I tried to see the new Tino Sehgal exhibit at the Walker on Saturday but only partially succeeded. Sehgal—a bad-boy favorite of European art wonks—is a London-born, Berlin-based conceptual artist who is said to be pushing the boundaries of art by creating work that has no physical footprint. You can’t buy a Tino Sehgal poster in the Walker book shop because his work consists entirely of people—trained actors and volunteers—who say and do odd things presumably in the name of art but also in the name of something more subversive as a kind of anti-art that turns creative expression into something so ridiculous, it’s almost impossible to take seriously. For instance, in a piece called This is Contemporary, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2005, a museum guard danced around in a gallery singing, “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary.” (Sadly, this piece is not being presented at the Walker.)
Sehgal’s work can be funny because it seems to have a satirical edge to it, but people take it very seriously, which in a way is even funnier. Grad students and art critics rub their thesauruses raw trying to find a vocabulary for describing what Sehgal’s work is “about”—“immediacy,” “spontaneity,” “the something-ness of nothing”—, and art museums all over the world are clamoring to exhibit his work. The Walker exhibit is Sehgal’s first major exhibition in the United States, and it is actually a retrospective of five of his earlier works though I only saw two of them during my visit. (I might have seen a third, but I’m still not quite sure.)
The pieces are scattered throughout the Walker, and some are meant to be surprises, so you’re not supposed to know when and where they are going to happen. If you ask, you will discover that the staff has been instructed not to spill the beans. One of the staffers I asked could only muster the courage to point me in the general direction of Gallery 2 and apologized for not being more helpful.
Because Sehgal’s work “exists” only in interaction with other people, I decided the best time to go see it would be on Free First Saturday when the bargain-minded masses flock to the Walker in droves. The place was jammed on Saturday, and the line to get into the Frida Kahlo exhibit, which ends on January 20, was so long it looked more like a line at Disneyland.
Perhaps fittingly, Sehgal’s only gallery-bound piece is housed as far away as possible from Frida—on the seventh floor in the Medtronic Gallery. There were no lines here. In fact, most of the people I saw were afraid to take more than a step or two into the gallery. After a hasty glance, many people concluded that the Medtronic gallery was actually empty—and it was, except for a guy in the corner wearing orange high-top sneakers who was rolling around on the ground like he had just been kicked in the nuts. The piece, called Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000) is one of Sehgal’s earliest works, and the whole point of it seems to be the degree of discomfort all that empty space can generate. Sehgal himself tells people that what he really does is “stage situations,” to which people must react. I stuck around for about twenty minutes, and most of the people I saw reacted with their feet—as in, “let’s get out of here.”
The only other easily located Sehgal piece is in the Burnet gallery, where a guide sings a little aria and then announces, “This is propaganda, courtesy the artist, Tino Sehgal, 2002.” When I pulled out a pen to jot down some notes, this same woman scolded me for two violations: 1. Leaning against a wood pylon/artwork, and 2. Using a pen in the gallery; she handed me a pencil. (Evidently, the only people allowed to break the rules at the Walker are the artists.) When she went back to singing, pretty much everyone ignored her, and the woman seemed to be taking it a little personally, as if she were doing something wrong.
Anyway, as I said, my third Tino Sehgal “experience” involved me being pointed to Gallery 2, me walking around in Gallery 2 for ten minutes, me wondering what I was supposed to be looking for, me looking at the guard who looked a little odd, me wondering if he was “it,” me getting impatient, and then me leaving to go look at something a little more traditional, such as a big ball of plaster with fishing rods sticking out of it.
Curiously, as I meandered through the Brave New Worlds exhibit (home of the aforementioned ball of fishing tackle), every time I saw someone who looked a little out of place, which is often on free Saturdays, I wondered if they might be a Sehgalian plant whose purpose was to make me question the very nature of art itself. At the Walker, one doesn’t usually need extra prompting to ask such questions—but ask them I did.
Tino Sehgal continues at the Walker through March 23