PRINT May 2005


SO YOU WALK INTO THE TOP FLOOR of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to see This objective of that object, 2004, by Tino Sehgal, a British-born artist based in Berlin. There are five people standing around the galleries with their backs turned to you, simultaneously whispering, “The objective of this work is to be the object of a discussion.” Their voices get louder as they chant the sentence several times. A silence ensues. If you approach them, they wander off to the nearest wall, avoiding face-to-face contact. If nobody speaks, they wilt and collapse onto the floor. If, like me, you want some answers about this quasi-cultish assembly, you start asking questions.

“What kind of discussion?”

The performer in front of me declares, “The visitor has asked a question!”

“It is a question we have been asked before!” trumps his neighbor.

“Who will answer?” they cry in unison.

“We should ask the visitor what kind of discussion she would like!”

Oh God, why did I utter such a knee-jerk inanity? Another visitor chips in more thoughtfully, “Is there a difference between being an object of discussion and being a subject of discussion?”

“A visitor has asked another question!”

“Who will answer?!”

They begin a long, increasingly abstract discussion about the nature of objectivity and subjectivity. You get the feeling they’ve been through this routine before.

Eleven days later I return to the ICA and the mood is quite different. The five “interpreters,” as Sehgal prefers to call them, are mouthy student types overkeen to inflict their inconsequential declamations on the viewer. Their tone is less oracular and more aggressive. You can barely get a word in edgewise, and the whole experience is maddening. There is an overwhelming sense of exclusion, even of intimidation: They are locked in their own ritual, with their own system of rules, and for all the talk of “discussion” you can’t penetrate their circle. I was disappointed. The first visit felt better—but was that simply because it fulfilled certain desires and expectations that I harbor for such an intervention? Was it even possible to make a value judgment about these two experiences, inasmuch as the very structure of the piece refuses any notion of an ideal “performance”? (Indeed, Sehgal dislikes the very word “performance” for its connotations of achievement and prefers—actually, he insists—that his works be referred to as “sculptures,” “installations,” “situations,” or simply “pieces.”)

Also on view at the ICA was a reprise of Sehgal’s first work, Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, 2000, which featured a single interpreter writhing on the floor in an empty gallery, intermittently incorporating movements from Dan Graham’s dual-screen Super-8 projection Roll, 1970, and Bruce Nauman’s videos Tony Sinking into the Floor, Face Up and Face Down and Elke Allowing the Floor to Rise Up over Her, Face Up (both 1973). These sorts of art-historical references crop up throughout Sehgal’s oeuvre. If you didn’t get them, you’d be forgiven for taking his work to be a pitifully thin parody of all that’s embarrassing in contemporary art: gallery guards singing (This is propaganda, 2002), thrashing their arms about in circles while jumping from one leg to the other (This is good, 2001), or falling to the floor in a trance and reciting a summary of the press statement (This exhibition, 2004) and works that feature interpretations of his own back catalogue—by two children (This is right, 2003) and by his Belgian gallerist Jan Mot (Le Plein, 2003). Such abbreviated descriptions of the works convey a slight and painfully self-referential practice, but the experience of seeing them is always richer and more complex: They are considered and concise, compelling to watch, and give back as much as you’re willing to put in. Most of Sehgal’s pieces involve selected participants “interpreting,” or “playing,” a set of instructions. He has himself appeared in only one work, which goes under different titles according to where it’s enacted; here he dances for fifty-five minutes in the style of twenty dance aesthetics of the twentieth century.

I first came across Sehgal’s work last year in the Wrong Gallery’s stand at the Frieze Art Fair in London. This is right, 2003, featured two confident children commanding the empty white space to describe a selection of works by Sehgal that were available for purchase. They demonstrated the pieces and told us the title, date, edition number, and price; every now and then they flashed a bit of art-critical terminology. To see these children mouthing jargon they didn’t understand gave me shudders of pleasurable horror; it was a fascinating car crash of a work and stood out a mile in the polite context of a fair marked by coded transactions and stealthy one-upmanship. Children selling art—This is right? At Art Basel last year, Sehgal spiked the art fair once more: This is competition, 2004, was created for the two galleries that represent him, Jan Mot, in Brussels, and Johnen + Schöttle, in Cologne. Stationed side by side in the same stall, the galleries’ representatives were permitted to say only one word at a time and were thus forced to collaborate in order to form sentences to discuss the work.

