Situations at Martin-Gropius-Bau
(Berlin.) We like ---, we really do. We like the British-German artist’s approach to the art market, selling six-figure works without ever signing a contract, but orally giving a description and precise instructions to buyers in presence of a notary instead. We even like his politics to ban all documentation of his art - the reason, why you see a blank above where usually our photos are. There are no photos, no videos, no apps, no catalogues, not even hand-outs or explanation panels in his exhibitions. We like --- so much, we almost got carried away to continue his idea to the fullest and don't write about him at all. But of course, --- is not stupid, he once studied dance and business, and very well knows how to build his brand. He certainly would object if a gallery misspelled his name, he likes press coverage, and if by any chance he read this article, he would want to see his name. It’s Tino Sehgal. People sometimes ask, if that's pronounced like Steven Seagal, and, well, not really, the “s” is softer. But Sehgal is a master of body control, too. Tino Sehgal is a global art star, multiple participant at Venice Biennal and dOCUMENTA, most famous for works like This Progress from 2006 that reached perfection when shown at the Guggenheim New York in 2010 where visitors were welcomed by a child who led them up a part of the spiral staircase while asking them to define “progress”, then handing them over to a youth posing the same question, and so on up to the top floor with an elderly person who finally disappeared behind a door. The artist defined setting and topic of an otherwise open discussion, a truly interactive work of art.
Today, Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau is pleased to present five (or six???) works of his making – performances, dances, scenes; Sehgal himself calls them “situations”. Occasionally, his marionettes are allowed to pull their own strings in improvisation, but mostly human instruments are played by an exact partition. Interestingly, the artist says he has never experienced differences in audience reactions, his works are basic enough to be consumed the same way everywhere around the world.
Sehgal’s “situations” succeed each other in the gallery’s atrium (the so called “Lichthof” – “Light Court”) and the rooms encircling it. In the absence of any documentation, visitors need to ask even for the works’ titles. We thus got told a list of five works, and tried to match them to the “situations”.
When we arrived, the atrium was taken by a group of singers, hands dug deep in trouser pockets, standing, sitting or wandering bored, humming sounds halfway between whale chants and a visit to the dentist’s. A mix of a-capella singing and human beatboxing that gradually changed to barking and sneezing, before they tried their best to splatter the glass roof, but failed. Sounds of pain or pleasure, not far from a collective primal scream therapy. There were no clues to identify this work.
Much different Welcome to This Situation: As soon as a visitor enters the room (the atrium respectively), a group of actors welcomes him with those very words, then improvise dia-/tria-/group-alogues on a set of citations they have been taught by the artist. This can be enlightening, or really awkward, depending on how far and into what direction the actors get carried away. They never arrive at a conclusion, but at some point change the quote for another, even when there's no new arrival to greet. Tino Sehgal is known to cast a large number of actors for each role, yet still we wonder whether there’s not a danger of them – more or less inadvertently - learning a routine in the course of the exhibition. Even if this is the case, it would not pose a problem. It’s like in real life: people memorize quotes and soon getting tired of their own reflections endlessly repeat the once chosen position (That’s the fine thing of adhering to an ideology, or just a camp like “left” or "right”: you don’t need to think anymore, or differentiate between individual cases). This situation is undoubtedly our favourite at Martin-Gropius-Bau.
Next. A man and a woman sitting on the floor. “Boom boom yytch aaaahh”. A third person joins them. “Ah ah tch tch”. Is this a Biz Markie concert? Has Tino Sehgal turned composer? “Brrt brrt”. Call me a philistine, but this is silly. It could be the same as that first work described above, now moved on from the atrium to in here, but we’re not sure about it.
Much better: Annlee from 2013. Back in 1999, French artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno bought the rights to an anime character and sublicensed it to other artists who in turn created works featuring this Annlee (that’s the short version, you should definitely read more on the project). Sehgal was not invited, but later decided to participate nevertheless. His Annlee does not resemble the original, she is a Caucasian child telling her story to us. Unlike the production of your T-Shirts and furniture, this performance has been monitored by all the relevant authorities, the gallery assuredly triplechecked child labour regulations. The girl is relieved several times a day, and certainly happy to escape school for a while. The one we saw acted quite well, but spoke too quiet for elder visitors (and apeaking English, she had much trouble with those dang French names). She definitely memorized more text than we did in our entire school career. There’s something creepy about the situation, though, the child reminds of an android, a talking machine that performs the role of an artificial character. She is indeed, but does not appear as, a human Annlee. Tricky situation, that.
This Variation, a choir in the darkroom, unlit except for our cell phones. The singing, frequently interrupted by people saying "sorry" for bumping into each other, starts gospelish then falls quickly into another “ching-tarisha-boom”. Why, Tino, why?
