Conceptual art “I love Tino Sehgal”

Tino Sehgal, 2012
Tino Sehgal, 2012 | © Sabine Weier

Choreographer of kinetic sculptures and master of the ephemeral – these are just two of the descriptions applied to Tino Sehgal, a conceptual artist who derives capital from intellectual added value.

A man is moving in time with the song Will you still love me tomorrow. The camera zooms in on and stays with unchanged focus for several minutes on the chest area with the creased T-shirt print “I ♥ Tino Sehgal.”

The YouTube video of the same title - uploaded in 2008 by the Swedish initiative International Performance Exchange (Inpex) – turns an intellectual concept artist into, of all things, an object of desire. Is this an ironic allusion to Tino Sehgal’s subtly simple means of artistic expression, or a commentary on the art business, which is threatening to fête the 1976-born German-British artist as “everybody’s darling”?

Synthesis of the incompatible

At the same time, the mainstream is of no interest to someone like him, an experimental sculptor of the social. If compelled by his convictions, Sehgal uncompromisingly pursues his goals, although without ever adopting the role of provocateur or enfant terrible. He does not polarise, but instead seeks synthesis – at times of what seems in fact incompatible. Characteristic here was his decision at the time to supplement his unsatisfying degree programme in economics in an unorthodox way with a degree programme in dance. Not in order to play off the one against the other, but from that point on to explore economic innovations artistically. With this aim in mind, Sehgal deliberately chooses the exhibition format, because he sees in it the ritual of western democracies per se, reflecting specific socio-economic mechanisms.

Added value from the immaterial

His central question here, one involving both art and economic theory at the same time, is whether art must consist of some material artefact or other in order to be an object of economic value creation. Ultimately, Sehgal’s point is an ethical position in a post-growth economy, when he radicalises dispensing with what can be pinned down and grasped in the area of the arts.

To fathom how what is immaterial or ephemeral can nonetheless – literally – pay off, Sehgal implants the performing and musical arts as alien species, so to speak, into the setting of the visual arts; he likewise works with artificial conversational situations, often about economics or intellectual history in which laypersons or experts – briefed by Seghal – involve exhibition visitors.

Action as art work

In 2013 at the Venice Biennale, for instance, the moving constellation or kinetic sculpture (Sehgal) consisted of two or three people squatting or kneeling on the floor. By having the one interpreter sing and the other dance within the premises of an art biennale, Sehgal sets the ephemeral arts, which are realised only in the moment of their performance, in a context that is alien to them and in doing so has them be judged according to the criteria of the visual arts. The play with foreign bodies – in both senses of the term – is constitutive of Sehgal’s works: even when he has recourse to dance, song, conversation, action, or performance, he insists that his works belong in a museum.

For the entire experimental set-up to function, the usual parameters of the visual arts – White Cube, opening hours, museum guards, collector’s value, etc. – must be maintained, since it is by means of these conventions that the exhibition visitor is conditioned, as it were, to conceive physical action as a work of art.

The end of conventional categories

But what role does the artist play here? And the observer? Sehgal primes his interpreters with his dialectic between an open field of action and preset rules in a manner comparable to game structure. He determines in which framework they may unfold their movements. The visual artist becomes an initiator who only constructs a framework of action. The reaction and interaction of the viewers, who are suddenly confronted in a museum context with an action instead of an object and - this is crucial! – co-create it, indeed trigger it in the first place. The conventional distinction between author, work and recipient is no longer viable.

A situative work of art cannot be hung on the wall and cannot be sold; it exists only within experience – as art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann puts it – and subsequently in the exhibition visitor’s memory. To rule out on a secondary level, a material and therefore lastingly accessible witness taking the place of a work of art that is actually conceived as a situation, Sehgal insists on having the sales transaction conducted verbally. He prepares no written or graphic presentations and he does not authorise any photographic or film documentations.

Sehgal produces intellectual added value, but no things that can be co-opted as objects of speculation. The art world is rewarding him. He has already presented in the hallowed halls of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the documenta and in the Tate Modern in London, and was adjudged “Best Artist” by the jurors of the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Will you still love me tomorrow? For sure!

Book Recommendation

Von Hantelmann, Dorothea: How to Do Things With Art. Zur Bedeutsamkeit der Performativität von Kunst. Diaphanes, Zürich, Berlin 2007

From 12 March until 21 April 2014, Tino Sehgal will be presenting in the foyer of the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) in Rio de Janeiro. At the invitation of the Goethe-Institut, he is developing for the German Year in Brazil a new piece with fifty actors in the course of a three-month stay on location.