Possessed of two alternate titles – This Success (2007) or This Failure (2007) – the third of Tino Sehgal’s trilogy of annual exhibitions curated by Jens Hoffmann at the ICA, London, felt like a fork in the road, and both an end and a beginning. As Hoffmann’s final show as the ICA’s Director of Exhibitions, it marked not only the curator’s departure, but also the start of a new collaboration with Sehgal, with whom he plans to produce a four-year-long exhibition commencing this summer at the CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, where he is now Director. Its perhaps appropriate, then, that this farewell to the Old World came in the form of a roomful of children – there’s nothing like kids to remind us of who we once were, and of the future that waits around the corner.
Confined to the ICA’s lower gallery, Sehgal’s show, as with all his works to date, contained nothing in the way of objects, or the textual paraphernalia that usually accompanies their display. Instead, the white cuboid of the exhibition space was occupied with some twenty or so primary school children and a couple of adult chaperones engaged, depending on sugar levels, tiredness, and the shifting sands of group dynamics, in various forms of organized or anarchic play. When a new visitor entered the room, one of these children would peel away from their game, introduce themselves, and announce either ‘I think this work is called This Success’ or ‘I think this work is called This Failure’. On both occasions I visited the show, my meet ‘n’ greeter opted for This Success, one on grounds of hedonism (‘we’re having fun’), and the other due to the piece’s fulfillment of a Hobbesian social contract (‘no-one’s fighting and everyone’s playing fair’). This exposition
over, the visitor was invited to join in the game. My first trip saw me involved in a rowdy bout of tag, the second in a chair-less game of musical chairs. Somehow, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Kosuth.
In analyzing This Success / This Failure it’s probably helpful to first dispense with the obvious. Yes, its medium differentiates it from, and may be read as a critique of, art that’s bound up with commodity capitalism (see also the history of the dematerialization of the art object). Yes, the limited self-determination of its medium calls the notion of the author into question, and posits art as a social moment (see also Roland Barthes, and various iterations of ‘relational aesthetics’). Yes, these things challenge the notion of the public gallery or museum as a didactic, citizen-shaping device (see also, awkwardly, the fact that the ICA is constituted as a private members’ club). While these are an important set of coordinates, it is the specific grain of This Success / This Failure, its look and feel, on which much of its status as triumph or fiasco turns. Perhaps this is why the scuffs and dirty hand marks on the gallery walls possessed such an odd fascination. We might read them as territorial marks, or as paintings made by the roughhousing children, hung at child height. Similarly, it’s the kids’ uniforms – with their connotations of bored school parties misbehaving in provincial museums – that really brought home Sehgal’s reconfiguration of the gallery from a space of pedagogy to a place of play.
For all the undoubted cuteness of Sehgal’s young interpreters, the exhibition was not without its darker corners. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing a group of children negotiate an all-too-inevitable pecking order, and while Sehgal’s demand that they pass judgment on his work might appear to flip institutional authority on its head, its binary phrasing replicates the language of embedded power, and invites them to also use it to judge themselves. These complications of the work’s utopian aspects (‘underneath the gallery floor, the playground!’) lent it punch, as did the elephant in the room – adults’ complicated feelings towards children. In a country in which tabloid campaigns against paedophilia have led to a paediatrician’s surgery being attacked by an angry mob, there’s something a little unsettling about being invited to play with a stranger’s kid. Similarly, while a child may symbolize hope, they also remind us of our imminent passing – a memento mori grinning with milk teeth. Ultimately, the most telling aspect of This Success / This Failure was that at no point did his interpreters ask the adult visitor to ascribe it a title. The implication’s clear: this is art for the future, grandpa. The best you can do is sit on the sidelines, or chase it breathlessly around the room.