PRINT March 2009


Jeff Koons and Tino Sehgal

IN THE CLOSING MONTHS OF 2008, most of us were preoccupied by the looming specter of penury, so it seemed somewhat discordant that the season witnessed not one but two exhibitions by contemporary artists in famously opulent palaces: Jeff Koons at the Château de Versailles outside Paris and Tino Sehgal at the Villa Reale in Milan. Installed within the elaborately stuccoed and gilded rooms of the grand buildings, the artists’ works nestled into the luxurious company of classical sculptures, antique furniture, oil paintings, rich tapestries, and other trappings of aristocratic privilege—settings suggestively at odds with the spartan convention of the white cube. Koons, with his mythologized background as a Wall Street trader, his status as the preeminent icon of the 1980s New York art world, and his professed “transcendental” love of materialism, might seem to fit much more readily into this context than Sehgal, known since 2001 for his radically dematerialized practice evolving from early participation in the European contemporary dance scene. In fact, it might seem difficult to think of two less likely subjects for comparison. Yet the shows brought to light some intriguing commonalities.

To begin with Koons (an artist used to top billing): Versailles is of course best known as the residence of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who lived and presided there from 1682 to 1715, and as the site of Marie Antoinette’s fabled excesses decades later. The entire layout of the château, its gardens, salons, promenades, and halls, speaks of the elaborate choreography of courtly life. The royal art collection is instrumentalized in this grand scheme, set among sumptuously ornamented surfaces covered with marble paneling, marquetry, silk wallpaper, candelabras, and chandeliers; paintings and sculptures are not dis- crete focal points but merely part of the symbolic scheme. Per the much-hyped exhibition’s souvenir program, curator Laurent Le Bon was prompted to invite Koons by a desire to ensure that the palace would not be “embalmed” as a “relic” of history, but rather would engage in dialogue with contemporary life. (In fact, there has been a group exhibition of contemporary art at Versailles annually since 2004, but this was the first solo show.) In a recent interview, Koons, for his part, described his interest in exhibiting at Versailles as stemming from a desire to “really combine these two surfaces, [the] surface of the seventeenth and eighteenth century with the surface of today.” He continued, “[A]rt has the ability to weave back through history—so it feels like two kind of parallel times.” The essence of the Versailles project for him was described as an appreciation of “what art brings to the human condition. Art can bring us transcendence and Versailles is the epitome of . . . that.”

At Versailles, Koons installed seventeen of his best- known sculptures, from the almost obscenely exuberant Balloon Flower (Yellow), 1995–2000, to the red-mirrored Hanging Heart (Red/Gold), 1994–2006, suspended weightlessly above the staircase that leads to the king’s and queen’s bedrooms. Particularly notable was his installation of Moon (Light Blue), 1995–2000, a giant reflective hemisphere with scalloped edges, within the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). This room was designed in the 1670s, its 357 mirrors testifying to France’s power. (They had just broken the Venetian monopoly on looking glasses, a heady technological victory.) At 10 am every day, Louis XIV would process through the hall, multiply reflected. Koons positioned his moon smack in the middle of the magnificent chamber, a centerpiece refracting kingly self-assurance. Indeed, here—as throughout the show—he inserted himself into and quite literally eclipsed the unifying metaphor of Versailles, which was envisioned in the days of Louis XIV as a kind of solar system revolving around, of course, the Sun King. In case we were in any doubt, nearby, in the Salon d’Apollon—dedicated to the god of sun, peace, and the arts—was Koons’s marble Self-Portrait, 1991. And in proximity to that was his 1986 bust of Louis XIV himself, made not from marble but from an industrial material—stainless steel—and considerably less elevated on its plinth than was Koons’s own likeness. This all added up to a pretty bold proposition about the role of the artist and his relationship to contemporary networks of power. Koons’s statement about the meeting of surfaces implies a disinterested, aesthetic relationship between the Baroque and Rococo of Versailles and his own practice, but such juxtapositions set up somewhat grander claims of equivalence. Indeed, not content to be the mere center of a solar system, Koons here seems intent on affirming his position as a postmillennial Master of the Universe, continuing to set auction records long after the bond traders immortalized by Tom Wolfe have faded from the scene.

