Thursday, July 6

Tino Sehgal versus a world full of objects

At his talk at the Guggenheim Museum last night, the artist Tino Sehgal did not say much that was all that different from the interview and article last year in Artforum, but he did clarify his position and give it more depth. The major point I got from his talk was that his art takes place on the macro level of institution and medium more than on the micro level of an individual work. He referred to this as his “set up” at one point and said that the subject of any particular piece was secondary to it.

The event was a conversation between Sehgal and one of the senior Guggenheim curators. She began by asking him how he decided to abandon the object, which was rather interesting because he said he never dealt with the object. He explained that before entering the field of visual art (he referred to it this way several times—as visual art) he had been involved in political activism. I would like to know more about this because he referred to it as lobbying legislations. Anyway, he said his art project evolved from this work and that he decided to enter the field of visual art because it was—and I thought this was an astute formulation—about the relationship between people and things. Sehgal said again that he was not interested in adding more things to the world and that he was interested in figuring out an alternative form of production and exchange. So his art project is in part a social experiment (he did not use this language), and he said that he turned to the social institutions of art deliberately because its character and structure lent itself to this sort of experiment. Institutional critique, of course, came to mind, but Sehgal’s aims and assumptions seem radically different. And he did not mention institutional critique at all. No one during the Q&A session did either. (The questions were quite shallow).

Sehgal made a few provocative remarks, but his manner was mild and thoughtful. He looked like an art nerd. One of these remarks addressed the market. He argued that if we do anything at all specialized we have to participate in the market—whether we like it or not. The only way avoid the market is to do everything yourself: farm your own food, make your own clothes, and so on. He also argued that the material wealth of Western societies in fact empowers individuals. This is because material surplus gives many choices and decisions over to individual consumers. They can choose between this material product or that one, and producers compete for these choices. In contrast to this, societies that are not producing a surplus give choice over to the producers: the producer chooses to make this or that product, and the consumer is stuck with the producers’ choices. His most caustic remark, though—and he apologized for possibly being reductive—was about the antimarket attitude of many twentieth-century avant-garde artists. He said he thought they were misguided and na├»ve.

I left the event wanting to ask him a bunch of questions and with a thirst to know more about him. I chickened out and did not ask the question I really, really wanted to ask him, which was this: “What political label would you apply to your self?” I also wanted to ask him if he would comment on the Benjamin Buchloh review of the 51st Venice Bienale in Artforum. Earlier Sehgal had argued (in criticism of documenta 11) that all art is political, whether the artist is aware of their politics or not. I hope Sehgal wins the Hugo Boss Prize in December, so he finally exhibits in New York, but somehow I doubt he will.

The audience turnout was odd. There were about thirty people there. The auditorium was less than half full. And it looked like mostly students. I thought maybe I’d run into some of the newer New York critics and curators, but I was wrong. I looked around for them. There were really no professorial types there either, although they are sometimes hard to spot.

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