The Memory of this Show Will Fade Away, and There is No Tech to Hold it Back
Tino Sehgal, one of the most acclaimed players on the contemporary art scene, creates memorable “memento mori” experiences that leave no traces.
All online links to the Tino Sehgal show at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin that ended on August 8th, 2015 have already been removed. I am writing down from memory what the experience of the exhibition was like, before it, too, fades away.
Prior to entering Martin Gropius Bau, little did I know about Tino Sehgal’s work, except that it had been performed at prestigious art institutions. Good friends recommended I visit the show during my Berlin visit. Strangely, I couldn’t spot a single poster of it in the city.
I was nonetheless bracing myself for a lengthy wait outside the building, based on previous experiences of major exhibitions. Upon parking my bike in the shade of the trees next to the entrance, I saw there was no one waiting outside but the bus loads aiming at the “Topography des Terrors” memorial next door.
Enjoying the breezy cool of the entrance hall, I almost stumble towards the ticket desk, still wary that there may be something wrong. But no, all is fine, I purchase the tickets and in we go.
Dialogues of Bodies and Voices in the Space
We are let in to an empty space, empty walls, with just a pair, entangled in a slowly moving embrace on the bare floor, and scattered watching individuals sitting on the stairs around the large central patio.
I sit down too. I watch. I wonder whether the scene is about a morning situation and the lovers would get up to a dancing coffee routine. Watching longer, I recognize shapes seen before, in paintings, in sculptures. The slow moving embrace continues. I feel for the interpreters, vaguely envious. “The Kiss” , created 2007 in Chicago, slows down the lovers embrace in a routine that flashes memories of previous art works at the spectator.
Apparently, on opening night the situation in the patio was a different one, with singers on each corner of the large space. Now, it is from a darkened room on the side that rhythm spills onto “The Kiss” and attracts me away from it. The arguably most immersive piece of the show takes place in almost complete darkness, where 20 or so interpreters briskly move around while singing and snapping. The atmosphere is vaguely tribal and plainly enjoyable once you get used to the loss of visual guidance and melt into the waves of sounds and movement of the variations of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”. Where “The Kiss” was about slowing down, “This Variation” is about dissolving in music and movement.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, “This situation” relies entirely on spoken words and critical dialogues. A handful of interpreters discuss topics of economy and gender-equality. I jump into the conversation, and at first I enjoy looking for the next opportunity to make a pointed comment. Quickly though the predictability of arguments tires me and I leave the room.
Most touching to me is a piece where two dancers sit very close to each other on the floor but do not embrace, and move slowly, exploring the endless variations of placing two heads, pairs of shoulders, torsi, pairs of legs in a limited space. They perform a singing dialogue of high pitched female chanting and low pitched male humming. I enjoy watching the moving composition and its subtle evolutions.
Finally, the largest room is occupied only by a standing talking girl who is around 9 years old. Her long wavy hear is neatly combed, her jeans and sweater are nondescript, but she emanates a strong presence. Her text is about people she met. She asks direct questions, like “Would you prefer to be too busy, or not have enough to do?”. It is a bit unsettling, this child making us adults self-conscious of our habit to over-busy ourselves. The performance reminds me of the sculptures of Ron Mueck, where hyperrealism collides with unreal size.
Leave No Traces
The work of Tino Sehgal is often discussed in the context of the mechanisms of the art market. But as a visitor, it is its reliance on the exchange, on the body and on physical memories what I find most interesting.
No other information had reached me about the show than my friends’ advice to go and visit. I knew of the institution that hosted the show, but the lack of visible information in the city irritated me nonetheless. After having seen the exhibition, I feel more grateful to my friend for the knowledge he has passed on to me. And as I am writing this piece while official pages about the event have been disconnected, I feel a bit like a guide to otherwise hidden treasures.
I have come to understand that the objects produced in art are nothing but the material traces of a once active energy, and that it is that energy collectors and visitors seek to connect to. A Sehgal exhibition displays nothing but this energy in action. As a visitor, being invited to focus on one energy profile at a time — quiet and deep, or fast paced and forceful — enables to tune into that same wavelength, connecting to ones own emotions in that range of physical experience.
But I find that the most relevant aspect of the work of Tino Sehgal is that it places the live human body, its means and its expressions in the center, leaving out robots, digital helpers and other datified traces of life which are more and more surrounding us and making us dumb and numb. The live pieces, and the fact that written or other traces of the shows such as catalogues, posters, contracts, descriptions… are not produced, make memory the only path back to the works. The interpreters will carry the works in the memory of their body. The visitors will remember what they have experienced. The curators will remember the preparations and negotiations. And all these memories will fade in these bodies and in these brains.
We can accept the limitations of our body and our memory, become aware of them and maybe even enjoy them as they clearly make us human. That in itself has a healing energy.