Picture This

Martin Herbert on Tino Sehgal at the ICA, London


A few days into rehearsals for Tino Sehgal’s Institute of Contemporary Arts show—which took place in the galleries, with staff and invited guests permitted a sneak preview—it was clear that not everyone appreciates the Berlin-based artist’s deployment of dancing, singing, and chattering humans (and nothing else) as art. Sehgal’s works, which seek to embody a categorical shift away from object-based art production, are never photographed or otherwise documented and are usually unencumbered by wall labels. This contributes to a certain mystique, but can also sow confusion. Unexpectedly encountering a woman writhing wordlessly on the floor in the main downstairs space, one man raced to the reception desk, demanding that someone help her: Shockingly for an ICA employee, he’d missed the embedded references to Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham in this, the first work Sehgal ever made. (It dates from 2000; he’s had a fast rise, mainly due to the way his confrontational art stands out in the undifferentiated sprawls of biennials.) I wasn’t faring much better upstairs with his latest piece, This objective of that object, 2004. After a short, ritualistic performance, five actors had seemingly gone to sleep on me. I staggered over one zombie slumped in the doorway and located Sehgal—a bespectacled, slightly preppy-looking young man—who suggested I might try interacting with them. However, the way back in was barred: There was a “technical hitch,” said an attendant—which, the artist smilingly explained, was actually code meaning that a new visitor had entered the space.

Ironically, when they finally let me back in there was a hitch. The performers were lounging and continued to chat idly with the current visitor, whereas my arrival should have snapped them back into marionette mode. I left and came in again; it worked this time. I was now determined to have a chat—the lurching and collective vocalizing my first time through just hadn’t been enough for me—and it turned out that clearing my throat sufficed, launching an entertaining five-way improv that ping-ponged from the politics of public coughing to semen to “boobies.” One rule of this work, it seemed, was that the performers couldn’t face the viewer. So, meanly, I tried to see how well they’d improvise while spinning like tops as I ran around them.

The quintet had begun by chanting, “The objective of this work is to become the object of a discussion.” A few days later that dream came true, sort of, as Sehgal sat on stage at the Goethe Institute to unpack a boxful of sharp ideas with the ICA’s director of exhibitions, Jens Hoffmann—the two share a background in theater and dance and have worked together before. Discussion shied away from the most recent work, since this “clever provocateur” (as the ICA is styling him) didn’t want to spoil the surprise. As a result, the first half of the chat was a slightly dutiful recap of Sehgal’s career as a maker of residue-free, purely durational art, with Hoffmann asking such penetrating questions as “You’ve had this amazing trajectory. . . . Is there still room for surprise, for yourself?”

Things perked up when Sehgal explained how he actually sells his work in the absence of documentary photographs or certificates of authentication—a weird tale of oral contracts memorized by lawyers and of the artist teaching the buyer how to perform the work, thus instigating a pedagogical daisy chain if and when it’s sold again. Later, he convincingly refuted suggestions that his work was either subversive or a rehash of '60s conceptual strategies, asserting that it is, rather, a politicized inquiry into the mutability of modes of production. He resembled an earnest economist—disinterested in getting Croesus-rich off his art and mentioning only in passing that Joseph Kosuth had told him he’d solved a fundamental problem of Conceptualism. Perhaps seeking to keep his friend’s self-esteem in check, Hoffmann needled him for that. “You finally achieved the dematerialization of the art object,” he said dryly, to a ripple of laughter. Sehgal quickly changed the subject and, shortly afterward, dematerialized into the night.