Tino Sehgal’s work is designed to leave no imprint. The London-born German-Indian artist works with voice and movement, but he wants none of those evoked moments left behind, beyond memories. Photography and video are prohibited, or at least miss its purpose. He’s the Instagrammer’s nightmare.
He has also created some of the most touching exhibitions of the past two decades. For Progress, he filled the spiral of the Guggenheim Gallery in New York City with “performers” of old age, from children to octogenarians, who, following a set of rules of his design, engaged visitors in a suddenly intimate conversation. In 2012, at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, he populated the expansive space with a choreographed bench of 70 local storytellers, who swept visitors away in waves of movement, or buttoned them up to share heartfelt secrets. Many people stayed for hours, like at the party they had always dreamed of. As a conversational artist of surprising human engagement, Sehgal, 45, feels like the perfect choice after locking in for the annual summer exhibition in the majestic gardens of Blenheim Palace.
I spoke to him last week, via Zoom from the house he lives in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and where he puts his show together with a cast of locally recruited ‘participants’, people of all ages selected, he says. , on the basis that they seem “measured and deep, in a way, and love to sing”. He is hesitant to describe in detail what visitors will encounter in the gardens of Capability Brown, except to suggest that this is a slight deviation from his usual methods, due to the narrowness of the use of the time. “Normally my job will be like the same algorithm running all day – a bunch of participants following the same type of protocols in the same place,” he says. “Here, it’s more than individual works becoming scenes. They appear for a moment, then they merge into another work. “
Sehgal suggests that he was drawn to do this project by the promise of a new and large audience of country house day trippers. As an “experimental” artist, he says, danger always ends, say, “in a kunsthalle in Scandinavia and host 60 people per day. At some point you think to yourself, “What am I doing here? “”
He hopes the work will have something to say about how we re-emerge into more social worlds. “I think I’ve always been a supporter, like, of the materiality of human interaction,” he suggests. “That it’s something palpable. I must say that it became much more palpable after the confinements. I remember my first face-to-face meetings and I’m like, “What is this? I can almost feel the kind of energy exchange between souls that would take place when you met someone. I thought it reaffirmed what I’m doing.
He talks about the interactive scenes he creates in terms of algorithms – the rules he establishes that the participants will follow (he refuses any written documentation of these rules; when he sells his work, contracts are only ever verbal agreements. of what will be involved). He assimilates the parameters he creates to the rules of the games. “Sport has that kind of balance: very simple rules that allow all the complexity of life to show itself, like in a tennis match. Sehgal’s work This variant, for example, involved 12 artists, singing and dancing in the dark. It took him six years to establish the rules that “would make it a game people might enjoy playing over time.”
Because otherwise it would become too chaotic?
“Yes. I mean, for example, in football, the offside rule is like a balancing rule. Without it, everything would probably be out of balance.”
Speaking of his desire for immateriality, to create “stuff you dream about”, I remember reading a little anecdote about Sehgal “canceling Christmas” when he was a child. Was this the first expression of this impulse?
“It was in the 80s,” he says. “My father had come to Europe from India. When I was 11, 12, I understood that for him, you know, every watch or stereo or something he could buy was a measure of how successful this adventure was. But the same was never going to be true for me, because I was born into this world. From my childhood bedroom, on the sixth floor on top of a hill, I could look out over the Mercedes-Benz and Hewlett-Packard factories. And so for me it was a very concrete thing, the degree of involvement of people in the production of goods and their consumption. I was like: I don’t think it’s lasting. It didn’t seem fair to future generations. And then, it’s not that interesting either.
He first studied these rules of capitalist production in detail in an economics degree – then moved on to breaking the rules by becoming a dancer. His art was a way to test this principle of non-participation in the world, skipping the rule that art had to be a commodity like everything else. “I was really prepared for this to get nowhere,” he says. “People have told me: this will never work. But then I had one of the fastest careers ever. I represented Germany at the Venice Biennale a few years ago. It is therefore clear that the documentation was not necessary.
How, I wonder, will he measure the success of his Blenheim show?
“Just very simply that they’ll pay attention, take an interest, stop, basically. I mean, a lot of the visitors, they won’t necessarily come to my small businesses. He smiles. “So I have to persuade them that what I’m doing deserves their attention.”