would have some record of their efforts. This was the model: they actually felt they were producing non-collectible work. It was sold, if at all, within a narrow circle of friends and aficionados. The marketplace was much smaller then, and perhaps they were being naive. Because the market has since proven to be hungry, adaptable and willing to absorb even the most anti-commercial gesture, just so long as it produced an object for sale.

Sehgal’s strategy of non-documentation benefits from hindsight. It acknowledges what is by now a given: that the market is able to sell any object. In this sense, by denying us a physical product, he is engaged in an intelligent, rearguard action to control variables of perception and presentation (much like American film director John Ford, who, when he did not have final cut, shot scenes in a particular way, with limited coverage and only certain angles, so that it could only be edited one way.) Sehgal might be a bit of a control freak, attempting to limit or channel the context of his work. Ossian’s citing of contracts tends to support this view.

Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) was a cynical take on, among other things, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and other pared down, non-objective strategies in 70s SoHo. Wolfe, of course, was suspicious of anything not painting-sized, framed in gold and hung above a divan, and he questioned the sincerity of most contemporary art. But he could be entertaining. He slyly addressed the “psychological doubletracking” of many artists, their need to outwardly reject the marketplace while simultaneously looking over their shoulder to make certain their rejection was being duly noted by agents of money or power: collectors, curators, critics or dealers. Wolfe likened this to the violent Apache Dance, in which one partner struggles, rejecting the blandishments and insinuations of the other again and again, before finally succumbing with a cry and a swoon. Has Sehgal’s background in dance inured him to a similar performative dialectic, a rejection of object making that, in its very denial, looks coyly over its shoulder to watch itself being noticed?

That said, I do enjoy the metaphor of Sehgal as an “exfoliator” of art market forces.

Second Post:

Simultaneous with Catherine's post yesterday, I was at the Nu Mu, mostly to view Werner Herzog's Lessons of Darkness in its 50 minute entirety. The Sehgal piece was, as always, being performed. Instead of allowing some things to rise up to your face, dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), which I have now seen twice, consists of an actor writhing on the floor, apparently re-enacting movements from late 60s-early 70s video works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, when the two were working with choreographers and dancers at Judson Church. As Sehgal states in interview, it functions as both his critique of their aesthetic praxis and his continuance of the "game" they began.

Bruce Nauman put himself in the studio, turned the camera on and eventually brought his videos into the museum. From a certain perspective, he was importing the aesthetic of Judson Church into the museum via video ... From my point of view and from my interest in things like the spoken word or singing or dance, he kind of lost the decisive thing on the way, which is how they produce - this simultaneity of production and de-production. You do a movement and then it's gone. You say a word and then it's gone. This is exactly what Nauman lost on the way because he made the work into a material fixation. Then Dan Graham took the game further by saying: "Yes, Nauman is interesting but he never reflects the use of the camera. I am going to redo his work but integrate the camera into the work so that you can actually see the camera." If this was a game that one could play, I was going to do the same thing again, but take out the material support, the video screen and the video player. To maintain the simultaneity of production and de-production which they were losing in their import, I would have the person immediately there in the space. On the other hand, I wanted to acknowledge that bringing something like movement into the museum had already happened. My point was to do this import again but in a decisive other way.

Sehgal's performance piece, of course, enjoyed the same central AC and lighting (neither carbon neutral), the same physical institutional support as other art on display. So on this basis it does not seem to deserve an ecological halo. But the "dwindling resources" critique is not about acting "green" so much as freeing art from the glut of material overproduction present in contemporary society. I recall a similar argument being made 30 years ago for Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and the appropriation artists: that with a surfeit of images from advertising, TV, movies, even art history, there was no need to create new ones, merely to re-assemble, to create new context from what already existed. Certainly there is a difference between "no new images" then and "no production of objects" now, but I hope the point is taken: of a moral/economic imperative defining aesthetic choices. What seems to interest Sehgal is the incorporation of de-production into production as an inherently simultaneous condition, a sort of automatic sweeping clean. This is the basis of his ecological responsibility. As stated in another interview,

...I'm interested in the transformation of actions and the simultaneity of production and deproduction ... because I think that the appearance in Western societies in the twentieth century of both an excess supply of the goods that fulfill basic human needs and mankind's endangering of the specific disposition of "nature" in which human life seems possible renders the hegemony of the dominant mode of production questionable.

