New York

Tino Sehgal

Given Tino Sehgal’s recent successes—mounting three exhibitions in as many years at the ICA in London; representing Germany at the 2005 Venice Biennale; and, last September, inaugurating what is billed as a “permanent evolving retrospective” at San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts—it was difficult to approach This situation, 2007, unburdened by advance information. What one knew was likely to concern more than Sehgal’s self-described “constructed situations,” which are based on semiscripted actions by hired players. Anticipating his New York gallery debut, audiences had probably, paradoxically, also heard of the artist’s strategies for helping visitors come to his work in a state of beginner’s mind. He forbids photography, film, and sound recording. No written materials are offered, and his name is kept off the wall. It’s genius for generating buzz. In This situation, however, the refusal of presentational frameworks also meant that the best mechanisms for documenting the project coincided precisely with its subjects: speech and memory, and their capacity to draw people into face-to-face exchange.

Viewers traversed Francesca Woodman’s show in the front gallery and turned down a corridor to end up in a back gallery that was empty but for a gaggle of people standing or seated in attitudes of public relaxation—that specific mix of languor and alertness suggesting a longish wait in a nowhere zone. Most were silent, but some were speaking intermittently over their neighbors’ heads. The effect produced was of an awkward party or imbalanced seminar, wherein half those present sideline themselves while a few game talkers dominate. So it was startling when, instead of being allowed to slip in unobtrusively, one triggered some abrupt shifts by entering. The six speakers intoned, in unison, “Welcome . . . to this . . . situation,” then began to walk backward, clockwise, as if to converge on the interloper. The action was vaguely intimidating. The dying fall of “situation” extended in a hiss. But it was funny, too, and somehow genuinely welcoming. It’s not every day that art’s power to hail its percipient—in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of saying, in effect, “Hey, you!”—is so literalized. The six players rotated into new positions along the walls, arranging themselves in postures neither aggressively stagey nor casual; one grouping, for example, quoted Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. A pause. Then a given speaker would pronounce an opening gambit: “In 1952, the Situationist said, ‘Art will be the transformation of situations or it will be nothing.’” Or: “In 1670, somebody said, ‘True eloquence has no use for eloquence.’”

From there, the speakers’ body language relaxed and their interactions developed extempore, establishing a rhythm of natural yet sophisticated thought. In addition to the rule-based salutation, Sehgal preps his players (he never calls them “performers”) with choreographic notes and memorized aphorisms on subjects ranging from women’s evolving role in the workplace to the dialectical relationship between one’s character flaws and character assets. Otherwise they are free to improvise through their four-hour shifts. Whenever a player felt like addressing a viewer, he or she would accost them with a pointed “What do you think?” This might or might not garner a response. When someone new arrived, discussion was interrupted and the backward-walking and “Welcome...” were replayed. Anchored by the designated speakers, yet responsive to both silent witnesses and impulsive interjections, the container of the room and the thread of crisscrossing colloquy vibrated with artificed yet open-ended energies. As ephemeral spectacle plus a takeaway of remembered—or perhaps jotted-down—fragments, the dematerialized object here resolved into the old-fashioned, consciously exaggerated art of conversation.

Frances Richard