Powerful body language, flirtation with immateriality… Tino Sehgal has exercised a complex creative practice for twenty years or so. His “constructed situations”, at the Palais de Tokyo until 18 December, raise one crucial question: what if the artist reinvented the meeting between the work and the spectator?
Iconoclastic in how he shows and circulates his work, Tino Sehgal places a focus on artistic language that overturns the archetype of contemporary production. Existing purely over the time of a choreography, a sketch, sometimes a movement, the work of this forty-something from London who lives in Berlin reveals a resolutely dematerialised perception of art. Art which he challenges by elusiveness, raised in the paroxysm of performance; but also art which he sets apart from a standardised art market. For Tino Sehgal transmits his works with “no written set of instructions, no bill of sale (purchases are conducted orally, in the presence of a notary), no catalogue, […] no pictures” (source: New York Times, 25/11/2007). This omnipresent immateriality is matched by an obviously ephemeral dimension, which has managed to seduce the greatest institutions. In 2005, he was the youngest artist to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale. Two years later, he carried out his first in situ museum performance across the Atlantic, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with Kiss: the artist used two dancers to cite the poses in famous artworks, from Klimt to Jeff Koons, via Brancusi. Ever since, he has multiplied solo shows all over Europe — in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Porto… — and his artistic concept has not ceased to surprise spectators.
Activating the memory
Grasping the works of Tino Sehgal is firstly a matter of activating one’s memory in order to catch hold of them. Founded on a space-time prism corresponding to the time of a presentation, the work results from a crucial interaction between artist and spectator. Words, gestures, sounds weave aesthetic links in his dances, considered to be dramatized. And here lies the key to their difference from postmodern performance; they are intangible objects which the artist calls “constructed situations”, in which the notions of presence, absence, intersubjectivity and exchange (explicitly referred to by This is exchange, in 2002) are decisive for the process by which the history of conceptual art evolves. From the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing to the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, Tino Sehgal, when he sets up his exhibitions, shows a propensity for inviting visitors to experiment with expressing a world where encounters and individual sensibility are primordial — this has been the case ever since his first artistic steps, taken after studying economics at Humboldt University in Berlin. At the age of twenty, he danced with French choreographers Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy, whose practice is considered “experimental” and geared at a spatial approach which reduces the universal to the individual. In 1999, he worked with the Belgian company Les Ballets C. de la B, with whom he developed a piece called Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century, based on 55 minutes of dance citing around twenty great choreographers — including Vaslav Nijinsky and Merce Cunningham. He also drew inspiration from Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham for new performances. Following this type of thinking, both interactive and egological – as already evidenced by This Progress (2010), the first live-performance acquired by the Guggenheim in New York – the artist transmits his creation through his “interpreters”, who are the dancers working alongside him.
Exhibition as a ritual
Transcending the model of the retrospective monographic exhibition and the myth of an isolated artistic search, Tino Sehgal will be present at the Palais de Tokyo until December, and has been granted carte blanche. Focused on interaction as always, the artist is proposing a selection of his major works, blending with those of guest artists including Pierre Huyghe and Isabel Lewis. “This carte blanche allows us to consider the whole of the venue, the exhibition, as a moving entity, as 13,000 m2 of organic matter in which the visitor moves through. […] A carte blanche allows deployment of a world, a logic that is sometimes illogical, a complex ensemble within all the available time and space; it allows thinking about the exhibition as a ritual, a renewed experience,” says Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, exhibition curator. At the end of September, the Palais Garnier also invited Tino Sehgal to stage his interpreters, in collaboration with dancers from the Ballet de l’Opéra.
3 questions for…
Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, curator of the Tino Sehgal exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo
How can this exhibition be described?
I think that Tino Sehgal’s work reassesses the notion of attention, what captures our attention — it reassesses the intensity of a certain number of elements from our era. Tino Sehgal always produces objects except that they are no longer inanimate bodies, they are intangible objects, situations that we experience. His work also produces images, but ones which are interior: they are born in the interiority of those who meet his works. In addition, the matter with which Tino works is human, his body, his movement, his modes of existence. This matter, man, is several millions of years old. Tino’s work tends to displace the object of our gaze.
How do you explain the complexity of Tino Sehgal’s work?
I think that the subjects that he handles are complex, but they are manipulated in his work with great simplicity. When you experience a Tino Sehgal piece, you experience an exchange with another human or group of humans, or both successively, and the work is born from this situation in which subjectivities meet. The subjects inspiring his works are questions as vast as identity, economy, the collective, art, ritual, progress… But it’s not necessary at any moment to know the subject and the work in order to experience and understand it. Tino Sehgal constructs situations so that we produce our own reactions to a given instant. There’s no right response, there’s no solution to the problem. There are as many hypotheses as visitors experiencing a work, which gathers, in the one space and moment, tools for individual and collective reflection.
What can you tell us about the works being presented?
That they depend on the present time at the same time as they write it. That each of them, in its own way, stretches our understanding of art as well as our understanding of ourselves. Every work being shown triggers a particular emotional field in the visitor, a feeling, a reaction, so I imagine that the works transport us to different interior territories – much like a meeting with a multiplicity of possible selves. This dynamic is that of the contemporary individual whose existence is increasingly determined by his choices, by an infinity of choices with which he must operate in order to construct himself. In addition, each of the works resonates with the idea that a work is not necessarily an object that we look at, but a reality that is felt, lived, that passes through you – that a work exists due to our presence.
It’s hard to be any clearer on the matter: “I’m trying to really dematerialise ‘the object’ so that there is no text, no object to certify that this ‘object’ is an ‘object’ or anything else.” There’s no doubt about it, Tino Sehgal is a radical artist, so attached to dematerialisation that he forbids his work from being documented and… also from being photographed. Tino Sehgal has made no exceptions for Art Media Agency!
“Carte blanche à Tino Sehgal”. Until Sunday 18 December, Palais de Tokyo, 13 Avenue du Président-Wilson, Paris, 75016.