A Google Image search under "tino sehgal" locates the occasional renegade performance shot, but mostly finds pics of the artist in rehearsal, run through, interview and social situations. So while a general interdiction against documentation of performance seems to be maintained, I cannot imagine anyone with a cell phone not being able to snatch an image and post it online. The point is that the artist does not incorporate this practice in his work.

As noted in my first post, Sehgal is positing a critique of the status quo. By eliminating the prop of the object, replacing it with actions that immediately and inherently de-produce themselves, he is creating a model which, as Jonathan notes, "exfoliates" the surface to reveal sub-dermal constructs and supports for the art world and the larger economy. This is intellectually and socially provocative. But the result of this aesthetic strategy, of refusing the object and adhering to transitory, repetitive and ruled-based performance, without documentation, is to throw all validation for the work upon discourse, upon interviews and explanations, and ultimately upon the persona of the artist himself. It places him at the inviolate center, a result he by no means failed to anticipate or desire. An art object can assert an autonomous existence, can be imagined (even if just for a moment) without also conjuring up its creator. By eliminating the object, Sehgal retains ultimate (if playful) control as the single durable point of reference.

Further notes

When I first heard of Tino Sehgal's work some years ago, four pre-existing art constructs - performance art, institutional critique, documented conceptualism and relational aesthetics - came to mind, if not as precursors, then certainly for comparative reasons.

Sehgal rejects performance or performance art as a comparative or precursor because

as soon as you refer to "performance" in art, there are very clear historical connotations. A performance involves one person or a group of people presenting something to another group of people at a certain, previously announced time, while my work operates in the temporality of the visual-art exhibition. It's always there, like any other artwork. You can walk in, you're included. My work doesn't start and finish. And why I think that this notion is so deadly for a reading of my works is that at the core of my operation I'm trying to use existing conventions and fill them with something else. Whereas performance wanted to go outside of these conventions.

He rejects institutional critique as a comparative or precursor because

my work isn't critical of the institution in the sense of, for example, criticizing its representational power; nor is my work trying to expose or deconstruct the museum's mechanisms, as institutional critique did. I'm interested in the museum as a place for long-term politics. So in that sense I would say I operate totally inside what you'd call the institution. I'm just trying to define the way in which it does what it's there for; so 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.

But by substituting actions for materiality, his work does in fact confront the politics, purposes and usages of the museum as an institution. Sehgal not only appreciates the institutional framework, his pieces are particularly tailored, specifically produced, for their museum appearances. It is a symbiotic relationship.

The museum is a ritual place where citizenship is reflected. The notion of the individual is celebrated both through the works of individual artists and by the fact that you can walk through freely on your own or however you wish. But in its classical form, the museum viewed you as a subject. There was a democratic process that constructed culture and when you entered the museum, you received this culture, just as you would receive orders from the king. I don't think that's the case in our society anymore. We are constantly constructing reality.

He rejects the document in conceptualism because

My produced and it is material, but the difference is that it materializes itself in the human body and not in a material object. I don't make photographic or filmic reproductions of my work, because it exists as a situation, and therefore substituting it with some material object like a photo or video doesn't seem like an adequate documentation. Also, my works take a form that exists over time--as they can be shown over and over again--so they're not dependent on any kind of documentation to stand in for them...
Your reference to this classical discourse of reification connotes a critique of the material object as product, that there is something inherently problematic about something becoming a product. That's not my line of thinking. I criticize the mode of production inherent to a material object but not the fact that it can be bought or sold.

Still looking for interview material on the relational aesthetics connection.

Sehgal fully enjoys (exploits) the museum as an institution, and as the proper theoretical frame for his work, and has in turn been given wide exposure in such institutions, with exhibitions that extend well over the usual three or four months into year long and three year long residencies, the actions allowed to unfold over time: for example at the ICA London and CCA Wattis. He is very precise, eloquent and clever in his embrace of the institution. He is not challenging said institution, merely demanding that his action based work has a place there, just like the materially based work that has been the norm.