Wolfe’s novel of ’80s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities, took its name from the notorious ritual burning of immoral books, manuscripts of secular songs, pictures, mirrors, and cosmetics led by the Dominican priest Savonarola in fifteenth-century Florence. In this scheme of things, then, is Sehgal our contemporary Savonarola? His refusal of materiality is, on its face, in tune with the priest’s systematic obliteration of objects that might tempt one to sin. And within the framework of the Villa Reale, his work’s relative modesty of means might, at first encounter, have appeared puritanical: It was certainly the case that the villa, as a backdrop for Sehgal, appeared more “fossilized” in its flamboyant ornamentality than Versailles had as a foil for Koons. What is most striking about the Neoclassical villa—built for a count around 1790 and later lived in by Napoleon—is the density of frozen representations of the human figure it contains, in the form of portrait paintings, allegorical and history paintings, and marble and bronze statuary.

Amid the static gestures and petrified decoration, Sehgal’s unruly interpreters appeared transgressively active. With works dating back to 2000, the show (curated by Massimiliano Gioni) amounted to a sort of precocious retrospective encompassing eight of the artist’s staged “situations,” enacted by “interpreters,” in his parlance. Although there was an attendant in each room, the situations erupted in only some of them, leaving one with the uncanny sensation, familiar from his previous exhibitions, that it was impossible to tell where the show ended and its context began. Visitors encountered the first work (in Italian, opera, which seemed beautifully fitting in the ornate setting) at the front desk, with This Is New, 2003, in which the interpreter repeats a headline from a current daily newspaper of his or her choice; the second, two rooms later, was This Is So Contemporary, 2004, staged at the 2005 Venice Biennale, in which three gallery attendants dance around the visitor, their high kicks and swinging arms evoking old-school musical theater, while they chant the title phrase. The show progressed to This Is Critique, 2008, in which one could engage the gallery attendants in a philosophical discussion about the exhibition. The work responded to its setting in one sense, as the interpreters’ choreographed movements pointed to the roots of modern dance in the balletti performed in the Italian courts after the Renaissance and to the related notion of sprezzatura, a courtly form of gestural etiquette. Sehgal played doubly on the space as a relic and as a site still animated by the ghosts of the past.

According to Sehgal, Gioni conceived of the mise-en-scène in terms of an affinity between the villa’s many marble figures—which, in his eyes, are “aspiring . . . to transcend [their] own materiality . . . to come as close as possible to [appearing] alive”—and Sehgal’s sculptures, which have “literally come alive.” It is true that the “living sculptures” he makes look beautiful next to Neoclassical figure sculpture, as with his work in the Tate Triennial 2006, installed among Victorian female nudes. But Sehgal’s work always relies on the bigger picture, and it operates best in the blatantly transactional spaces that are “contaminated” by everyday life and are themselves alive with real exchange and interaction: the art fair, and the crowded front line of a busy art museum. With the notable exception of Instead of Allowing Something to Rise Up to Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things, 2000—which involves the interpreter moving about very slowly while lying on the floor, using gestures drawn from works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, among others, and whose abject horizontality strained powerfully against the surrounding marble figures’ aspirations toward eternity—Villa Reale’s pristine decorativeness forced a little too much awareness of “inheritance,” placing the work within an art- historical and institutional lineage that was at odds with the immediacy of the experience at hand. Take, for example, the very different context at the 2006 Berlin Biennial, where Gioni and his curatorial team selected—as a site for Sehgal’s Kiss—a crumbling mirrored ballroom, which eloquently conjured an impression of historical grandeur as a deliquescent dream. Here, instead, there was a cumulative and assertive emphasis on materialism, conveyed by the fetishized possessions of the dead.

Sehgal’s live “sculpture,” which “tries to exist in the world without leaving any trace” (as the press release described it), appears entirely antithetical to Koons’s steel, aluminum, and plastic sculptures. One might assume that the artists have opposing viewpoints on the status of the artwork as commodity: While the perfection of Koons’s fabricated surfaces renders imperceptible any evidence of the human labor that produced the works, Sehgal foregrounds labor as the work itself. If Damien Hirst’s diamond skull was a prescient memento mori marking the end of twentieth-century free-market decadence, Koons’s stainless-steel “balloon” sculptures must be its perpetually inflated aesthetic climax. The optimism of these works, for Koons, lies in their anthropomorphism: “Every time you take a breath it’s like a symbol of life and every time you exhale it’s a symbol of death. As long as these toys survive they’re a symbol of life and optimism,” he says in the program. Made of finely sculpted steel and aluminum, these balloons will never pop, unlike the recently collapsed financial bubble. Sehgal, meanwhile, works with living, breathing people to effect “real” encounters. Real people can’t hold their breath the way Koons’s sculptures do: They have to keep moving, to breathe out. Moreover, as simultaneously “produced and de-produced” actions, Sehgal’s works theoretically cannot accrue value.

