BY Catherine Wood in Reviews | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

Tino Sehgal

BY Catherine Wood in Reviews | 12 MAY 05

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. As soon as I entered the ICA’s upstairs gallery, housing Tino Sehgal’s This Objective of That Object (2004), a number of people who at first appeared to be fellow gallery visitors milling about, performed a disconcertingly swift manoeuvre, assuming positions in a circular formation around me, their backs turned so that their faces could not be seen. Standing still, they began to chant in unison, their voices rising from whispers to loud assertions; ‘the objective of the work is to become the object of discussion’. At first I understood this comfortably as a pointer to the work’s status as ‘conversation piece’. But then the actors began responding to my own actions (specifically, the sound of my footsteps), and I realized with some alarm that it was me that was becoming the object of discussion, triggering a chain of improvised dialogue. At the end of the sequence the actors deliberately ‘broke’ and engaged in ‘chat’ in an apparently ordinary way. Against the highly stylized backdrop of the preceding sequence, this felt disturbingly super-real.
Spectator paranoia has its art-historical roots in Michael Fried’s 1967 essay about the lurking presence of Minimalist sculpture. Fried famously objected to Minimalism’s theatricality because he felt the work was incomplete without him, and therefore appeared to be ‘lying in wait’. Sehgal pushes this notion to an extreme; in This Objective of That Object his actors are instructed to look out for approaching visitors to the space as their cue to begin, amplifying the encounter in radiating convulsions of explicit recognition. In many of his works, such as those in which he gives acting instructions to the gallery guards, audience dynamics are unexpectedly switched to foreground the activity of viewing, reversing Brian O’Doherty’s perception of the death of the spectatorial subject, who, inside the white cube, becomes the disembodied ‘eye’.
Sehgal’s work operates specifically within the parameters of the gallery, but he does not produce objects as such. At the ICA the space contained only actors, and the work is not documented in any way. His framing of human relations could position him as the textbook successor to Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of ‘relational aesthetics’. But with a background in dance and political economics, Sehgal takes an oblique and critical perspective. Both This Objective … and the piece shown in the lower gallery at the ICA, Instead of Allowing Some Thing to Rise Up to Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things (2000), are primarily forms of sculpture, then social experiment. Both address the problem of material overproduction by positing that gesture or speech, when framed by the gallery space, are enough of an ‘object’ themselves, complete with all the latent and potent implications of portability.
The artist’s conceptual framework is productively disrupted by the fact that he looks for participants whose own interests can feed into his set of behavioural instructions: for example, those with a knowledge of philosophy or politics, which can be drawn on in the improvised dialogue. Despite this individualist input, and the charge of the work’s confrontation and immediacy, Sehgal distances himself from historical ‘Performance art’. The choreographed instructions of both pieces are performed by a rolling cast of substituted ‘interpreters’, a practical fact which in itself sidesteps the connotations of the artist’s ‘authentic’ live presence. With its slow-motion delivery of the title’s promise, Instead of Allowing … seemed like a representation of fragments from art history remembered through the body, or a joke about the death throes of the Performance genre. The performers never ‘open’ their subjectivity in the manner of, say, Marina Abramovic. The self-conscious paranoia induced by Sehgal’s open invitation to probe the boundaries of this work represents a transfer of emotional vulnerability, displacing the revelation of internal subjectivity from the performer to the – perhaps involuntary – spectator who is framed as though on stage.
It is worth comparing the experience of this piece with Artangel’s recent presentation of Gregor Schneider’s Der Familie Schneider (2004). Where Schneider located the uncanny spectator–actor encounter within a specific narrative installation, Sehgal uses the blank gallery backdrop to heighten the charge of the encounter in an abstract way. In this, his work has more in common with the phenomenological inquiries of Robert Morris. However Sehgal’s use of actors inserts psychological interplay into a situation that foregrounds the relationship between physical being and cognition. Never represented in photographic form, the work operates at the thinnest boundary between art and life, its status as an object resting on the spectator’s understanding of the performative iteration ‘This Is…’.
The success of Sehgal’s elaborately economical show – the first in a three-part retrospective over the next three years – is evident in the fact that his stripping away of the object does not simply read as a ‘radical gesture’. Neither is his work naively optimistic about the pleasure of participation; he scores a razor-sharp path between the popular notion of ‘interactivity’ and the discomfort of alienation.

Catherine Wood is a curator, writer, and art historian specialising in performance and the cross-disciplinary within the field of modern and contemporary art.