For the past decade or so Tino Sehgal has been making museum-bound work that flexes definitions of ‘work’ and ‘museum’, and threatens to flummox that frequently harried personage, the ‘spectator’. Visitors to a Sehgal show may expect to be buttonholed, charmed, cajoled or ignored by the dozens of ‘interpreters’ – not quite actors, nor fully collaborators – whom he employs to perform or embody his work. In This progress, at the Guggenheim in 2010, museum-goers were greeted at the bottom of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramp by one of several children who wanted to chat about the concept of progress. As you ascended, the child handed over to a teenager, who ceded to an adult and so on until you were conversing with an elderly person about a future that, in terms of the work’s extension and duration, was about to run out.
Sehgal’s art is not only discursive or, as the clumsy term has it these days, participatory. He trained as a dancer, and was a choreographer and performer before turning to gallery-based work in 2000. His deployment of bodies in space is well suited to the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, where some of the most successful of the annual Unilever-sponsored commissions have suborned the audience as performers of a sort. (Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project of 2003-4, which turned the Turbine Hall’s concrete floor into a sun-kissed beach, is the best known.) For his piece, entitled These associations, Sehgal has hired and trained seventy individuals of different ages and backgrounds to run, dance, pose and process slowly through the space. They will also accost you with more or less intimate stories and anecdotes. In common with all of Sehgal’s works, this one lacks a catalogue and encouraging wall texts, so it’s a matter of chance whether visitors decide to join in, and unclear whether they’re meant to.
Nobody was joining in when I arrived at the Tate around noon on a Thursday. A moraine of tourists had accumulated just a few feet from the interpreters, who were sitting or lying silent on the gleaming concrete in what might have been a homage to Eliasson’s sunny installation, except that at the moment it was pretty gloomy. Suddenly one of the interpreters unfroze and walked smartly towards me, paused, and began to speak. ‘The concrete thing is where to live; I’ve got to move out of my place in two weeks.’ He had a choice, he said, between living very cheaply as guardian of a flat in Tower Hamlets or sharing a house in Camberwell. ‘There’s always been a lack of rootedness’ – I assume he meant his own – and maybe this time he ‘could just do what feels right’. He was veering towards Camberwell, but there was a cat and he was slightly allergic. ‘Only slightly …’
And with that he was gone, back among his colleagues who were beginning to move about the hall in stiff patterns and poses. Were I to hang around with the rest of the punters it would be some time before another interpreter was bored or dutiful enough to target me, so I started to walk a little warily – I was so far the only one invading the interpreters’ space – towards the back of the room. I tried not to catch any interpreter’s eye, in case they thought I was angling too obviously for an approach – though I had no idea why I was being so reticent. A woman who was maybe in her thirties came out of the crowd and told me she recently spent hours avoiding writing a certain urgent email. She wondered if it was a problem in her character, and whether she would do better next time. Meanwhile she was not getting much from me except some furious nodding and the odd blush at her uncanny eye contact. Without warning, she twirled back into the throng.
At that point a deeper gloom descended in the Turbine Hall: the lights went off, then flickered unpredictably while the interpreters, stock still, started to chant slowly: ‘Electric! Electric! Electric! Electricity …’ It was the first of several such moments during the two hours I spent there; now and then Sehgal’s hirelings stopped dead and started ethereal recitals that seemed obliquely related to their role in the piece: ‘Today we have begun to create … We have channelled these forces.’
The chanting had just subsided when a bearded young man in a checked shirt came towards me. As he came closer I asked: ‘What happens if I speak first?’ He ignored this and started to tell his story. He was nine years old, on a flight with his parents. He’d gone into the toilet with a new book and become so absorbed in it that when his mother came knocking on the door there was a queue of 15 furious passengers outside, and he was horribly embarrassed. It was the first time he’d totally lost himself in reading: ‘Does that ever happen to you?’ I told him it was my job to try and trick myself into that state nearly every day, and he asked when it last happened, so I mentioned the copy of William Gass’s On Being Blue that was in my bag and he nodded approvingly at the name. I half thought that we were getting on, myself and the checked-shirt guy, who sounded like he might be from Dublin. But I blew it when I blurted: ‘So, does your story have something to say about the work you’re part of?’ There was a beardy sneer before he walked off: ‘I have this image of you with your big magnifying glass, trying to work it all out.’
This I hadn’t reckoned with: that an interpreter and I might so piss each other off that I would be left standing in the dark muttering ‘gobshite!’ as he smugly retreated into the now weirdly hostile-seeming space where the others were running in frantic circles or figures of eight, as if the work’s hive mind was abuzz at my effrontery. I felt a bit ashamed. I had guessed, as is standard with Sehgal’s work, that interpreters were not meant to speak about the piece itself – but I was curious. I decided to play along with the next person to come near me, and consequently spent ten minutes talking about autumn leaves and everyday moments of overwhelming beauty with a young woman who sidled up conspiratorially and spoke very quietly indeed.
I was unsure if I was loving or hating These associations. Sehgal can be maddeningly contradictory about the intentions and the details of a work like this: comparing its unpredictable being-together with the spontaneity of political protest, but asserting a level of control that was starting to feel unsubtle and bullying. I was relieved to meet an interpreter who, without once commenting on the situation itself, articulated a good deal of what seemed the slick self-satisfactions at the heart of this piece. She came over as I was planning to leave. She was older than the others I’d met, and her anecdotal gambit put me off at first: ‘I had this very recent awakening or moment of arrival.’ As I feared, it was spiritual. But it was what she left behind rather than what she’d found, or what had found her, that we quickly fell to discussing. (So I rather thought I was enjoying Sehgal’s games again.) She was ex-Catholic, and within minutes we were trading horror stories about the Charismatic movement, and the old-fashioned shame and moralism that lurked behind its evangelical energy and the embarrassing communality of prayer meetings (which I had endured as a child in the early 1980s, she much later). It was not at all obvious that we were talking about These associations, but it wasn’t clear we weren’t talking about it either.
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