Tino Sehgal: This Success or This Failure

Artvehicle 9/Review

29th January 2007 — 4th March 2007

Entering the ICA's lower gallery you feel ignored, left out, plunged back into the childhood trauma of not being invited to join in a game whose rules you do not understand. A group of uniformed school children are running about the empty gallery shouting, pulling each other around on the floor, giving each other piggy backs. Eventually a child comes up to you and mumbles that Tino Sehgal has asked them to play there for four hours with no toys. With not a computer game in sight, it could be a campaign against childhood obesity. The children did not look bored and were keeping up the frenetic noise level of a school gym or the upper deck of the 36 bus at 5pm. This is an unusual and refreshing noise to hear in an art gallery. The children were an ethnically diverse group presumably from a nearby school. At the opening of the Surrealist exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century Gallery in New York in 1942, Marcel Duchamp asked six children to play in the gallery at the opening and, if anyone challenged them, to say Marcel Duchamp had told them to play. If an adult wanted to join in they were charged a dollar. One reviewer of the exhibition said he felt the viewers were on display being judged by the works, a quality Sehgal aims for (the lights at this exhibition also went on and off every three seconds, remind you of anyone?).

Sehgal burst onto the London art scene at the first Frieze Art Fair 2003 with children posing as art dealers for the Wrong Gallery in a charming yet cynical piece. At his first ICA show in 2004, a woman writhed on the floor, in a homage to Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, for once Sehgal was acknowledging his predecessors. The visitor to the upstairs gallery was confronted with five performers/ living pieces of intelligent sculptural material who, after bouncing about like a drama workshop warm-up exercise, circled the visitor, keeping their backs to them, and repeated growing from a whisper to a yell; The objective of this work is to become the object of discussion. They then attempted to start a conversation with the visitor. They responded to the deafening silence with inane, painfully-improvised comments about their favourite bands, creating a mutually embarrassing and underwhelming experience. At the Venice Biennial 2005 Sehgal got the gallery attendants to dance around the German pavilion chanting excitedly 'Oooh! This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary!'. They then tried to engage the visitor in a conversation about economics, with the offer of winning the price of your ticket back. I ended up feeling sorry for Thomas Scheibitz's horrible work, which shared the pavilion. This ironic piece was supremely annoying but highly effective in its context, at the Eurovision Song Contest of contemporary art. For Sehgal's second intervention at the ICA in 2006 a precocious child greeted you and asked 'What is progress?' whilst leading you through the empty gallery. You were handed over to a teenager, a middle-aged man and an old person in turn to continue this painful discussion whilst circumnavigating the building. There was not time to engage in real conversation and it was ultimately patronising to both visitor and performer. At the Berlin Biennial 2006, Sehgal made us voyeuristic intruders on a couple engaged in an Rodinesque eternal kiss in the romantic surroundings of a once-grand ballroom with rusting mirrors. But Sehgal-fatigue had set in by the time we reached Klosterfelde Gallery down the road, where no one even looked up as a girl threw herself to the floor, and people stepped over her as she intoned her Sehgalese spiel. I find Sehgal's work functions most successfully at art fairs and biennials rather than in gallery spaces.

Sehgal sees his work as sculpture not performance and describes it as the missing link between the video loop and live art as it is both live and repeating. He does away with the TV monitor, keeping the work present in the space. He might credit himself with creating his own new medium but he owes a debt to Gilbert and George, the original living sculptures(tm). Sehgal does not produce objects or any form of material trace of his works, no press releases or documentary photographs. The work exists only in its moment of realisation. I like the idea of an artwork existing only in memory and conversation. But Sehgal is preoccupied with how to sell and archive his works, imagining them as conceptual instruction pieces. Sehgal, with a background in dance and economics, doesn't question the notion of selling art but cynically sells 'nothing' perfectly aligned with today's 'experience economy'. He has his cake and eats it, accelerating us towards the End of Art.

Sehgal's work is successful in making us uncomfortable but to what purpose? We have not been challenged. The experience feels hollow, for me no real questions about the nature of art or society are asked. But rather Sehgal creates theatrical situations which, despite their supposed radical originality, leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, feeling that the performers are being patronised by Sehgal. Sehgal has created a recognisable and profitable brand with which to stamp his performers but he lacks personality. You feel he has potential, he uses space and people interestingly, if only he could stop being facile and fashionably detached and dare to make a statement. For 'playful' the epithet most often applied to Sehgal's work , read 'immature'. The people he employs in his performances are supposedly his 'intelligent material', who can incorporate their own history and opinions into the piece. But Sehgal's interaction with his human material feels exploitative not collaborative, like making a McDonalds employee serve burgers with a smile. His work lacks the rigour of institutional critique artists such as Andrea Fraser, who gave a tour of a gallery as a renegade guide, revealing the ideological and economic underpinnings of the art space, or Matthieu Laurette, who spent an exhibition budget on lottery scratch cards. It also lacks the genuine provocation of Santiago Sierra whose violent work forces you to question existing socioeconomic structures and refuses to allow the viewer to feel pleased with themselves.

Unlike 70s performance artists such as Chris Burden and Marina Abramovich, who used their own bodies, Sehgal and Sierra employ others to perform futile and strenuous tasks which are robbed of the transcendent quality of an artistic act. Both Sierra and Sehgal make the viewer an accessory to scenes of humiliation. This contemporary development reflects the economy of our society where labour is cheap, especially if you outsource it. Sierra has paid people to masturbate, have a line tattooed across their back, or move concrete blocks. PS1 in New York refused to allow Sierra to line up their employees in accordance with the institution's hierarchy, thus avoiding the inevitable guilty spectacle of a social structure based on skin colour. Sierra probes instances of exploitation by reproducing them in carefully constructed scenarios which rehearse the dramas of contemporary society, something Sehgal only pretends to do. The mechanisms of Sierra's performances are circumscribed by local legal restrictions and hence expose the social, racial or political inequalities and structures of his host country. He recruits his workers from the peripheries of society; drug-addicted prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and pays them the minimum wage. In Sierra's dystopian vision, money is the basic means of acquiring, and negating subjective autonomy and he claims to use people exactly as he would any other cheap material.

I don't think the annual ICA Sehgal event will be missed next year. The title 'This success or This Failure' says it all, Sehgal doesn't care, he is already winning. He has hit on a golden goose formula, a safe gimmick and need take no further risks. With three successive shows guaranteed by Jens Hoffmann he did not need not to sweat about producing anything fresh and consequently there has been no development in his work over the last three years. Hoffmann has left the ICA a legacy of vapid shows with glossy premises.


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