Performance, Redux

John Haber
in New York City

Tino Sehgal: Progress

What if you had the Guggenheim Museum all to yourself? Would you contemplate a New York landmark—or yourself?

Stranger still, what if you had the Guggenheim without a single art object, while sharing it with hundreds of others? Which would you contemplate now? Or would you be able to focus on anything at all? With Tino Sehgal, one has a chance to find out. In his case, those others just happen to include several sets of performers along with museum-goers. His performance art may exclude the art object, but it aspires to be a museum piece—one that can go on loan and one can be repeated again and again.

It is also something of a collaboration and a carnival. A related article looks at another artist with similar aspirations and similar strategies. Marina Abramovic depends on reenactments to give herself a full-dress (or undress) retrospective. For both artists, something happens to performance on its passage into a museum, and that raises some tough questions. Tino Sehgal's Kiss (not) (iPhone photo by the Times, doctored, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2010)

Does performance by others mean taking liberties? Does it allow them and the audience to make their own damn art, and if not, just who is in control? Can an artist truly let go? If not, should I just make my own damn art—and would it still be Sehgal's? His intriguing performance makes it hard to know where to begin.

Making progress

What if you indeed had the New York landmark all to yourself? Empty, it would not bear down so strictly on art in its bays—or hold you so strictly at a distance. You might feel newly free to wander the ramp, to circle the rotunda, and to experience the uncertain mix of artificial light and light from above. Then again, its enclosure, without the competition from art, might press in that much more. The long spiral of an exhibition might become a forced march and nothing more. No wonder Matthew Barney for his Cremaster Cycle took a shortcut and scaled the ramp like a mountaineer.

Tino Sehgal thrives on the paradox. Not yet thirty-five, he builds performances on surprise and collaboration, but also on privilege and art institutions. A New York Times reporter once entered an ornate empty ballroom in Berlin, where he found a couple embracing on the floor. He had stepped outside the city's museums and outside anything he had known as art, but as part of an art biennial and on a tip from a dealer. The work itself, which lasts for hours with performers on multiple shifts, riffs on sculpture by Auguste Rodin and Constantin Brancusi. Dated 2002, that performance piece has now entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Kiss was on loan for a while to the Guggenheim, on the lobby floor, surrounded no doubt by plenty of other couples who admired it, turned their back on it, and maybe fell in love. The slow dance seems all ordinary, alas, but rest of the work on view tackles the ramp's spiraling one dimension head-on. Sehgal calls it Progress, and you can decide the degree of irony. It presents itself as a series of questions. True to form, the Berlin-based artist did not allow a press release or encourage the usual advance reviews, he does not allow photography, and the exhibition Web site supplies neither a title nor an image. There, too, he could be stepping outside the system—or letting the determined few catch it before a review in the Times.

Nothing told me what to do or what to expect, at least on my first visit, but a child intercepted me as I reached the ramp. She gave her first name and said, in the tone of a class presentation, "This is a work by Tino Sehgal." Polite to grownups like me, she wondered if she could ask a question before doing so: "What is progress?" After I managed a definition, she asked me to explain it.

She said nothing else before summarizing my response as she handed me off on the second floor. My new host could not make sense of the girl's report either, but she had done her best, and we both knew it. We both knew, too, that I was over my pride at my clever answer and utterly charmed. A college senior, the young women then told me at some length about her experience with textbooks and how they have changed—to more color and, she wondered, less substance. What did I think? A textbook editor myself during working hours, I could not stop talking until a man in his late twenties appeared just as smoothly and swiftly, while she melted away.

He sounded relaxed and engaged as he told me that he given up TV for months now. Me, too, actually. I never even upgraded to digital. We settled into an easy conversation while his fingers toyed with his iPhone. Finally, in my fourth and last encounter, a woman in perhaps her late fifties lectured me on. . . . But have I spoiled too much already?

A second time around

Maybe or maybe not, but Sehgal invites that kind of question and self-questioning. How much was the man's iPhone a commentary on progress, how much a joke about his supposedly having given up electronic entertainment, and how much just an expression of his grace and energy? Was the older woman sincere in her surprise when I noted how we were acting out progress in climbing the ramp? What had changed at the end, when she finally stated the work's title? And what would they say differently next time? One can overhear others as one descends—or start again at the bottom—although the conversations are no more profound and no less obvious the second or third time around.

