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Is it art? For performance artist Tino Sehgal, it's immaterial.

A new interactive installation at the Guggenheim Museum draws onlookers into a conversation that itself becomes part of the art.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 2010

Because of the nonmaterial approach of Tino Sehgal no press photos were allowed to be taken at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of the ‘performative installation.’

David Heald/The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

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New York

Got a yen to collaborate on an art project? Here's your chance. Until March 10, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is showcasing "Tino Sehgal," a "performative installation" that's interactive to the max. This art requires visitor participation. No passive onlookers allowed. As the 34-year-old artist said when a similar work appeared at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2007, "When you enter my work, you are also constructing it."

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Call it a conversation piece. Sehgal, who was born in London but lives and works in Berlin, aims to elicit two-way conversations through what are called "constructed situations." For the past decade, casts of trained interpreters have sparked viewer input in London's Tate Modern, at art fairs, and the 2005 Venice Biennale, where Sehgal represented Germany.

At Sehgal's show in New York's Marion Goodman Gallery in 2007, six interpreters chanted in unison, "Welcome to this situation" as visitors approached. They initiated conversation by quoting thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Karl Marx, then asking, "What do you think?" An impromptu discussion of economic and philosophical issues ensued. Although improvisatory, the encounter was conceived and structured by Sehgal over the course of two years.

Even though no material relic of Sehgal's work remains after its presentation, in 2008 the Museum of Modern Art acquired his work "Kiss" for $70,000. In accordance with the artist's purist principles, the purchase (completed with an oral agreement and handshake) entails only the right to reproduce the work. No tangible document changed hands.

For those who need a bit of background on why the artist eschews conventional art objects: A student of economics and former dancer and choreographer, Sehgal maintains that the developed world has too much stuff. His favored means of creating art does not diminish Earth's dwindling resources or contribute to the excess of consumer goods. His art exists only transiently and leaves no physical trace. Like Brigadoon blossoming one day each century, Sehgal's art lives during the experience and afterward persists in memory and legend.

Instead of transforming material like canvas or a chunk of marble into an art object, Sehgal's medium is the human body, mind, and energy. His goal is to transform participants' thoughts and values. It's the Socratic method made visible, as much linguistic and dramatic as it is visual art.

Tino Sehgal takes to an extreme the art-world trend toward "dematerialization of the art object," which debuted when Conceptual Art got off the ground 40 years ago. In 1969, artist Douglas Huebler said, "The world is full of objects.... I do not wish to add any more." Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci, as well as members of the Fluxus group, Allan Kaprow (father of the quasi-theatrical "Happenings"), and Gilbert and George in their 1970 "Singing Sculpture" pioneered performance art. These artists used their bodies as raw material; they recorded their actions and sold the documentation as art. Sehgal goes further: He permits no photographic, video, or audio record and no catalog or wall labels.

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