In amongst the videos and installations by Zhang Peili at the Minsheng Art Museum (which I reviewed here last week), I also had a surprise encounter with the work of Tino Sehgal, whose works of performed discussions as institutional critique added an unusual perspective to the display of new-media work.
Under the collective title “Taking the Stage Over,” curator Biljana Ciric has organised a year-long series of events for Shanghai. From July to September she has arranged for Sehgal to present pieces at MOCA Shanghai, then the Minsheng Art Museum, and finally the Rockbund Art Museum. On my visit to the Minsheng, This is New and This is Exchange had been “installed” in the reception area and in one of the galleries.
Prior to entering the Museum, I had no idea that these pieces were present. While paying for my ticket, the staff member quoted a headline from the day’s newspaper in heavily accented English to me. This completely baffled me at first, and after a few minutes of her repeating the sentence and my trying to make sense of its relevance, a colleague let drop that it was a work by Sehgal. At which point I had a bit of a eureka moment, and felt that I understood – which, looking back, perhaps was a shame as it marked the end of my unmediated experience of the piece. Before this realisation, there were a few, rare moments of complete incomprehension, while knowing that something was trying to be communicated – it was actually a nice feeling. During the act, there really was no meaning and nothing to communicate other than the act of communication (something which Sehgal talks about himself).
The second piece by Sehgal was embedded within the Zhang Peili show itself. On entering the gallery space in which it was present I could tell something was not quite right. At the far end of the room a young man was examining the works in a way that suggested he was merely killing time. This made me question whether I really wanted to move to that end of the room for the inevitable encounter.
Nevertheless, I didn’t want to miss the other works on display, and so eventually I was approached by the performer. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but I think we talked about the market economy in China and its consequences for the art world. I do remember that our context amongst these institutionalised conceptual and new media works became a part of my response to the performer. I talked for about half an hour with Zhang Yuan, my affable interlocutor, with only one other visitor to the gallery during that time – who refused to join us in the conversation.
I think that while the question itself is obviously meaningful, what is interesting about these works are their effects on the audience, in that maybe they could effect a change in patterns of thought and activity. The artist makes no concrete claims for the results of his pieces; he sets the scene, and lets the actors (on both sides) complete the work.
But ultimately the question must be: where do these piece go? I’ve always struggled with the deliberate limits set on the communicability of Sehgal’s works – the artist stresses no documentation is allowed (leaving word of mouth testimony as their means of dispersal). Thus their existence is an uncertain state, the performer and the specific audience present experience one aspect of that existence, and beyond that the pieces take on a slightly mythical aspect due to their being present through anecdote. I am also uncertain about the breadth of this dissemination, as I would expect the people that go to museums to be a very small group in China – especially in this Museum tucked away off the main road, with little opportunity for the random encounter with the work.
Another issue arises when the work “succeeds,” particularly pertinent in the Chinese context. Free talk as an aim of the work uncomfortably points out its restrictions within society. I was told that one visitor who did not normally go to museums became quite enthralled with the piece, returning more than once, and engaging with other visitors on his own behalf. This sounds great, but how does the artist, the curator, or the Museum deal with the very real risks involved in this freedom of expression, when it crosses certain boundaries?
But speaking of my own experience, I can say that I witnessed something between the performers and myself that confirmed my interest in the works of Tino Sehgal, as subtle, at times humorous, but certainly powerful ways of reminding us of our relationship with the institutions and realities of society.
-- Edward Sanderson