The bustle of voices surely belongs to the work, and so does the sense of collaboration. Except at the very beginning and end, the artist encourages improvisation, just as he tailors his art to the site. Progress originated in 2006, but it has definitely made progress. It gained competition, too, when halfway through his run a show opened in the tower gallery, of artist responses to the rotunda. One can think of it as another act of collaboration. Besides, if I felt put upon by Sehgal's play on a docent tour, I should remember burdensome wall labels at the Met.

Was Sehgal, then, turning performance into collaboration, or was he taking control of visitors like me? Artists everywhere are asking in different ways about democracy, diversity, and access. Just the summer before, for example, Jerry Saltz took up the cause of art under attack in an age of "Neo-Mannerism." That had to come as a relief for anyone who cares about art, especially artists. More than a hundred commented on his Facebook post to offer their support. They saw it as much-needed support for them as well.

Better yet, Saltz slammed a strident, clownish right-wing assault. Starting on New York magazine's Web site, Saltz took on Glenn Beck, who saw decades old art in midtown Manhattan as (seriously) socialist propaganda. Beck could not even bother to find examples from contemporary summer art, like feminists in Brooklyn or a pretend drug factory in Soho. Instead, he singles out famed bas reliefs from a familiar tourist attraction, Rockefeller Center. Saltz's response? If what you see upsets you, make your own damn art.

For years, Robert Alter, Roger Kimball, Barry Gewen, and the neocons have attacked political art. Conservatives have also used Robert Mapplethorpe and the Young British Artists brazenly, for political advancement. Beck's performances on Fox News have just as clear a political purpose, part of efforts to frame public debate about the Obama administration. And this, too, has special meaning to artists. Compared to artists, could any group less represent the right's bizarre but enduring coalition of corporate wealth and aging while male cultural conservatives? Besides, artists need health care.

This time, a mainstream art critic said enough is enough. Now, my own first love lies in Renaissance painting, stodgy old abstraction, and modernist classics like Rockefeller Center. Yet I have made a theme of this webzine a defense of edgy contemporary art. Why, then, does Saltz sound so lame to me—or just plain childish? Saltz's reply even sounds like a schoolyard retort. It also misses the chance to ask what is really at stake.

Make your own damn art

Tone aside, why should Beck—or any viewer, for that matter—have to make his own art? An artist offended at a bad review from Saltz could tell him the same thing. Besides, conservatives are only too happy to oblige. They not only supply bad art, as with the Vietnam memorial statue in response to Maya Lin. They have an entire canon at stake, much of it essential, and they use it as a weapon. For them, anything less proves that "political correctness" brings a loss of ethical standards and cultural heritage.

All art is a private gesture in a public arena, and one should defend it on its merits. One should locate Rockefeller Center proudly in the progressive politics of the Great Depression, as well as in a monumental corporate headquarters and a lasting tourist attraction. One should note the irony that Rockefeller had its mural there by Diego Rivera destroyed as overtly leftist. Five hundred years ago, religious authorities pounced on a mural by Paolo Veronese. In art ever since, the personal is the political. Struggles of the past tend to repeat themselves—and not just as performance.

When you make your own damn art, it too will hold shocks, temptations, and contradictions. It will trap you in a museum, along with Jill Magid and Kate Gilmore. It may also hold light entertainment—and not all that much more. It might look, in fact, like a performance by Tino Sehgal.

Sehgal does guide one's progress along Wright's ode to progress. If it continued any further, I suppose, my hosts might have aged and died. The ticket counter moved just inside the door for the duration of the show, to leave the museum an environment for the work alone. Imagine the further limits on spontaneity in lining up out in the cold, once the supply of performers falls behind demand. It seems fitting that my last host would not let me get a word in edgewise. The entire work goes on from day to day, while a viewer's part in it leaves no trace behind.

Not that the Guggenheim will ever empty out. Tourists and New Yorkers alike line up for whatever lies within. It came close, though, for the Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective. And Wright's legacy or the Wright archive felt both calming and majestic, comic and oppressive—like a Big Apple circus tent turned upside down. So does the vogue for trashy installations and empty rooms, including at the Guggenheim. They revel in chaos, but also in star power.

Progress hinges on both connotations of modernity—as the growth of freedom and the advance of the machine. So does Modernism, and so surely does Wright. To his credit Sehgal makes them explicit, not to mention frothy and fun. He may tear at them, like Postmodernism, but he needs them just as surely. But if he refuses to intervene, does he have all that much to add beyond small talk? The performance is as evanescent as progress, but as with history, one can always hope.

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Tino Sehgal ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through March 10, 2010. It was joined February 12 by "Contemplating the Void," through April 28.


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