In this text, the PIPA Institute curator comments on the artist Tino Sehgal’s recent entrance on Instagram and how this could destabilize and even collapse the art market. The news is a hook for a discussion about the relationship between social media and the art market, about the strategies of circulation of the work of art among new technologies, about fetishization of the work and its value, especially in the works of Sehgal: performances – or situations, as the artist prefers to call – that cannot be photographed and do not generate documentation records, is the action in the “here and now” that counts.
“This is so Contemporary: Instagram and the Freedom of Movement”, by Luiz Camillo Osório
Tino Sehgal’s work is among the most interesting being produced today. He has opened up new possibilities for dance to operate in the exhibition space and to circulate through galleries and Biennales. In a recent article in the online magazine, Hyperallergic, his Berlin gallerist, Esther Shipper, offered a brusque observation: “His market could collapse overnight” (1). Why would it collapse? For the simple reason that the artist had started using Instagram! How could something so banal rattle the market? What is this sensitivity and how can we deal with it? We all know that the art market is hysterical and plays with this hysteria. However, what makes his work so interesting also causes this shock or hysteria to come to the surface and make sense.
Having training in economics and dance is a relevant fact when considering the artist’s career. He knows how to operate on the circuit and isn’t afraid of the negotiations inherent to the process of moving his work around. The strategies invented for this form part of his poetic intelligence. The fleeting presence of the body in action and of the voice on stage makes his performances something to be experienced always in the here and now of their action. Unlike many other conceptual artists or those from other disciplines who have begun to frequent this circuit of museums and galleries, Tino Sehgal does not create procedures to confer some permanence on his performances: he does not produce documents, musical scores, choreographic notations, photographs, drawings, or videos etc.
In addition to this, the audience has been strictly forbidden to record his actions – or situations, as he prefers to call them. Whoever takes out a phone to photograph or film them is swiftly approached by security guards and, if they continue, is removed from space. The here and now, the presence and exchanges in the action, constitute the raison d’être of his works and he refuses to relinquish the right to radically defend them. However, he commercially trades his works, which are present in the principal institutional and private collections around the world. And he does so in a wholly original way. Everything is done in a somewhat ritualistic manner, with the parties involved going to a notary who orally confers legitimacy on the directives passed by the artist to the collector or his representative in order that it may “own” that situation and know how to execute it. At a fair in the early 2000s, his gallerists were trained to perform a pas de deux from time to time, at the stand itself, and this was the work to be traded.
The artist frequently uses the museum’s security guards in his performances, who are trained to present them throughout the exhibition process. The training here is important, since ways of approaching the public, the ability to sing, to debate, to talk, move and often execute a choreography, are consistently necessary to give life to the situations. At the end of each performance, whoever delivers it must say the artist's name, the title, the year of the work and the collection to which it belongs. Which is to say, even the label with the credits of the work is ephemeral.
Using museum security guards as the performers of his actions is a way of playing with the fetishization of the object at the expense of the act, to force the inversion of roles, to confer value on whoever is there to preserve it and watch over it. In an emblematic action staged at the Guggenheim in New York, the audience was welcomed at the bottom of the museum’s ramp by a child, who introduced himself and asked if he could join the visitor. On this being accepted, the child began by firing off the question: What is progress? A difficult and disconcerting question, especially when posed by a child, in middle of the 21st century and in the midst of an extreme environmental crisis. In the middle of the ramp, when the conversation started to flow, the baton of interlocution with the visitor was passed to an adult, who at the end passed it on to an older person. The subject was always progress and was always maintained as an interrogation.
As the artist said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “We tend to associate the contemporary with what is most technologically advanced. I am interested in building an idea of the contemporary detached from technology, without referring to it, using a very traditional medium: people in movement”. Science, economics, progress, love, death, suffering, are recurring subjects and always addressed in a spontaneous and skilled manner, listening and responding, walking, dancing or singing. There is no embarrassment; anyone who does not wish to participate can pass by without being disturbed.
