Tino Sehgal at Frieze Art Fair, 2004 [source]
It’s not often that performance art surprises and challenges my assumptions. Call it an unfair bias from a former performance artist who has given up the medium in favor of video, a decision that was many years and conversations in the making.
The state of performance in the 21st century is lukewarm at best, rife with reheated investigations of body, gender and otherness: conversations that were so elegantly explored in the heyday of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Even performance artists like Chris Burden and Vito Acconci have moved on to more diverse pursuits, like bridge-building and utopian architecture.
It’s a daunting challenge to make live performance relevant in this commercial, object-oriented art world, and yet: there is Tino Sehgal, at a 57th street blue-chip gallery, with no props, installation or costumes, breathing new life into the genre. Sehgal’s performance work, This situation, like the best conceptual art, is held up on the ephemeral scaffold of a simple good idea, well executed.
In short, six “players” working in 4-hour shifts, gather in a gallery to engage in conversation. As viewers enter the room, the players greet them with the musical drone “….welcome… to this… situation,” and then change the subject of conversation. There is a choreographed formula of tai chi-like movement that shifts the players around the room, and each new conversation begins with one of the players reciting a challenging quote that, during the time we were in the gallery, ranged wildly from philosophy to economics to personal phobias.
Here’s what is different about this piece: the performers themselves are empowered to create fresh content, but under heavy artistic direction; audience interaction is accepted but unnecessary; and the performers are equipped with enough formula to keep the piece on-track regardless of any unknown variables.
Unlike the “happenings” of yesteryear, where the audience itself was often the performance and anything they might do unawares might become the artwork’s content, Sehgal’s elegant and utterly postmodern work has both the precision and the agility to modify meaning based on the specific slice of conversation that the viewer happens to interrupt. This situation speaks to the contemporary zeitgeist with such persuasion that it might, in fact, make great strides towards reinvigorating that old medium of live performance.
Marian Goodman Gallery
30 November 2007 – 10 January 2008