Tino Sehgal: This Situation IMMA at the NCH

Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin

Hhhhhhhhooooooowwweeeeeeell-Cum… tooooooo… THISss… SIT-uuu-aa-chion! [large breath and exhalation]
This is how you are ushered into the experience that is Tino Sehgal’s This Situation, on the top floor of IMMA’s temporary city-centre address. Your arrival is announced on crossing the threshold into the room at the top of the house by a chorus of an undefined number of individuals – performers (Sehgal prefers the term ‘interpreters’) – 5, 6, 8, its hard to decipher at first, as it is, initially at least, difficult to separate the ‘interpreters’ from everybody else.
This pronouncement causes a stab of extreme social anxiety – the work has just perceptibly refocused, reset and rotated about your very presence. Sehgal has made you the focus of the work, transferring its power onto you. Your instinct is to run and retreat to any space where you can recover your anonymity. I darted for a small space against the wall. I caught my breath and began to decipher the interpreters from the others, the audience (Sehgal prefers the term ‘visitors’). So, 6 interpreters, some lying on the floor, some sitting quietly in the corner and some standing rigidly by the wall, all moving to an unnaturally slow rhythm as if the particular envelope of time that surrounded them had become more rarefied.
‘In 1958 somebody said, “the income that men derive producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence”…’ or ‘in 1890 somebody said…’ one of the interpreters would commence with such a philosophical or economic gesture, a quote, from across the last two centuries, introducing ideas of situation and place, of freedom, of cultural and economic status. Other interpreters would join in as they saw fit and conversation would ensue, punctuated only by the arrival of a new visitor, when the discourse would all unfold, reform and begin again shaped around a new quotation delivered by another interpreter. What becomes obvious after a period of time is: there are rules, and there is a structure to the ‘game’ – you become aware of the manner in which the frame or limits of the encounter has been regulated, choreographed, ritualised even. While it always remains unclear how controlled the interpreters actually are, it is apparent that they are allowed a certain amount of flexibility, with which to shape the experience and engagements. This Situation relies a great deal on the attunement and receptivity of these agents – feeding off each other, shaping how the work is understood and received.
Our experience leads us to understand that these are not performances, this is not theatre, and it is almost certainly not dance: these are situations shaped into artworks. Made by choreographed interactions and structured solely by words, they have no materiality except in the memories formed in the minds of the visitors, well after they have left the space. This is a genuine ‘dematerialised artwork’.
And for Sehgal it is of the utmost importance that his work does not transform into anything material. There can be no documentation, no press releases, no press photographs, no catalogues, and no interpretive wall texts. All contracts with galleries, museums and buyers are done orally in the presence of a notary and all future sales and negotiations must be carried out in the same manner. This is not just a reaction to the voracious markets of the artworld but to conspicuous consumption itself, a rejection of the primacy of materiality and material wealth.
But total resistance to the market is totally misguided, he suggests, ‘after all, artists have to make a living.’ Sehgal needs to be clear about these distinctions, as he is the new darling of the artworld: winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale; critically acclaimed at last year’s Documenta 13. These Associations, the first live commission for the Tate Turbine hall, was rapturously received in 2012 and is shortlisted for the Turner Prize (to be awarded later this year, in Derry). Now his artworks sell for 6 figure sums, come in the form of limited (6-8) editions, with Sehgal always retaining artistic rights. (It’s worth noting that all the participants are paid for their time and this forms part of all contractual agreements.)
But with this sort of notoriety it has become hard to separate the mythos of the man from the artworks themselves. His protracted journey into the artworld has obviously shaped his career trajectory: born in Britain to an Indian émigré father and a German mother, he went on to study political economics at the Humboldt University in Berlin before learning dance under French experimental choreographers like Jérôme Bel.
Sehgal then turned his back on dance and its theatrical values: structurally he felt they were constrictive and creatively moribund. Their need for beginning and end points, the separation between audience and performance were all too restrictive. Heavily influenced by the likes of Irish artist, James Coleman, whose scripts had cyclical narratives and circuitous scenarios, Sehgal realised that the gallery was a more permissive space, allowing him to explore, experiment and fail. ‘Art can fail and art can be banal,’ he has said. Theatre needs to be spectacular.
But art practices like these, challenging ideas of materiality and consumption, have been around since at least Duchamp. This is nothing new. So why is Sehgal’s work so engaging now?
His earlier works were ‘sculptures in motion’: like Kiss (2002), in which real individuals recreated the poses of celebrated sculptural works, from Rodin to Jeff Koons, for the duration of the museum’s opening-hours, as simply that, performed sculptural works. These were merely live encounters playing within the field of power of the museum’s historic place as custodian of society’s cultural development. But in These Associations, last year’s Turbine Hall intervention at the Tate, he employed a hundred or more participants, ‘interpreters’, and the rules of the ‘game’ changed.
What Sehgal has created here is his own Live Action Role Play game, LARP, where as games designer he empowers his ‘interpreters’ to have freedom or license enough to re-create themselves within the rule of his regulations and rituals – to explore alternative cultural relations and political structures through enacted situations. There are now 2 tiers of reception: that of the individuals who have elected to become or enact themselves as a new identity, and that of the ‘visitors’, us in other words, who are both in the work and watching the experience of the work unfold. The participants don’t purely become tools in the realisation of the work, but are active agents in navigating the work through a constant re-structuring of their game-defined identities.
It’s hard not to be cautious, even skeptical when a figure like Sehgal rises so quickly to such universal prominence. In an artworld for which he shows a deal of contempt at every turn, his rhetoric is loose, vague and woolly at best, and he is an interloper from a discipline often seen as somewhat insignificant. So why the exaltation? Simply because he’s uncontainable. The art canonical rules don’t apply to him, there is no grand philosophical text, and he refuses to be coerced. The standards that he brings to bear aren’t from the art historical narrative. His interactive, participatory situations work simply because we too make the same judgements and assessments of how to read a work of art, and agree with him; it touches us in a human way, a physical and elemental way; we enjoy it, we relate to it and we understand it, in our own way.
Behind Sehgal’s work is a recognition that objects cannot make us happy, but that maybe happiness can be found in accessing an inner person through group collective action, through resigning ourselves to our ‘self’, our instincts and intuitions in the face of all other cultural references.
This Situation ran from 12 April -19 May 2013.