Tino Sehgal

Martin-Gropius-Bau/Haus der Berliner Festspiele

Tino Sehgal calls his works, which have been devised primarily for presentations in art museums rather than theaters, “constructed situations.” Others have taken to describing them as “living sculptures.” But as I encountered the pieces in the London-born artist’s first major exhibition in the city where he now lives, it was hard to resist the feeling that they are more like theater and less like sculpture than they are meant to be. What makes the difference, after all, does not entirely reside in the work itself (whatever itself is taken to mean here) but in the relation that the work establishes with its public—or rather, in more theatrical terms, its audience.

The people who turned up to see Sehgal’s five pieces at the Martin-Gropius-Bau clearly felt themselves to be an audience witnessing a series of acts rather than viewers in the presence of various sculptures: They consistently sat down on the floor at the greatest possible distance from the works’ performers (or, as Sehgal calls them, interpreters), leaving around the performers precisely that “empty space” described by Peter Brooks as “all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” I tried, just as an experiment, to circumambulate one of Sehgal’s best-known pieces, Kiss, first presented in 2002, as it was shown here—a slow-motion clinch between a young heterosexual couple—taking nearer and more distant stances at various angles just as I would have done in an encounter with the Rodin bronze that has been cited as one of the work’s central inspirations. But no one else in the museum’s atrium followed suit, and soon enough I felt embarrassed for being the only one to break the fourth wall, as if I’d suddenly turned into the schmuck who recently became a social-media laughingstock for trying to charge his phone using the onstage outlet of a Broadway set. The same thing happened with Ann Lee, first staged in 2011, another Sehgal work, in which an adolescent girl delivers a monologue as the eponymous manga character ushered into the art world by Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe in their 1999 video No Ghost Just a Shell. Even when the performer addressed a question directly to the audience, which she did more than once (as a freelancer, I felt particularly implicated by “Would you rather feel too busy, or not busy enough?”), it seemed that any impulse to respond was repressed pretty easily.

I’m no Michael Fried, nor was I meant to be; by calling attention to the theatricality of Sehgal’s work, I don’t mean to denigrate it—though I do wonder if the slo-mo of Kiss and some of the artist’s other work doesn’t edge toward Bill Viola–esque cliché. I’ll only say that the effect of the project is not as radical as what the artist, with his much-discussed purism (or is it just finickiness?)—no documentation, no contract of sale—seems to be aiming at. No matter: It’s enough that Sehgal consistently delivers exceptional performance art in a tradition that’s been developing since the 1960s. And besides, he does succeed in blurring the space between public and performer. One is neither viewer nor audience of This Progress, the work that made such a deep impression when it was presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2010, and which in Berlin was reenacted at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele as part of the Foreign Affairs festival. Those who saw the piece in New York will remember that it involves a series of one-on-one conversations—with a child, a young adult, a middle-aged person, and an older person—about the idea of progress. In Berlin, one missed the perfect congruity between the Guggenheim’s upward spiral and the work’s theme of progress—this iteration took place on the grounds around the theater—but the piece’s brilliance, and its power to push one toward self-reflection, was undiminished. This really is a work beyond category.

Barry Schwabsky