Why do I get the feeling I’m supposed to like conceptual artist Tino Sehgal? With Sehgal slated for the Guggenheim’s upcoming exhibition at the end of the month, the current pre-show press reminds me of the 2007 hype for “This Situation” at Marian Goodman. Three years ago, by the time I got to the exhibition, careful study of Claire Bishop’s write-up in ArtForum and broadsheet press identifying Sehgal as the conceptual art’s new “It” artist told me I should, at least, pay very close attention. I spent about 45 minutes in a room full of gallery visitors, paid participants, and Sehgal, each standing against the gallery walls and discussing topics such as economics, politics, and philosophy. When someone new stepped into the space, Tino Sehgal and clan clap and the conversation starts anew.
To be clear, I didn’t leave “This Situation” that enthralled. I felt ambivalent and wrote nothing of the experience. But if the press for Sehgal’s upcoming show at the Guggenheim is any indication, perhaps I should put a few of my accomplished-art-school-seminar reservations away. According to New York Times Arthur Lubow, all two categories of art lookers — the unschooled and the cognoscenti — loved it (or, at least, felt passionately about it):
If the overall response to “This Situation” at the Marian Goodman Gallery is any guide, even some who expect to hate Sehgal's work will leave enthralled. “I often see shows I don't like, but this was the only show I've ever seen that didn't like me,” wrote New York magazine's art critic, Jerry Saltz, judging “This Situation” to be the best exhibition he encountered in 2008. Unlike so much of contemporary art, Sehgal's art evokes passionate reactions among the unschooled as well as the cognoscenti. Anyone who has seen the onlookers trudging passively through an art museum (all too often the Guggenheim ramp resembles the humane cattle slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin) can appreciate the achievement.
Lubow closes his effusive paragraph with the cliché praise that Sehgal, by merely using “human clay” has been able to evoke the same feelings those poor artists who had to resort to using paint and canvas managed to solicit. A true achievement.
To my mind, the most interesting aspect of Sehgal’s work is how it’s sold. No performance is photographed, nor explained by wall labels or press releases (though presumably different rules apply to museums such as the Guggenheim, which has pimped a press release for the exhibition). And yet, his work commands six figure prices. This may represent an embrace of the commercial system — he says it does — but it’s hard not to interpret his success as needling a system which places value on documentation before all else.
Interestingly, the most compelling incident evidencing this cultural value presented itself in an unrelated exchange over New Year’s. “My friend takes hundreds of pictures, but doesn’t post them to facebook,” a colleague complained. “I mean, why bother?” Immediately I recalled the philosophical riddle if a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear it? Although slightly cliché, the exchange and riddle seem particularly relevant to the work of Sehgal. After all, if my friend’s sentiments are any indication, it may be a dubious proposition that we’ll remember too much without a digital footprint 100 years from now. Even if Sehgal’s embrace of the market pushes forward the work of late 60’s and 70’s conceptual artists seeking to evade the commercial system — and I think it does — statements such as my friend’s make me wonder if his values are just as idealistic.