Sehgal studied dance and economics in Essen and Berlin, and in most readings of his output—some twenty pieces to date—much has been made of this unusual training. The ostensible motor behind these deceptively simple works is the desire for a regime of total immateriality. To this end he obsessively constructs a polished, impregnable closed system—protected by curators, gallerists, and press officers—in which the work evades documentation at all stages. No photographs of the pieces may be taken or reproduced; no catalogues or press releases may be printed; and no paperwork may accompany the buying and selling of a piece (which must be done by oral contract in the presence of a notary and, often, the artist himself). Thus Sehgal extends the late-’60s logic of the dematerialized art object to the work’s certification and circulation as well. The weakest link in this conceptual fortress would seem to be the critic who commits the work to paper. Most discussions around Sehgal’s work have therefore addressed his idea of “deproduction” (the possibility of simultaneously making and not making something) in this conjunction of theater and instruction-based conceptualism. Even so, one can’t help but note that the more determined the artist is to enforce a media blackout around his work, the more energy he invests in frustrating its reproduction, the more “buzz” he creates for himself and, therefore, the more press his work generates. (Talk about viral marketing!)

But what does it mean to produce an immaterial, undocumented, non-documentable work today? Unlike those Fluxus artists who made instruction pieces to expand the field of authorship (George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, George Brecht), and unlike the first generation of Conceptual artists, for whom dematerialization was a way to subvert the work of art’s relationship to the market and museum (Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Lawrence Weiner), Sehgal has no such desire for circumvention.1 If anything, he seems overly keen on participating in both museum and market, creating different types of work for each: Pieces for private collectors are interpreted by the collector, while those for public institutions are interpreted by paid (though nonprofessional) actors. The museum seems to be the primary goal, because it is there that the artist’s strategies can best wreak havoc on our systems of acquisition and conservation. Rather than being a repository of material objects, the museum is, for Sehgal, a place where one may influence discourse in the future perfect tense: “This will have been the past.” It remains to be seen what long-term impact Sehgal’s work will have on museum infrastructure, if any: Will oral conservation eat the works into oblivion? With an ever-expanding body of work and the constant circulation of curatorial staff, one can easily envisage the gradual deterioration of his ideas over time: information carried in the bodies of curators and “interpreters” but entropically subject to variation, lapsus, forgetfulness, and the progressive degradations of meaning exemplified in kid’s games like “Chinese whispers” or “telephone.”

Sehgal is surely aware of the perils of contrived obstruction. (How many people remember Maria Nordman, the ’70s installation artist who refused to do interviews or allow her work to be photographed?) What may save him is the seductiveness of his work’s stylishly absurd clash with the environment of its display. In this he is typical of his generation, adopting short, snappy modes of entertainment rather than direct critique. Only for an instant was it surprising to find that Sehgal selected Jeff Koons’s Hippo, 1999, for the 2004 ICA exhibition “Artists’ Favourites,” accompanied by the following text:

Koons [may] effectively be the only truly leftist artist. . . . Ideally his work transforms the museum into a place where a person of so-called lower culture feels good, understood, seduced and, above all, is not alienated. As my own agenda is not necessarily a leftist one, what interests me in Koons’ work is that it is neither about alienation nor does it explicitly criticise alienation: it simply tries not to alienate the viewer. . . . Koons is beyond critique and, without giving up a sense of reflection, has consequently entered the realm of seduction.

Sehgal’s words are rhetorically forceful but also misleading. Perhaps he hopes to find a parallel between his own work and that of Koons, but if so, he misunderstands both. Although Koons seems to be an artist who sets out to please Everyman, appreciation of his work increases in direct proportion to our awareness of the layers of irony, complicity, and faux dumbing down that pervade his practice. What Sehgal admires in Koons is the way he manages to play the fool to the art world’s king, tossing out insults yet gaining its favor—not unlike Maurizio Cattelan, who also treads a fine line between pandering and aggression (and whose Wrong Gallery, one recalls, commissioned This is right for its booth at the Frieze Art Fair). But there are important differences: If Koons’s target was the museum and collector (persuading them to buy kitsch), then Cattelan’s is the dealer and collector. Sehgal in turn provokes the new player of the ’90s: the curator. This is propaganda carried such force at the 2003 Venice Biennale because it indexically referenced the extreme example of overbearing curatorial presence in which it was embedded—“Utopia Station.”