With these contrasts in mind, it is intriguing to note that for the exhibition “Artists’ Favourites” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 2004, Sehgal chose to present Koons’s crystal wall relief Hippo (Dark Pink), 1999, as his personal highlight. Coming from a young artist who was just beginning to be known for works that deliberately avoided any transformation of labor into material objects (not just within the work but also as regards wall labels, photo documentation, and even written contracts), the selection was a pleasing curveball. In the accompanying text, Sehgal explained his decision thus: “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.”

There is no denying that Koons has made some of the most seductive artworks of our time. But Sehgal has a predilection for seduction, too. Certainly Sehgal’s show, like Koons’s, flaunted a desire to allure and entertain. Though Koons’s sculpture is purely object-based and Sehgal’s entirely gestural, Koons’s apparently mechanically fabricated and Sehgal’s “organic,” in each case the work has a highly controlled quality and an investment in the production of spectacular apparitions. And both artists share an express interest in making a salable commodity. (“They have to be sold and bought otherwise they don’t fulfill their function,” Sehgal recently commented in Flash Art.) To read Sehgal’s obliteration of objects as a straightforward criticism of such “vanities,” then, is a mistake; his pure labor might be interpreted as evincing Marxist undertones, but the work, in some senses, operates according to conventional art-world principles of surplus value. His interpreters are paid by the hour, while he owns the work and sells it for art-world prices. And he is not banishing images per se. He creates indelible, burn-into-the-memory impressions with his living tableaux; it’s just that they cannot be materially possessed. As such, his commodification of the space of encounter between subjectivities might even be interpreted as the ultimate Debordian nightmare.

All these complex contradictions, like Sehgal’s text at the ICA, reveal the nature of his debt to Koons, which has to do with Koons’s refutation of the binary categories of oppositional and complicit. (He is “beyond critique.”) Sehgal’s choices not only to sell his situations but also to show his work in this grand villa reveal his deliberate embrace of such provocative complicity. His work is increasingly being accommodated within museums and collections of modern and contemporary art—an assimilation that is possible, in part, because of some elasticity in institutional thinking after Conceptual art. But the context of the Villa Reale unmasks the latent yet deep incongruity between Sehgal’s work and institutional systems, by baldly revealing the values of modern and contemporary art collections, even those “dressed” as white cubes: They are caches of valuable, aesthetic, authored things, essentially of a piece with the royal and aristocratic collections of earlier eras.

Encountering Sehgal’s work—his sculpting of passing exchange between individuals—within this historical context forces us (we who work in museums or collect art or otherwise “invest” in it) to think about what will be left in two hundred years. What will we have to show to later generations of visitors? Will it be worth anything? But quite clearly, these are the wrong questions—questions that deviate from the work’s own path. It is not merely the future of Sehgal’s individual pieces, and concerns over whether they will deteriorate because of his prohibitions of ordinary modes of documentation, to which his work brings attention. His proposition for a nonmaterial aesthetic economy has more radical implications: It challenges the future of the museum as we know it. While Koons fitted exquisitely into the grandeur of Versailles, his work—so utterly at home in its position as the visual culmination of the Rococo’s opulent lineage—seeming to confirm that known future, Sehgal’s relation to the Villa Reale could be likened to a kind of camouflaged infiltration. One might even call it virulent, at least in its potential to corrode the tenets of institutional practice.

Sehgal’s apparent complicity with market and institution belies an insistent resistance to the larger, unspoken dynamic that underlies both: that of the artwork as not just a thing of cultural significance but an accumulator of value. His economy brings things back to a microscale, where he—the author-producer—has control. It is intrinsically invested not in an object or in the substances, structures, computer systems, files, or any of the other components of the institution, but in the realm of directly encountered relationships: that wavering, unstable field that the museum is presumed to transcend. If one leaves behind the anxiety about what will remain for posterity, it is unnerving yet thrilling to imagine a culture of choreographic and oral traditions that rely on continuous renewal. Sehgal, fundamentally, breaks with the lineage of material heritage, proposing a new, discursive form of contemplation located in the here and now that seeks alternative relations between labor, remuneration, and experience. It is a proposition that makes our insistence on the painstaking conservation of mortal objects look, suddenly, a little absurd.

Catherine Wood is curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, London.