Tino Sehgal Activates the Guggenheim
Entering the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I expected a child to approach me, having been forewarned about the approach of a child, by friends. And a child did greet, a blond girl, about 9. She said, “This is an installation by Tino Sehgal.” Then she led me up a short stair into an empty alcove of the museum which I had never seen void of art on the walls before, despite hundreds of trips here in my lifetime.
The girl proposed to ask me a question. “What is progress?” she inquired.
I took a long time to answer. She waited patiently although after several long beats (a note held so long it was a ransom note), I wondered if she wondered if I might not answer. I finally offered, “openness to change.” Then the girl led me farther up the ramp where a young woman stood. The young woman, told my answer by the child, riffed on whether history was circular or forward, all the while we both continued walking, until next a man interjected. Stepping eagerly, almost theatrically, into the space between us, he said without discernible pause, “my father grew up on a farm. In the 1940s.” He elaborated how that fact of his biography made for nostalgia he has not been able to evade. He said that he had lived in New York, and then moved away. When he moved away, he said he felt nostalgic for New York. When he returned he said he regretted not having had the experience of being where he was. He said he knew the difficulty of living in the present. I suggested that to “be” in the present is perhaps an apter verb than “to live,” which for all its essentialist denotations coincides with times “progressive” aspect. “Marvin”, wearing corduroys and a sweater, approached last. He told me his name. He said he has optimism in humanity. In the “possibility of the organization” to improve. For people to treat one another better, to be nicer to one another.
Meanwhile through all these conversations, we walked, me and the greeters, up the ramp of the Guggenheim. So did many other gaggles or pairs. The walls were empty. Down on the ground, in the rotunda, a couple embraced, conducted an engagement of loving . For The Kiss (shown as performed elsewhere), they in fact kissed, embraced, groped, writhed, girl astride boy, boy astride girl. Mouth to mouth, belly to belly. As the public entering the museum on the ground floor perceived this dance of bodies as private space, they gave the couple a wide berth, so that one looking down from higher levels into the void of the spiral encountered emptiness on the floor, centered by this enactment of creation, not nearly as hokey as this description makes it seem.
So what was fantastic about this experience? For one it was unique to art. Art as democracy, reciprocal mirror, phenomenon. The beings of Tino Sehgals work “in progress” inquiring its definition of the visitors made for an experience that stunned me. Walter Benjamin said that criticism is how art gains knowledge of itself. Yet how often can one substantiate an example of that? Marvin asked me finally, had I enjoyed the “aesthetics” of the experience? And I had to think about the word aesthetics. The aesthetics of the building, certainly. A joy. Because, with no paintings on the wall, the skylight of the museum had been uncapped for one of the only times in its history, making the art work the inimical thing itself. Describable only as the particulars (nose rings, sweater colors) of people rambling, people huddling, people talking.
“Progress.” I asked Marvin if the volunteers had been told by Tino Sehgal what to say. He said no, the artist only asked them to start conversations. And, in this terrific building, one realized that the artist Tino Sehgal realized the modernist goad (the viewer completes the artwork) instigated by Frank Lloyd Wrights execution of museum as street. Now how often does that happen. Never. Almost. And it cant last long. On my way back down a man asked me, not specially nicely, if I were “following him.” “No,” I said and laughed. Then, near where I had begun, I watched another man. He clearly hadnt been warned about the child. I could see he kept wanting to push past her, a dark haired girl making what the visitor probably perceived as a sudden and inexplicable nuisance between himself and where he was going. Facing his patronizing slightly implacable aura, the child got taller, braver, and I heard her say, This is an artwork by Tino Sehgal.