It’s hard to be indifferent to his performances. There is always delight when the situation is begun. However, there are still some contradictions. This is not a problem; it merely explains a poetic process that runs through and mixes together complex circuits. At the Venice Biennial of 2013, three performers executed highly delicate movements seated on the ground, inside a room where diagrams by Rudolf Steiner were to be found. These were slow movements, sometimes interspersed with low and well-delivered chants. The audience kept looking around, somewhat passively. Suddenly, Magdalene, my wife, decided to interfere and walked by a few times with her skirt lightly brushing the face of one of the dancers. All in harmony with the delicacy of gestures. It wasn’t long before a security guard was on the scene, now as a real gatekeeper, stopping her from doing this, and he followed us for some 10 minutes around the Biennale. This was unnecessary and in contrast to all the other situations of Tino Sehgal in which we were always free to participate. When we told him about this at a lecture of his here in Rio, his response was brief and ironic – I cannot control everything.
One of his most striking and definitive works was presented at Documenta 2012. We entered a dark room where we could see absolutely nothing. Inside, a group of actors danced and talked. The rhythms, tones and subjects varied throughout the presentation. The initial impulse, under the impact of darkness, was to look for a corner in that pitch-black room and stop. We often bumped into someone else. Audience and performers became mixed up. The feeling of discomfort was soon transformed into one of curiosity and welcoming, whether due to the pleasant music, which was mostly smooth, or to the subjects discussed between them and the public. Gradually we began to see better; we could make out where the people were and the movements of each one. The initial threat, intimately linked to the fact that we couldn’t see anything, was transformed by the dilation of our pupils and we gradually turned into observers of the scene and, if we so wished, participants in the situation. It all lasted about 20 minutes. During the course of four days, I went back there some six times. I always saw something new, or heard something new, and the music sung became ever more interesting: always a mixture of disorientation and belonging, of fear and charm, of being one and many. Since Tunga’s Teresa, I hadn’t seen such an exhilarating performance (installation/situation), where we dive deep into the pulses and complexity of our time. The way we are activated in our position as spectator is extremely important; things pass without impositions; we are mobilized internally and shifted from an initial in-oneself-ness to a strong feeling of being-with-others. A forgotten reconnection with a ritualistic experience occurs, I believe, produced from within a disenchanted world. Each one experiences it in his/her own way, but be sure that this is no small thing.
I return here to Tino Sehgal’s joining Instagram and the panic caused in the market. There the fetish-form of the valuable object and the ritual form of the unique experience meet. Few have played so intensely with this tension as the market itself, which simultaneous requires the exposure that enables circulation and the authenticity that values and produces distinction in the midst of indifference. A tension between banalization, democratization and spetacularization is always present. Even reproductive techniques such as photography end up being fetishized by the value given to the vintage, which confers an aura of authenticity on a technique which came into existence to oppose it. The situations of Tino Sehgal, affirming action, staking everything on experience and being present, explain exchange as an inescapable value of art rather than the mere value of exchange assigned to the object. He does this by negotiating with the market, inventing ways of making the work circulate without allowing himself to be captured by its hegemonic logic. As Von Hantelmann observed “Understanding the notion of performativity in Sehgal implies shifting the focus of what the work of art intends to do, to include its unintentional and unintended effects (…) From the perspective of the performative, the works of art are not only products of a given circumstance, they can also construct these circumstances” (2) . Giving value to the ephemeral and the exchanges constituted in his situations remains a challenge. Being summoned by criticism and by new technology, and changing your strategies for circulating the work is part of the game and freedom of each artist.
It is up to the market and the collectors to assume the risk, and to allow the work to move forward freely. Recently I heard from Sergio Burgi, a photo curator from IMS, of an interesting thing that happened to the photographer William Eggleston. Known for his color photographs, he built his career during the era of analogue images. When digital cameras and new printing possibilities came along, he started making prints on another scale using this new technology. An old collector decided to file a lawsuit alleging that this action would destroy the value of his countless analogue photographs and so he wanted to prevent these prints from circulating. Luckily, the judge decided in favor of the artist’s freedom. A decision by a photographer and a little, banal gesture by a choreographer-artist are able to move the market and open up new readings of their poetics. Let’s see what will happen: you cannot seek to control everything – that’s the main lesson of a poetics of the body and of movement.
1 https://hyperallergic.com/492739/after-a-lifetime-of-rejecting-technology-artist-tino-sehgal-falls-in- love-with-instagram/
2 Von Hantelmann, D. – “Object and situation in the work of Tino Sehgal” in How to do things with art, JRP/Ringier, Zurich, 2010, p.134.