Tino Sehgal Immaterial Added Value without a Lasting Product

The Tanks at Tate Modern
The Tanks at Tate Modern | Photo (detail): © Tate Photography

Tino Sehgal is one of the most important artists of the present. There are no images of his work, no recordings, only what has been experienced.

The hall is imposing, the proportions gigantic. Although it is constructed architecture, the space seems like a cave washed out by the forces of nature. The Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London is probably the largest indoor exhibition space for contemporary art. One enters the hall via a ramp extended from the banks of the Thames. 2007 the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo had a huge crack hammered into the concrete floor. The architecture, the hardness, the floor, yes, even being itself, became frangible. 2010, Ai Weiwei laid millions of painted porcelain sunflower seeds on the industrial floor as a demonstrative gesture protesting the waste of manpower and human life in his native China. Perhaps the best-known contribution is that of Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson, who grew up in Denmark, installed an immense sun on the front wall of the hall, a fierce orb of a romantic rosette (2003).

Art without images

I am sitting at the edge of the hall. The joints of Salcedo’s installation are now smoothed, the gigantic sun has been removed, of the painted seeds there is nothing left to see. There is Wifi and I take the opportunity to revise some e-mails. Overhead, the enterprising city of London is debarred for a few minutes from entry. Nevertheless, the hall booms, boasts of its emptiness. The screen flickers. Other visitors roam down the ramp, looking, amazed. They ramble about. The room gradually fills up. One group strolls upwards. Here, in the industrial underworld, the visitors carefully treading upwards seem like leery cave dwellers, hesitantly turning towards the light. Suddenly, a few dozen set themselves apart. They turn around. Slender, elongated lance-shaped shadows meet me. It is like a mythical experience. Plato’s parable of the cave speaks of sculptures, statues. According to the famous analogy, statues are carried before a fire behind the eyes of the ignorant so as to deceive them. The miserable prisoners can apprehend only the shadows. I feel a bit like them. Yet the statues in the Tate behave differently. They suddenly begin to walk, to run in a circle, to swarm out, to flock down the ramp and the few terrace steps, to push past me. They are close by, without touching me, panting. Some are flushed, their breathe wafts past me in the cool air. Then they gather again and silently stride up and down the hall. After a time, an observation crystallizes: the mysterious crowd is neither a wild pack nor an urban mob. It is a swarm, acting in accordance with composed rules and yet restless and unordered in its excitement. The now effervescently swarming, now pausing crowd originates in Tino Sehgal. Sehgal produces art without images or stages. It relies on only the pulsating movement profile of human actors and the surprising experience of the Now.

Statues and swarm intelligences

The encounter with the abrupt crowd happened in October 2012. At the same time Byung-Chul Han, the Korean philosopher from Berlin, was writing on the phenomenon of the swarm. Han diagnosed a culture of excitement and impatience that mobilizes our present through ever-new jolts of energy. Every minute of the day social media generate flusters in which the flustered incense one another. There is no standstill, and also progress. Worse, there is no social union, no common political actions. Nobody wants to assume responsibility; probably too nobody really wants to dare the risk of painful knowledge. The world is opaque, says Han, in spite of the screens. He is probably thinking of Plato, according to whom the light of the upper world is too glaring to be beheld at once. Sehgal’s crowds seem like a staging of both thoughts. But on the steps of the Turbine Hall they have exchanged roles. The statues have become swarm existences, fluctuating and restless. They roam through real space as if they were scrolling. They behave as if they were navigating aimlessly on the Net, while I sit frozen, huddling before the light of the monitor, like a prisoner.

Values and the experienced

Tino Sehgal is one of the most important artists of the present. He represented Germany at the 2005 Biennale, was invited to the Documenta 13 and most recently was awarded even a Golden Lion at Venice in 2013. His art defies the common criteria, and most of all the demand for materialisation. Sehgal rejects any fixation of his inventions. He constructs “situations” – Sehgal himself prefers the verb “generates” – in which people following his instructions enter into action with the viewers. Actors make contact, put questions or draw attention to themselves through unusual actions.

These Associations was the title of his contribution at the Tate. It is important that these actions leave behind them no trace. There are no images, no recordings, only what has been experienced; or better, what has been personally ascertained of the experienced. What is common in dance and theatre has made quite a stir everywhere in the world of the visual arts. The irritation lies in the implementation. More than ten years ago, Sehgal switched genres. He introduced the temporary work into the art world, the work that sketches out movement and body behaviour and comes into direct communication by confronting the viewer. In the summer of 2013 Sehgal performed old pieces again. The frame of reference as well as the time was turned back. Ohne Titel (Untitled) from 2000 was shown again at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin as part of Dance in August 2013, the only piece, by the way, in which Sehgal himself dances. It sets its roots even more in performance, and at the same time the interest in commentary, reflection, shifts. Today Sehgal distances himself from this performance because for him his art is about not acting in opposition to the market and the museum, but within their terms of reference.

Progress and growth

He aims at creating values. Sehgal, who also studied economics, considers his art an immaterial added value without a lasting product. It becomes enduring as an increase of knowledge through self-examination, as in a seminar or a couching situation. Increase in value thus consists in neither cult nor exhibition value, but rather in the analysis of problems, encounters in dialogue, gains in self-knowledge. This idea is most evident in Sehgal’s work for the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2010). Here too there is a ramp. It spirals up the whitewashed floors. Frank Lloyd Wright’s building is illuminated from above, like a flawless Platonic empyrean. Sehgal emptied out the museum; no art work should distract from his “situation”. What remains is the twisting path to still more light and clarity. Yet all this initiates not a path to knowledge, as in the parable of the cave, but a series of encounters. As the visitors stroll up the spiral of the Guggenheim Museum, they are caught up in conversations with changing interlocutors. The conversations are about “progress”. The higher the level reached, the older the questioners become. The German word “Fortschritt” [literally: “treading onward”] is even better here than the English “progress”, because for Sehgal progress is about the corporeal and epistemic moving forward of body, knowledge and conscience. Last but not least, the question of growth becomes acute. Is growth ultimately like human life itself? Is it infinite like the philosophical heaven, or an economic bubble, in which progress debouches into an economically retrograde undertow into the depths?