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Issue 21

Welcome to this Situation: Tino Sehgal in Amsterdam

On the occasion of his two surveys in Amsterdam and Berlin, two variations on Tino Sehgal

BY Oscar van den Boogaard in Features | 18 AUG 15

Light triggers a different awareness than darkness. The world that you see is different from the world that you hear, smell and feel. Recently I went to a so-called ‘Dark Restaurant’ in Berlin, where diners eat in total darkness served by blind and visually-impaired waiters. It was a matter of trust, because I couldn’t see what I was putting into my mouth. My senses were acute. I had no idea my taste buds were able to taste in three dimensions. I tried to see with my ears. From the voices around me, I tried to visualize the surrounding people. I learned that you do not need eyes to be able to see with hair-fine precision.

I remember the first time I dared follow men into the park at night. I was curious about where they were going. They dissolved into the darkness, reappearing a little later as vague figures. Standing still, walking behind one another, lighting a cigarette. It was my image of purgatory, a world of searching souls, where the threshold between life and death fades.

In June, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam I stepped once more into the darkness. This time it was to see This Variation (2012–13) by Tino Sehgal, currently exhibited halfway through the museum’s year-long survey of the artist’s work.

As I entered, my body dissolved into the limitless black. The space dissolved and so did time. I do not know how long it took before I could make out the other bodies’ silhouettes. Ten minutes, half an hour? It was as if a day were starting, very slowly: a new day in a new world.

Figures were eating, sat on the ground, standing in the space, leaning against the walls. Who were the interpreters of the work? Who were the spectators?

A ‘zoom’ sound rose up from the silence. It turned into humming and vocal percussion. A human beatbox. The sound of lips and breathing. The beating heart of the world. Sometimes it died and then it returned again. It was a ceremony. A shamanistic séance. A Dada gathering. Whistling, swelling, shouts.

I had entered This Variation by Tino Sehgal once before, at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. During the first days at Kassel I had felt myself a spectator, but I was absorbed into Tino Sehgal’s work as an insider. I suddenly felt how much I had been missing in contemporary art.

I remember a man’s hand taking hold of me and a voice whispering into my ear: ‘I’m pickin’ up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations (oom bop bop), I’m pickin’ up good vibrations (good vibrations, oom bop bop), she’s giving me excitations (excitations, oom bop bop), good, good, good, good vibrations (oom bop bop), she’s giving me excitations (excitations, oom bop bop), good, good, good, good vibrations (oom bop bop), she’s giving me excitations (excitations)’. Other voices joined in – a choir, a row dance – it swelled and became increasingly exuberant. It felt like the dawning of a new era. I had never experienced an artwork that was so impassioned – impassioned by the performers’ energy, but also by the energy of the spectators with whom I shared the same experience.

In Amsterdam This Variation was a new experience altogether, maybe because the work has evolved since then, but also because I have changed. I stayed longer, for an hour. A couple of hours. The voices were like insects in an oversensitive world. The jungle world of Douanier Rousseau in which every square centimetre is teeming with life. Arousing, physical, close-by. Stories were told about injustice, and personal confidences made about insecurity. ‘The income derived from producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence.’ The sentences were repeated by various interpreters, inverted, questioned. A whole discussion about things of lesser and greater consequence. A boy said that he always tries to flirt but feels insecure. In the silence that followed, we took our distance from those words, which resonated a while before fading. The interpreters then slowly got going once more; first one, then the others, then all of them. It came in waves, from arduous to ecstatic. Again and again.

From silence to head-banging. And sometimes there was a touch. And at times the light came on for a moment. The eyes of a young woman who was standing close to me were downcast, but suddenly they looked at me, as if it were the first meeting ever in a new world. And then she whispered ‘give it to me’. They all cried ‘give it to me’ and then they repeated the refrain of Madonna’s song. I felt as if they were speaking to me. I too have to be generous, to give. One of the interpreters pronounced the title of the piece, the year, and then began a new cycle of silence and waves.

After the dark room came the lit room. I stood face-to-face with the enormous Cathedra (1951) by Barnett Newman. The intensity of Cathedra arose through the way Newman built up the painting in six separate layers of paint and different kinds of blue pigment. That allowed him to create a deep, richly-varied colour plane that evokes a spatial illusion. After the experience in This Variation, I could enter the painting as limitless blue.

With Cathedra Newman was referring to the Old Testament: the blue dome of the sky and the throne of God. During the act of painting the spiritually-minded Newman felt connected with higher spheres and the mysteries of life. This can also be said of Sehgal’s work. His work has an influence on how you experience reality. It makes you sensitive and alert. It has the power to transform spectators into new people. It has to be continually passed on in order to exist. It shall therefore always be young and alive, in the here and now. Always connected to the commitment and the faith of those who perform it, and fed by their life energy.
Translated by Kate Christina Mayne

Oscar van den Boogaard is a Dutch novelist and playwright who lives in Ghent and Brussels, Belgium and Berlin, Germany. His work has been widely translated. His novel Love’s Death (2001) was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the artistic director of the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium.