For his Palais de Tokyo ‘Carte blanche’ exhibition Tino Seghal his filled the space with six of his own works as well as works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, James Coleman, Daniel Buren, Isabel Lewis, Pierre Huyge and Philippe Parreno. This is the second ‘Carte blanche’ series at the gallery, the first one having taken place in 2013 by Philippe Parreno. In effect the show is a retrospective and artist-curated show hybrid, and one that works pretty seamlessly at that. Sehgal’s works are brought to life by 300 participants, ages eight to eighty-two who set up the “constructed situations” for us, the audience, to experience. The works merge and interact with each other throughout the entirety of the gallery space. The viewer meanders through the space, sometimes lead by a participant, sometimes left to one’s own devices, to discover and experience. There is no floor plan and no list of works, such that the audience navigates only with curiosity.
You enter the space through sparkly, beaded curtains. This is the Gonzales -Torres work. Someone - in my case a 13-year-old girl - approaches and asks you a question. As you begin to walk, you answer, they ask another, you are still walking together, then another person takes over and asks yet another question. This is how the viewer both experiences and navigates the first floor of the show. At, first I simply responded. Then I tried to ask questions to probe the mechanism of the performance, to figure out the rules so to speak and then I just relaxed into having interesting conversations, or at least snippets of them. I had conversations about progress, about silence, about childhood and about what I want most out of life! I had so many questions: how much of what the performers had shared with me about themselves was real and how much was scripted? How much direction were they given? Were these very interesting conversations that I had just partaken in real or fake? Does it matter? What do those terms even mean? The point, of course, is the act of asking these questions and through that questioning the nature of experience. This has long been at the core of Sehgal’s practice.
As all of these questions were going through my head, I crossed the space and walked into a darkened room where the work ‘This Variation’ (2012), conceived for Documenta 13, was being performed. This was my first time experiencing this piece. I found some space by the wall and made myself comfortable, expecting that after a few minutes my eyes would adjust, but they did not. The longer I stayed in the room the darker and more menacing it felt. I sat there, marvelling at the darkness and the creepiness and also the stark contrast between the experience of the previous work and this one. Afterwards I made my way to Huyghe’s new work ‘Living/Cancer/Variation’, 2016. Standing in front of this piece took the unease and darkness I felt while I was experiencing ‘Variation’ to a whole other level by combining it with menace and sadness. Only later did I read that this piece is about cancer, and it made perfect sense. After standing there for I’m not sure how long. I wandered back to the main space, hoping, I will admit, for something more light-hearted. Up until that point my experience had been intense and varied, making me realize what a masterful manipulator Sehgal is.
Back in the main gallery a number of performers had gathered and were humming. I sat down to take it in. The performers moved and hummed in unison, culminating in a crescendo of voices and bodies before everyone scattered – it was exactly the kind of physical immediacy I had been after and was swiftly followed by ‘This Objective of that object’ (2004), the earliest of Sehgal’s works in the show. The central questions: about the nature of experience and the nature of reality were all there. What an amazing opportunity this Palais de Tokyo show offers to experience the evolution of such a strong body of work all in one place.