There is a reason why there are no pictures of art works accompanying this article. Tino Sehgal does not allow his work to be documented in the form of script, film, or photograph. Sehgal’s work consists of performances, putting him in the category of ultra-ephemeral, verging on the mythical. When a Sehgal-piece gets sold – his dealer, Marian Goodman Gallery, has them on offer in editions of four or six – the deal has to be sealed by the artist himself in a conversation with the buyer. Resale involves a similar oral contract. And the work can only be “installed” by someone instructed by the artist himself.
Sehgal takes things further than his intellectual forbears, the minimalists and conceptualists of the sixties and seventies. Lawrence Weiner stipulated that an artist may construct a piece but the piece needs not to be built, but we still have lots of the American’s (semi-)permanent text works to look at, let alone catalogues, posters and even postcards. For Sol LeWitt, the idea of an artwork was superior to its execution, but even after his death his wall drawings can be constructed using his written instructions.
Sehgal’s work is radically dematerialized and personalized simultaneously. It is truly conceptual and does not exist outside the realm of ideas. Either you experience it live or you’ll have to make do with secondhand eye-witness reports. If you’re near the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing these days, you have a chance to see the real deal.
Tino Sehgal with the children from the Guggenheim, New York edition of This Progress.
One of the two pieces in the exhibition is This Variation, which in 2012 was easily the best work in dOCUMENTA XIII and has earned Sehgal a Turner Prize-nomination. You enter a pitch-dark room and slowly become aware of the amorphous presence of others. Then a human soundscape unfolds: moans, explosive beat-boxing, rhythmic cries, and everything cumulating in “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. Because the actors producing the sound move around, you soon feel fully embraced in an un-defined, pulsating sense of community, ready to pitch in with a grunt or two.
This Variation works just as well in a former Beijing factory as in that hot, unmarked shed in Kassel. The other work at UCCA, This Progress, also survives transplantation although the setting is less dramatic than in the original version. This Progress was designed for the spiral gallery of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. A child welcomes you at the foot of the stairs, starting a conversation about progress. Further up an adolescent takes over, followed by a young adult, someone middle aged and finally an old person. In Beijing this lifecycle does not ascend as beautifully as in New York, but the alternative labyrinthine construction does enhance the choreographic quality Sehgal’s work always has. Also, the content of This Progress has been adapted to the local context; at stage three the discussion veers to the recent Chinese law putting severe penalties on the spreading of rumors.
On a more fundamental level all of Sehgal’s work is highly topical for China. By deleting the physical aspect of art completely and thus de-commoditizing art, Sehgal’s "constructed situations", as he calls them, hold up a mirror to the art world and lay bare its economic mechanisms. This is a critical stance anywhere in the world, but nowhere more deeply felt than in the aggressively emerging market for contemporary art in China. The 798 Art District, where UCCA is situated, being the heart of this gung-ho capitalism, Sehgal couldn’t wish for a better venue.
(Image at top: Tino Sehgal posing with a number of kids from the current Beijing version of This Progress; Courtesy of the artist.)