January 29 – March 10, 2010
“‘This is visual art we’re talking about, period,’ Ms. Spector said. ‘Tino made that distinction. Either you respect it or you don’t. It makes perfect sense to many of us.’”
(Some Quality Time with the Guggenheim Museum’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, courtesy of Leon Neyfakh’s January 26 article in The Observer, “Ceci N’est Pas Performance Art.”)
“According to Ms. Spector, the project is about ‘finding a way to make something that is inherently ephemeral repeatable, commodifiable, collectible, preservable.’”
You enter the Guggenheim. A young hipster-ish couple lies entangled in the center of the rotunda floor, limbs and lips locked in a slo-mo pas de deux. A crowd watches from a polite distance. This is “The Kiss.”
If you stay long enough and have looked at the right artworks, you will spot the references. If you continue up the spiraling ramp, a child will rush to greet you, as if you are a present to be unwrapped. She or he will announce that you are in a piece by Tino Sehgal, invite you to follow along and ask you to define progress.
If you accept the invitation, you will be handed off from one conversation to another, sometimes interlocking, sometimes not. (If you say “No, thank you” and the kid in question happens to be a nonchalant little guy named Lucas, he will shrug and walk away.) “The Kiss” will continue its erotic play below. Once you reach the top and learn [spoiler alert!] that the work is titled “This Progress,” you will reverse course, return to the rotunda floor, and repeat at will.
I am a hopeless grouch.
Spector: “People are going to come in and talk about it as performance and they’re going to talk about it as theater…and I feel like our job at the museum as curators and our visitor service people and even our guards is to help the public understand” that “[t]his is visual art we’re talking about, period,” though she conceded, according to Neyfakh, “that the distinction is a nuanced one, and is likely to bewilder many museum-goers.”
“The art that matters most, Ms. Spector said, is art that changes the rules, and ‘makes you consider everything that came before and what’s going to come after.’”
An Email I Received from David Velasco, Artforum.com’s Editor:
re “This Progress.” I’m not sure what I think. I think the most brilliant thing about his work is that he’s managed to find a way to make money off of these performances (or whatever he calls them). His real innovation is in sales technique (which is no small feat, mind you). The whole thing about needing to have the interpretations passed down orally, in the presence of witnesses, with no documentation, is a bit of a coup—though it’s one no other artist will be able to repeat because of how much he “owns” it. As for the work proper: I don’t really like the feel-goodness of it; it seems a bit trite. But there’s a cynical underbelly to it that I do sort of like—that everything is scripted, but it pretends to be profound.
“‘Art sometimes just functions as an ingenious move,’ Ms. Spector said. ‘Richard Prince taking his first photograph of a photograph in 1977. No one else had thought of doing that at that moment. Marcel Duchamp—who else thought of the ready-made? It was sitting right there waiting to be taken…’”
“The Kiss” keeps going and going. Slow, controlled movement tends to be the most difficult kind for performers to sustain. Think of the way a dancer’s working leg shakes as she holds a sustained balance. How beautiful it is, how much it costs her.
At least these bodies are reclining. If you’ve seen one choreographed kiss, have you seen them all? I’m not that interested, but I like the view from high above.
“It’s hard work,” says Danny, the English professor who serves as my final handler my first time up the ramp. It had taken some convincing to get him in the project at all, he adds. But he says he is having fun.
We walk very slowly. He seems to want to keep stopping. And talk about politics. I do not want to talk about politics. Always the same conversation. I give noncommittal cocktail party answers. I take notes. He doesn’t ask.
When “The Kiss” is finally over, people applaud. A new kiss begins.
Spector: “I mean, funding in the visual arts is as problematic as funding in the dance world. The grass is always greener.”
I remember the choreographer Layla Childs telling me at a Performa gala back in 2008, while talk swirled of how the recession was going to impact the visual art world, that it didn’t really matter to her and her colleagues, that dancers were “already living a subsistence existence.” 1
I can’t remember ever seeing Nancy Spector (or any of her colleagues who are now so hot to trot for making “something that is inherently ephemeral repeatable, commodifiable, collectible, preservable”) at a dance performance.
On the Ramp, an Exchange:
Julie (I think it was Julie) said she found the idea of a town designed for the good of its inhabitants creepy. (I’m not sure how we got on this topic, as she interrupted the conversation I was having with my previous handler.)
I said, that’s ironic, considering.
She said, how do you mean?
I said, well, you’re leading me through a designed conversation, full of things I’m supposed to talk and think about (I suspect for my own good), and your part in this is in turn thoroughly designed by Tino Sehgal.
She paused and maybe seemed uncomfortable or maybe not, and I thought perhaps something interesting was going to happen.
