Tino Sehgal, the thirteenth artist commissioned to fill Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, has created a much-anticipated ‘constructed situation’ which builds upon the choreographed conversational encounters that have dominated his practice since the early noughties. These Associations (2012) takes on the super-human scale of the hall from multiple perspectives with an elaborate routine which can be viewed by spectators en masse from the museum bridge and upper galleries as well as experienced face to face at ground level. Around seventy performers wearing street clothes loiter along the ramp near the museum entrance or collect at the far end of the hall. This inconspicuously hired crowd mixes with visitors who soon find themselves the accidental confidants to a strange assortment of personal tales related by the performers: a son’s unsuccessful attempt to teach his ageing father how to swim; a screening of the Disney film Dumbo (1941) in a Spanish café which generates a Proustian moment; a young woman’s anxiety about submerging her head in the bath. The stories break off slowly as the performers move back and forth across the length of the hall – an almost imperceptible collective shift which slowly energizes to a crescendo of joyful sprinting, at times accruing the extra bodies of excitable children or visitors emerging from another exhibition inside the museum. At still other moments, chatter ceases, and a chorus of voices grows into a particular ‘song’, such as the melodic chanting of the word ‘electricity’, synchronized to the flickering of fluorescent lights overhead.
These Associations riffs on some past performances at Tate Modern, knowingly or not: Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008), a sinister exercise in crowd control with mounted police, or Trisha Brown’s Leaning Duets (1970) staged on the entry ramp and visible from several levels above. At Tate Britain, Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 (2008) saw sprinters race through the Duveen Galleries. Sehgal seems to collage these and other contemporary art ‘associations’ together in an attempt to multiply (inter)subjective relations. The titular plural ‘These’ contrasts the signature singular ‘this’ from earlier works: This is good (2001), This is propaganda (2002), This is exchange (2004), This objective of that object (2004), This is so contemporary (2005), This Variation (2012). But the manoeuvre between a collective body and individual viewers in These Associations ultimately feels forced: a one-way performance with an aestheticized conversational element which seems to be inspired by loose theoretical concepts – about affect or memory – and has been staged by the performers as personal narratives. In this contained relation, does the viewers’ participation influence the course of Sehgal’s dance? Are they granted any agency?
These Associations debuted just after the opening of the Tanks, a former oil well reserve converted into a space for performance and installation inside Tate Modern (Sehgal’s work accompanies the inaugural season’s programme, The Tanks: Art in Action, of live dance and performance). With this expansion, the museum’s recuperation of the former Bankside Power Station is complete. The new space thus appears as a grand metaphor for (cultural) energy in a post-industrial, service-industry economy, where the body is easily fetishized as bearer of the ‘real’. Sehgal augments this fetishization by refusing to leave any material traces of his works: no objects, no documentation, nor photographs of them (this piece included). His emphasis on the ephemeral moment and his understanding of performance as simultaneous production and de-production stem from an ecological critique of supply-side economics. But while refusing the archival impulse of the museum, he still relies on its contextual support. Unlike Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike 1977–1980 (1974), Sehgal does not disrupt the economic structures of the art world but reaffirms the viability of service goods, whether ecological or not.
Without documentation, Sehgal’s many compositions elude close reading, even critique, to become subsumed by the persona of an artistic genius whose work can be known by experience only. These Associations has been executed in a way to ensure that it is remembered as anecdote and will be later compelled by the art institution into the realm of myth. This tight control over such an ambitious performance of seemingly open associations is not only paradoxical but also somewhat reductive. This fixation on encounters with the ‘real’ – chance or constructed – verges on iconoclasm, but without truly dematerializing the art work.