So let’s get this straight from the start: what British-German artist Tino Sehgal does isn’t performance art but rather they’re “constructed situations”. The people involved – the kids dancing around the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of This is So Contemporary – aren’t “performers” but instead they must be referred to as “interpreters”. And there is no actual artwork either, no object that can be hung on a wall and then passively viewed, or worse, sold by a gallery – it’s just a fleeting event that leaves everyone involved feeling pretty pleased with themselves. Well, not quite everyone.
The two-week event is the 29th iteration of John Kaldor’s Public Art Projects. Sehgal, who has made a career from a serious-minded engagement in defying the expectations of the institutions of the art world, from its market to its veneration of the art object, has chosen to concentrate on a “social exchange of meaning” – artspeak for equalising the relationship between the artist and the public. So what is “so contemporary”? To tell it would be to spoil it for those who might intend to see it, so skip the next paragraph and meet me later for a critical debrief. For the rest, read on …
This Is So Contemporary features three interpreters dressed in gallery attendant uniforms while standing around in the foyer. Visitors are chosen at random by the trio who then suddenly spring forth, waving their arms around like jazz-handed interpretive dancers, waggling fingers and then making like the ocean, their bodies all a-quiver, while chanting in a sing-song voice “This is so contemporary, this is so contemporary …” before returning to their original positions and announcing with a little dance flourish “This is So Contemporary! Tino Sehgal! 2005! Kaldor Public Art Projects 29!”
That the kids doing the dance at the press preview had a little trouble pronouncing the word “contemporary” – instead saying con-tem-pree – is the least of the work’s problems. Nor is the fact that the work is nearly ten years old. No, its main problem is that it felt like little more than a prank. Hapless members of the public who entered the gallery during the press preview displayed a range of reactions, from the tearful ten-year-old boy to the mortified teenager, from the bemused women in their contrasting flannelette shirts and baby in a sling, to the lady who ran out of the gallery, to that handful of people who wanted to show they were in on the gag by laughing or dancing along. The social exchange of meaning was the realisation that by gosh, art can be fun. And not an object. Yay for Tino Sehgal.
At the press preview John Kaldor was personally making sure that curious members of the public didn’t take any photographs. One of Sehgal’s instructions for the piece was that there be no recordings of the event – it is meant to be a special memory for us to cherish and not to be sullied in the public memory bank of social media. I was told that Sehgal doesn’t believe in unnecessary air travel and thus left the organisation and execution of the constructed situation to a Sydney-based facilitator, and to Kaldor himself, who put his hand over the lens of a Chinese tourist’s camera, perhaps in an effort to maintain the purity of the event, or perhaps to honour the strict stipulation of the artist’s contract.
Although there’s been a lot of critical analysis of Sehgal’s work more generally, it’s hard to maintain the argument that it really does much more beyond entertainment. The conceptual basis of This is So Contemporary is also admirable on the level of an abstract idea of how one might rethink art in a gallery context, but to experience it is to have the same emotional reaction one feels when seeing a street performer hassling a passer-by, or someone on a bus ignoring the social rules and singing or dancing. Sure, it’s provocative, and maybe it’s art, but it’s also really FUCKING ANNOYING.
Published as Tino Sehgal: This is So Contemporary – review, Guardian Australia, February 2014.
©Andrew Frost 2014