Tino Sehgal

Johnen + Schöttle

As I write these lines, I can’t help but wonder if I’m betraying Tino Sehgal, a Berlin-based artist whose performances—he doesn’t even like them to be called that—have been garnering attention for around three years. For while performance art depends on having a witness to its existence, be it a photograph, a written report, or carefully preserved relics, Sehgal eschews any kind of documentation. There aren’t even any invitation cards or press releases for his works. Nothing should remain to prove their existence, not even discussions, but then again—how can he prevent it?

So, yes, I’ve decided for betrayal. I have seen three of Sehgal’s pieces: In Venice during the last Biennale, among the throngs at “Utopia Station,” there was suddenly heard a voice singing, which, if one sought it out, belonged to a uniformed guard. Then, in London during the 2003 Frieze Art Fair, I found myself standing in an otherwise empty booth where two children were speaking about art like gallerists but in sentences I couldn’t quite understand. Only later did I find out that this was Sehgal’s doing. Most recently, at Galerie Johnen + Schöttle in Cologne, I myself became a part of the event.

Sehgal, who studied economics and dance in Essen, is interested in the act that unfolds in time, not in objects available for observation, as the source of knowledge. This was especially clear in Cologne. Whenever a visitor entered the gallery, five employees slowly spread out across the room by slinking along the walls, and, while facing the wall, began declaiming in English. Not everything could be heard, just individual words or phrases like “work” or “the object of discussion”; then silence, followed by repetition of “work . . . discussion.” Next, without knowing how, this visitor found herself engaged in conversation with the people scattered around the room, asking questions—“Does it always end with a conversation?” “What are the most common topics?” “Have you had any angry reactions?”—and receiving polite answers: “No, not angry, people aren’t even very shy, actually.” The conversation became increasingly relaxed, yet one still had to wonder why the speakers continued to face the wall and never looked directly at their questioner. That is another of the artist’s instructions, came the answer, as is the fact that this work is available in an edition of four, each costing twenty-thousand euros. But then suddenly the protagonists were back in motion with words mumbled like a magician’s incantation: “No more questions, let’s get down to business”—a quotation from Eminem. And off they went.

While classic performance art attempted to subvert the market, Sehgal markets his work overtly. He explicitly instructed that the edition and price of the work was to be said clearly and to every visitor, while its title, The objective of that object, was only to be offered if specifically asked for. Sehgal’s performances, if that is what they are, have indeed been sold, though there is no written document even for the purchase. Purchases are transacted orally in the presence of a notary. The artist says he is available to help in future realizations of his works. Actions as commodity—really nothing new in a world of spectacle, but do they necessarily have to be art?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.