First, I should say this: Tino Sehgal is a polymath artist who has for the duration of his practice eschewed its documentation in nearly all forms. Interestingly, for his current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, this ban on after-the-fact illustrations extended forward in time, such that there was no advance press release, and press kits were intentionally unavailable at the preview. Sehgal is an artist for whom surprise is of the essence, and so it is with that warning that I begin this review; for those who prefer to visit the exhibition tabula rasa, as the artist intends, I’ll just say that it is worth a visit when you have a quiet moment.
Sehgal, whose iconoclastic education in both dance and economics has served his practice well, has since 2000 been engaged in an investigation of art-world transactions, namely how to create a work that at once confounds and co-opts the mechanism by which artworks are bought or sold. Unlike the focus of some dematerialized artworks of the 60’s, bent on selling the emperor’s new clothes back to the man, the heart of Sehgal’s practice is the audacious element of surprise, and the experiential pleasures of the unexpected.
Which is why, in certain ways, the Guggenheim show is a disappointment; of the two works in the exhibition, Kiss, created nearly a decade ago, fails to offer that frisson, not because it is an existing work, but because, in its beautifully choreographed, slow motion make-out, it belies its performance-ness entirely. Here the viewer is not shaken by the unexpected encounter with the erotic, only mildly stirred’
This Progress, the second work in the exhibition, is a site-specific piece, that is more touching. Working on a reflective note, as the viewer begins to trek up the rotunda she is quickly intercepted by a precocious child who instructs, ‘Hi. This is a work by Tino Sehgal,’ and then asks the viewer for her definition of progress. Thus begins an odd, ambitious conversation with a small stranger who serves alternately as host and Socratic tutor, guiding the visitor up the rotunda’s path. When their conversation is interrupted by a polite adolescent, the child neatly sums up the content of the conversation (‘This woman suggested that progress was when things change, and said that, if she had health care right now, that would be progress’‘) and hands the visitor off to her older peer.
This transaction becomes the model for a sort of languid human relay up Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral, which is, for Sehgal’s exhibition, emptied of other works. (This nakedness was one of the few advance details about the exhibition available to the press and the museum was shrewd to leak it; the space, in the bright white light of winter, is brilliant bare.) Indeed, This Progress is as much a tribute to the architecture of the museum as it is to this mortal coil, and as one slowly wanders upwards towards the oculus, accompanied by increasingly aged performers, one thinks metaphysical thoughts. This is by design but sincerely felt and, for this visitor, moving.