Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
Written as part of 2010 RoseLee Goldberg’s History of
Contemporary Art and New Media class at New York University.
Shortlisted for the 2010 Frieze Writer's Prize
Kiss, the work by Tino Sehgal on view in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, is a continuous choreography of a couple kissing and embracing. I had seen some works by Sehgal before, and when I entered the Guggenheim, I felt like, “ok, this will be sort of a retrospective show of Sehgal’s works. I expected something more”. But I was wrong.
As soon as I started walking up the spiral, a 6-year-old girl stepped in front of me saying something like, “This is a work by Tino Sehgal and it’s called ‘This Progress’. Can I ask you a question?”. Then, she asked me what, in my opinion, was progress. I thought for a bit and muttered something about the fact that progress doesn’t exist and it is only an ideological construction. Then I asked her, and I felt overwhelmed by her ability to paraphrase my semi-opinion and cleverly respond to it. Another girl started walking along us up the spiral. This time she was something like 13. While I was trying to explain to her my view about progress and she was providing me with a clarification better than I could ever thought, the little girl silently escaped from us. After a while, a guy about my age stopped in front of me, smiling, telling me about how he used to do experiments when he was a child, and how he always failed. So we started reflecting about the importance of failure, but when I walked in front of him through a narrow passageway, I lost him. But at the other end an old lady was waiting for me, and she started telling me about her trip on a boat in a river in Senegal. This very pleasant woman recounted how she had the feeling to be in the 15th century, until all the mobile phones of the people started ringing all together, and she was brought back to current era. I realized only at this point that the sequence of my conversation partners was following an order of age. I told the woman about my little discovery, but she seemed like she didn’t want to talk much about this. She left me at the top of the spiral, and said goodbye.
At this point, I was amazed. How could all this have ever happened? Was this the most shocking piece of art I ever experienced? What was it all about? Puzzled by these questions, I descended the spiral, looking in a different way at other people involved in conversation.
Sometimes the fact that I studied art feels like a burden: this was one of these times. Why couldn’t I just enjoy the memory of the experience? Why was I feeling an urge to break all this mechanism, to investigate its limits, to deconstruct its execution? I felt I had to do something, so I started thinking, “How can one break it? What if I pretend I am part of the piece, and start talking about progress with somebody walking up on his own? Or, what if I refuse being conducted in certain areas of conversation, and try to bring the conversation where I want?”. As soon as I got the ground floor, as if I just got off a rollercoaster, I decided to do it again.
This time, I answered the question of another 6-year-old girl like this, “I don’t have an opinion. Are you bored of me?”. She said me not having an opinion was not very important; I wanted to know more about her thoughts, but a guy about my age started speaking to me. I told him this was my second time, I told him I really enjoyed the first and asked him if we were having a real conversation or if this was just like asking for a coffee in a bar. “Are you a performer, a dancer? I mean, are you speaking to me only because you have to?”. “But we are having a real conversation, aren’t we?” was what he answered. “Yes, but I am feeling like if I am on a rollercoaster: you guys are bringing me somewhere because this is what you are supposed to do, this is not a real conversation we are having, I cannot have any influence on you”. “You are a control freak”, said another girl that joined our conversation, “why don’t you let it flow? Do you always want to be in control of the situation?”. The last woman of the ascent was not that willing to accept these topics and, in general, my attitude. “Listen, if you want to talk about the piece, we can stop here”. She got cross and annoyed. Her question was, “what turns you on?”, and I tried to explain to her that I am an artist, and that this work was definitely interesting me, and I wanted to know more about her, as part of the piece and also in order to answer her question. “This is not a normal conversation, this is a conducted conversation; we are not supposed to talk about whatever you want”. Period. Was this the point I wanted to reach? Was I like those kids that break toys in order to see how they work? I suddenly felt sad. The woman remained detached and when we arrived at the end, she said only, “I am not the right person to speak to about the piece. Tino is in the museum, maybe you should try to talk to him”. And then she left.
I didn’t know how Tino Sehgal looks like, but at this point I felt like I didn’t want to miss this chance. Luckily, I saw the elderly woman of my first walk, and I asked her how did Tino look like. “He is wearing a purple sweater and he is carrying a baby”. I started walking down the spiral scanning all the people I could see. The Frank Lloyd Wright building reminded me of the Panopticon structure as theorized by Foucault: there were far too many people I could see from any point of view, too many to be able to spot one purple sweater. I noticed different groups of “conversators”, of different age, gathered in strategically hidden spaces. They were quietly chatting together, like waiters in a restaurant when there is nothing much to do. I felt as if I was in Kafka’s Trial. I arrived at the beginning of the spiral, suspecting the purple-sweater-information was part of the piece too.