Of course, it is possible to enjoy Sehgal’s interventions as small gallery-based performances (again the artist would object to my use of the word), but they depend on our familiarity with a complex set of art-historical references: task-based performance and the convergence of dance and Conceptualism in the ’60s and ’70s, the exhaustion of institutional critique (Michael Asher in particular springs to mind), and an overfamiliarity with the conventions of exhibition display. Dan Graham is a frequent reference point: One of Sehgal’s works for private collectors that has not yet been purchased and thus not enacted is Alteration to a Suburban Household (an obvious allusion to Graham’s 1978 maquette Alteration to a Suburban House), in which a couple agree to mirror—or rather invert—each other’s habitual roles and mannerisms whenever receiving a guest. Like Graham, Sehgal invokes the past as a corrective to the eternal “present” of marketed experience:

My point is that dance as well as singing—as traditional artistic media—could be a paradigm for another mode of production which stresses transformation of acts instead of transformation of material, continuous involvement of the present with the past in creating further presents instead of an orientation towards eternity, and simultaneity of production and deproduction instead of economics of growth.2

This desire for an ongoing experience of “further presents” may be one reason why Sehgal refers to his works as “sculptures” rather than performances. Unlike most exhibitions with a live-art component, Sehgal’s works are present in the gallery space all day every day for the duration of the show. But these pieces are also resolutely theatrical in providing viewers with a specific and intensely subjective encounter, a fact that is reflected in the writing on his work to date (for the most part, descriptive anecdotes like the one that began this essay) and in the work’s ability to generate orally disseminated narratives. While documentation of these experiences is crucial to an understanding of Sehgal’s practice, there is more at stake here. The performance and our experience of it are not the sum total of the work or its end: They are also pretexts for a meditation on dissemination (the role of oral history and rumor) and interpretation. Although Sehgal rehearses his pieces with each actor, they are experienced in radically different ways according to who enacts them (and, of course, who observes them). Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, for example, was unexpectedly moving when performed at the ICA by an older man and unsettlingly erotic when interpreted by a girl. The self-reflexive loops of Sehgal’s “sculptures,” in which the title, date, and courtesy line are enunciated as part of the piece (e.g., “Tino Sehgal, This is propaganda, 2002, Courtesy Gallery Jan Mot”), provide an ironic metacommentary on the fetish value of art and the rituals that accompany its dissemination. The spoken “this” refers to the player’s own performance, Sehgal’s work, other works of art surrounding it, and the whole exhibition situation in which it finds itself. The deictic “This is . . . ” allows the work to allude reflexively to contemporary art in a way that is absent in other recent acts of delegated performance, such as Roman Ondák’s discreet Good Feelings in Good Times, 2003/2004 (a queue of ten to thirty people in an arbitrary location) or Pawel Althamer’s Motion Picture, 2000 (actors hired to perform ordinary actions at the same time in the same place each day). In the overt stupidity of the gestures Sehgal requires of his actors (lifting their arms in the air in This is good, or falling over and burbling a synopsis of the show’s press release in This exhibition), art is presented as a system of esoteric rules that people obey with cultlike devotion.

It is worth paying closer attention to Sehgal’s aspiration to a “simultaneity of production and deproduction instead of economics of growth.” It is clear that what is being deproduced in his practice is the materiality of the art object; but what is being produced? Gesture—and here it may be worth recalling Giorgio Agamben’s claim in Means Without End (2000) that gesture is the purest form of politics (and also of intellectual activity). The present article, far from being the weakest link in Sehgal’s conceptual fortress, may indeed be immanent to the work: a production that stands for and encircles the objective of his practice. Sehgal’s pieces are at their most poignant in situations where the ecosystem of the art world is most evident: art fairs (think of This is competition at Art Basel) and large group shows (“Utopia Station”), where they function as mischievous insertions into ideological circuits of the market and the not-for-profit cultural institution alike. Such an ecosystem could extend to the art magazine: this page of words amid and against Artforum’s visual overload, the activity of thinking by writer and reader, this object of his objective.

Claire Bishop is a London-based critic.


1. In an artist’s statement published in the catalogue to the group show “I promise it’s political” at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in 2002, Sehgal wrote: “I consider communism and capitalism as two versions of the same model of economy, which only differ in their ideas about distribution. This model would be: the transformation of material or—to use another word—the transformation of ‘nature’ into supply goods in order to decrease supply shortage and to diminish the threats of nature, both of course in order to enhance the quality of life. Both the appearance of excess supply in western societies in the 20th century, as well as of mankind’s endangering of the specific disposition of ‘nature’ in which human life seems possible, question the hegemony of this mode of production, in which the objecthood of visual art is profoundly inclined.”

2. Tino Sehgal, untitled statement in I promise it’s political, (Cologne: Museum Ludwig, 2002). Much of Graham’s performance and installation work of the ’70s involved a critical reassessment of Minimalism, whose insistence on individual presence he argued, took insufficient consideration of the “just-past.”