The Tino Seghal exhibit at the Guggenheim opened quietly, with no photographs allowed (at the press preview or anytime). This made sense, as there really was not a thing to photograph, except the "piece" in the center of the atrium, of a male/female couple slowly writhing in various poses of embrace and kissing, enacting famous artworks on that theme. Quite flimsy both visually and conceptually, the piece easily suggested an earnest college dance performance. More intriguing was the second of Seghal's "pieces". In quotes, because Seghal fancies himself as an anti-object artist, forcing his work to be sans documentation, explanation, or materiality. At the Gugg, I didn't read the (albeit vague) press release as I wanted to allow myself free reign to try and accept his conceit, for while there was nothing new about his posture, I also didn't want to be a predisposed meh-sayer.
Indeed, I showed up towards the end of the preview and saw, as I was promised, emptiness. Rather, some people sitting at the bottom of the museum, and mostly ignoring the performers. To see the Gugg for the first time entirely empty of art, especially as compared to earlier manifestations of cramming [Art of China? Brazil? Russia?], was like seeing a mansion emptied of its candelabras, carpets, and curtains: you glimpsed how un-majestic it all suddenly seemed, just a big white spiral hallway.
As I walked up the first ramp, to avoid stomping out, a group of adorable kids waited, and one gamin approached and asked me to define progress. Taken aback, I tried to think how to speak weightily to a 7-year-old. "Things getting better over time?" I blurted, anxiously hoping the kid would approve. He asked me to give him an example, and I thought of something personal that had been on my mind. Finally, the kid repeated what I had said verbatim to a 20-something "interpreter", who took over the interrogation based on my answer. Within seconds we were revealing things about ourselves, and debating if progress in my example really was a straight line. Suddenly a 30-something interrupted with a non-sequitor about current events, and off we went. And finally, an older professorial type explained about a theory of Hesiod's, and the conversation went on to Haiti, Nigeria, and the entrenchment of the world's problems.
I repeated the path up the ramp once more, and the interpreters followed a similar rhythm, yet in most cases the conversations were dense, engaging, and real. I did not feel like a pawn in some art brat's conceptual gambit, but a participant, a creator, and perhaps the driver of the work. Does Seghal presuppose curiosity and a willingness to engage in provocative tete-a-tetes? Or was it because I purposefully avoided a cynical interpretation? It would be easy to want to slap Seghal for owning one of the world's most celebrated museums for 6 weeks only to leave it at basically a cocktail conversation. But even while going up the ramp slowly I was quite aware of my physicality, and its metaphoric connection to our topic: how apt to go up a spiral, and then go down alone, mulling over the exercise, and ending up in the bottom, back to reality. Had anything changed in those 15 minutes? Perhaps not enough. In other cases maybe I would give Seghal a slap for leaving so much of the art-making to the interpreters and the audience, but that day, I wanted to give him a slap on the back, for making me want to repeat the exercise, rediscover the Gugg, and go on a journey that let me see something without seeing anything.
Tino Seghal is up at the Guggenheim until March 10th.