She said I’m not at liberty to discuss that, and changed the topic.
Progress is moving forward but not knowing if you’re going in the right direction. Like Oppenheimer.
Some Things I have Read about Tino Sehgal, and “This Progress”:
“What fascinates me about Sehgal is that working only with human clay, he can call forth thoughtful and visceral responses from people who remain unmoved by more conventional paintings and sculptures. … If you regard Sehgal as a 21st-century sculptor who abjures digging stone out of a ravaged earth, then the interviews that he conducted of grade-school children and teenage college students throughout the city were the ecologically informed equivalent of the scouting missions that Michelangelo made to the marble quarries of Carrara.” 2
The sweet-faced teenage boy walking beside me wonders who Oppenheimer was.
“The fact that Sehgal’s works are produced in this way elicits a different kind of viewer: a visitor is no longer only a passive spectator, but one who bears a responsibility to shape and at times to even contribute to the actual realization of the piece. The work may ask visitors what they think, but, more importantly, it underscores an individual’s own agency in the museum environment. Regardless of whether they call for direct action or address the viewer in a more subtle sense, Sehgal’s works always evoke questions of responsibility within an interpersonal relationship.” 3
I suppose it isn’t ideal to enter a show full of pre-conceived notions. But it sure is fun.
“You will enjoy your visit to the Tino Sehgal whatchamacallit at the Guggenheim—“show” doesn’t fill the bill—or else expose yourself as a hopeless grouch.” 4
Sehgal strictly controls any sort of documentation about the work itself (he apparently gets pretty hot under the collar about the now ubiquitous leaking of cell phone photos. 5)
Some Other Things Said to Me by Tino Sehgal’s Human Clay:
“Tino’s quite fussy about the title.”
“I guess once you get used to cutting-edge art it’s not so strange”
“Keep talking, you have to keep talking.”
“Is that a serious proposition?”
“It’s not performance. I’m making art!”
“You were so intent on dissecting the piece, the piece couldn’t happen.”
“Not the money we get, which is just at the very edge of real.” (After I joked that everything about the piece is conceptual “except the money.”)
There’s a difference between interesting and clever.
A Text Message I Received About “This Progress”:
“Oh no!! I loved it J I somewhat resent that there is a narrowly-cast objective masquerading a bit as a free-form inquiry but I find the topic so agreeable that I don’t mind!! Overall I think it’s very stimulating and spatially transformative – the art is in the people instead of on the walls. I like that J”
One Last Thing Said to Me by the Human Clay:
“There’s no art work on the walls to distract you.”
It’s true. I lie in one of the vacant white stalls and think of Simone Forti’s dance constructions and the whole Judson Dance Theater conversation about minimalist dance and sculpture. Of Jérôme Bel. Of 101 site-specific performances, good bad and ugly. Of Fluxus and Chris Burden. Of Miguel Gutierrez’s 2001 durational work “Freedom of Information,” in which he moved continuously for 24 hours, his eyes covered and his ears plugged.
I think of Holland Cotter’s review of Sehgal, how energized “This Progress” made him. How the only thing all these dissatisfying conservations had in common was me, and how passive my participation had seemed. Like being part of a live wall text.
I think of the last time I was this desperate to flee the Guggenheim, during Performa 2007, at the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli’s celebrity-jammed production of the 1917 Pirandello play “Right You Are (If You Think You Are).” Such a smug, airless affair. How good it felt to walk out into the dark city air.
The smallest bits of Human Clay lean against some planted grasses6 at the bottom of the ramp, joking and whispering and touching each others’ heads while making sizzling “sssss” sounds and altogether having the best conversations of the day.7
If you opted out of “This Progress” you could opt instead to take an audio tour up the ramp, and learn all about the museum’s architecture. Either way, you had to exit through the gift shop. The cashier had “no idea” why the exit was rerouted thusly. She seemed rather put out at being asked.
1. “Future Imperfect,” Claudia La Rocco, artforum.com, November 23, 2008.
2. “Making Art Out of an Encounter,” Arthur Lubow, New York Times Magazine, January 15, 2010.
4. “Never-Ending Story,” Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, February 15, 2010.
6. Judging by the dying vegetative evidence scattered around their feet, they appear to pass the time in part by pulling out said vegetation.
7. Observations here were cut short due to the handler for the smallest bits of Human Clay giving your dear reporter the stink eye (it’s possible the handler did no such thing), resulting in said reporter skulking off.
ContributorClaudia La Rocco
CLAUDIA LA ROCCO writes about performance for the New York Times and is the founder of thePerformanceClub.org, which won a 2011 Arts Writers Grant. She is a member of Off The Park press, where she is editing an anthology of poems by painters. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing.