Tino Sehgal’s Living Sculptures

Tino Sehgal, “Kiss” via Anaba

Indo-German artist Tino Sehgal employs, enlists, and co-opts the usage of individuals as his malleable clay. He calls it “living sculpture.” An important aspect of some works is their ability to interact with gallery visitors and to involve them in a “situation.” A question may be posed to a gallery visitor, and if the human sculpture receives no response, the actors collapse.

In his article for The New Times Magazine, “Making Art Out of an Encounter,” Arthur Lubows writes:

Sehgal is adamant that he is producing a work of art, not theater: unlike a performance, a Sehgal is on display for the entire time the institution is open, and the human actors are identified no more precisely than as if they were bronze or marble. (They are, however, paid.) But because the piece is formed of people, not of metal or stone, the viewer is aware that, regardless of how absorbed the models seem to be in their activity, at any moment they have the capability of turning their gaze on him — as, indeed, they periodically do in “Kiss.”

Despite the fact that the works recall fringe street performances, experimental theatre in the Russian Dadaist tradition, or mid to late twentieth century “Happening/Performance” based art, Sehgal plays down the term “performance art.” And yet, the relations seem obvious to these earlier works and others, such as the living sculptures Gilbert and George created in the sixties, and later work which is integrated with their painting, “Bend It.”

We can only refer to Sehgal’s actors as “employees” due to the artist’s insistence that his works are neither performances, nor theatrical set pieces. He links his living objects to ideas, political, philosophical, or otherwise, in the form of a statement or rhetorical question (“What is Progress?”) in order to create a polemic. Sehgal thus takes on the role of grand puppeteer, using living individuals to effect his mise en scene.

Sehgal makes art “that does not require the transformation of any materials” . . . “He refuses to add objects to a society that he says is overly encumbered with them.” This is the art of the so-called “instant vanish,” as stated by Catherine Wood of Tate Modern. According to Lubows, the art is:

Purist insistence on immateriality–or ephemeral immateriality.

However, Sehgal sells the rights to his works by “verbally witnessed” contractual agreements with various foundations and museums, thus grounding his work in art market commodification, wherein they and he do not “stage” them but “effect” them under his personal aegis and direction. This kind of play on words describes Sehgal’s attempt at product differentiation from his precursors. The conceptual aspect of the work aims to promote discourse about the nature of art through interactive conversation, hoping to promote a wider debate within the community beyond the gallery walls.

Sehgal openly references the work of Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci, who are acknowledged masters of the conceptual canon. The artist adds to this discourse in a highly strategized and pre-meditated way, which has garnered much curatorial interest in both Europe and the United States, and is indeed very much predicated on this support both financially and intellectually sanctioned.

We are brought back to reality by Lubow’s use of the term, “cognoscenti,” which describes the curatorial promotional machinery involved. We are invited to engage with the conceptual discourse in the way that a gallery viewer is invited to engage with a picture or sculpture. While employing the existing curatorial frameworks within museums, Sehgal seeks to override that tradition while simultaneously feeding off it.

The artist eschews documentation or recording of his work through photography or film archiving: the works all have “unceremonious,” or unreported “start dates.” But as the above Internet video shows, his works are secretly recorded, which actually suits his purpose of the wide dissemination of his ideas. The artist’s professional supervision of his work is paramount, however. This “ban on documentation,” insofar as humanly possible in today’s media saturated world, is integral to his working practice, as is the inclusion of members of the public in his works. The orchestration of individuals, curatorial boards and museums, to create a live installation piece lead us to surmise that his work is performance-based art or experimental theatre. Sehgal’s continued insistence that this is not the case provokes a somewhat hollow mystique and ultimately a degree of incredulity.

All the actors are paid and the author is remunerated by the museums for staging the events or productions. Sehgal declares himself bored by traditional object-based artistic productions, and one suspects he is attempting to subjectify the objective through the medium of third or fourth parties, i.e. the viewer or visiting public, who as a whole, bring their personal subjective baggage to any art they may be viewing or experiencing.

Sehgal’s exploration of ideas through interactive means is very worthy and pertinent in our age of moral anxiety over artistic expression, perception, politics and the continually subdivided taxonomies of the arts. Such open-ended seeking after purpose within a weighty and bolstering context is a moderate feat of artistic and sociological dexterity.

Would Sehgal’s work stand up to the rigors of public scrutiny without the imprimature of the institutions of the international art world? The “elimination of the object” clearly negates the original purposes for which museums and galleries were set up . . . or does it? Along with me, the reader may question, conjecture and speculate about this.

Sehgal’s training in political economy and dance are an interesting and unusual set of qualifications for a visual artist. The area of philosophy and art theory that Sehgal draws on is a rich seam he cleverly mines to great effect and potential controversy. We may feel justified in questioning whether art institutions and galleries are a suitable forum for presenting the public with artistic conundrums. But where else could such complex questions about the nature of art be posed? Herein may lie Sehgal’s true talents: the networking, rhetorical persuasion, and achievement of a media-centered presence in the art market, even while attempting to deny the inherently theatrical or performance-oriented aspects of his works.

This review was written by Fraser MacIver, a working visual artist and writer based in Scottland, and abridged and edited by Tony Thomas.

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