And finally Kiss. Let's just say, we know a nightclub in Amsterdam where you can watch the same without distracting clothes. Admission is more expensive, but probably worth it. We’re sorry, but we really don’t see the interest in this pornographic “situation” of a couple rolling on the floor. Now, having matched the titles to five artworks, that leaves the first chanting with Yet Untitled. It will remain thus for long time, we're afraid.
Clearly there is a difference between Tino Sehgal’s “situations” and other, more conventional performances. His roots lie in dance, but this is no ballet. It's contemporary art, and compared with earlier pieces, Sehgal has cut down on the narrative. It’s a sort of minimalist abstract experimentalist theatre, that somehow fitted better into the 1970s (but today artists and audience take less and different drugs). Perhaps there are ideas and intentions behind all "situations", but how are we supposed to understand without further information, without documentation? Verbal communication is not an option as soon as N(visitors)>N(wardens), and even before.
Somewhere on the internet, we’ve read, that Kiss re-enacts scenes from classic paintings. It might or it might not – the point is, we’re not supposed to know. In lack of authoritative information there can be no trust. All we know about Tino Sehgal’s work is mere hearsay, unreliable as anything you read on the web, deleted and edited perpetually, a culture of Chinese Whispers (where there is no trace, there is no proof, no fact without the possibility of falsification). But is Sehgal aware of this, and to what extent does he truly control his art? We have told you above, that every sale - almost exclusively to institutions - is witnessed by a supposedly disinterested notary to ensure the buyer not only understands the work, but that he will meet all obligations concerning it (SciFi writer Robert Heinlein imagined the profession of a “fair witness”, a human recorder of events, apparently Sehgal likes the idea). There are good reasons, humanity has turned from oral to written contracts a long time ago. Nothing is as unreliable as human understanding, and oral conversation only aggravates the situation.
Maybe Tino Sehgal’s art is even more contemporary than the world. His art does not represent us, but what our civilization is on the verge to become: immaterial. Nothing is to be left un-virtual. Like ever more things, Sehgal’s creations are pure data stored in memory, a potential waiting to be realized at will. Yet, the basis stays material, the waste we leave on earth, the museums and galleries, the performers of his "situations". "Immaterial" is the wrong term actually - a .pdf document would be immaterial, too. Neither could you say “unfixed”, as the artist insists on precise instructions, communicated in the most unsecure manner. What he refuses has something to do with time, with in-dependence and neutrality. A photograph, printed or digital is information available to every recipient the same (manipulated or true – but always the same), data that is passed impersonally between persons who despite different perceptions can arrive at a shared interpretation.
It’s common place that some art forms are dependant on a specific corporal manifestation, and others are not. Sculpture and painting belong to the first category, music and film to the second, with musicians and actors nothing but a tool (and either each performance or the partition the original work. Of course, this is the superficial view: music can be stored on tape, CD, or hard disk and will ever sound the same whereas in sculpture, information is matter. Once you accept, that every matter can be reduced to energy, sound waves suddenly become less different to solid body.) Performance art is data that is traditionally captured and documented on a medium that lends it corporality to the moment.
Science wants us to believe, our brains work the same way as a hard disk, only less accessible to others (language is an untrustworthy interface). Tino Sehgal wants to store his data exclusively on these, he wants to inscribe himself in our minds and leave no option to compare the results, no means of debugging. Data corrupts over time, and if it is stored in human brains alone, it will deteriorate all the faster. If Tino Sehgal speaks the truth and does not safeguard his work in any other form than human memory, and neither do art institutions and private collectors, they will alter with each performance (we would be surprised, if the first thing anybody dealing with Sehgal does were not writing down his instructions as soon as the artist has left the room). And the artist himself is prone to bugs, how could he be sure of having given the correct instructions. In a way this means, every performance of his is unique, whereas traditionally, the certificate, the instructions could be considered the essence of the artwork, and each staging subordinate. Then again, does it matter? If the artist takes much precaution to limit the errors inherent to verbal communication, and to ensure the unaltered preservation, then why not store the information nonverbally (- inhumanly -) in the first place? He cannot solve the paradox of fixing an ephemeral situation. Tino Sehgal is a contemporary Don Quixote fighting – what exactly? Cameras? Language? Existence beyond the moment? In any case, he cannot beat our desire for documentation: Google’s image search returns a lot of results, and so does YouTube. If it’s ephemera he’s after, he fails at contemporary culture. Selfie yourself in front of a “situation”, and sabotage the artwork. Everything is stored virtually, and no artist can hinder it.
And now everybody: “Aaaahhhh, chrxs, boooom. Tchkk.”
Tino Sehgal, 28 June-08 August 2015, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin