by Gu Ling
(translated by Rebecca Catching)
A bright red banner proclaiming “We are the Communist Party” hung over the gates of the Shanghai Art Museum, while the headline news on that day, July 1, 2011, read “The 90th Anniversary of Founding of the Communist Party.” This also happened to be the bit of news announced as a part of Tino Sehgal’s 2003 work “This is New” at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), by two employees at the ticket booth, who will receive double pay as the reward for their service. And so Seghal’s background in Economics makes itself felt, with elements of the market economy ever present in his works.
Upon hearing the headline, a gray-haired couple broke into a broad smile. These headlines—presented everyday, concerning natural or manmade disasters, or else political developments or problems—are certainly not completely free in terms of media and expression; one imagines that they are under the control of “an invisible hand.” When these pre-selected, pre-filtered events and facts face the listeners, we get a variety of responses: there are those who are doubtful, those who have no comment, and those who are stunned into deep thought. Those who turn around immediately would have no way of knowing that it was a work by Tino Sehgal, while those who listen and follow through with the work would benefit from the extra information. This process of announcement, feedback, and further inquiry allows for a fuller understanding and grants the viewers an entirely new trajectory within the museum.
At the same time as Sehgal’s show, MoCA was also displaying works from an exhibition entitled “The Tao of Nature.” The natural light spilling into the exhibition hall brought out the best in the abstract works, while the floor-length windows along the curved stairs let in the greenery fluttering outside. Upstairs, on the second-floor opening, was where Seghal’s second work, “This is Exchange,” took place. The “interpreters,” who had gone through rounds of interviews and training, welcomed and talked with every viewer passing through this part of exhibition space. But a warning might be appropriate: this exchange is not free and unpaid, and thus quite unlike one of the enactors’ metaphor of “a Greek plaza where white-robed philosophers energetically debated” with the surrounding Doric columns sternly defending the arena of logic—and equally dissimilar to the crafted garden landscapes in the estates of the southern literati in China, who played with ink and brush and enjoyed a private erudition and elegance.
For this exchange of words, Sehgal’s script contained yet another invitation for exchange: “Hello, My name is Zhang! This is a piece by Tino Sehgal entitled ‘This is Exchange.’ This piece is an offer. We offer to pay you half of the amount you paid to enter the museum if you tell me your opinion on the market economy and discuss it with me for a while. Are you interested in this offer?”, Likewise, the carefully selected interpreters are no volunteers: at the rate of RMB 25 per hour for their “self-exhibition,” their recompense over the course of a month would amount to the monthly wage of an average white-collar employee in China (assuming a 9-to-5 work schedule).
Sehgal himself had this to say about museum spaces: “While the art museum may mostly be considered a place for art history and a classifying repository for artworks of the past, there is another perspective which to me seems far more relevant in explaining why the museum is so central to Western societies and why its role is expanding both in our societies as well as to other cultures. In short, this perspective views the museum as a place of self-government, governmentality or liberal government, as a secular ritual in which core categories that constitute the basis of our society are enacted and exercised.” (1)
“Those outside the fortress want to get in; those inside want to get out”—the French proverb on marriage having inspired the title and theme of Qian Zhongshu’s celebrated 1940s novel,Fortress Besieged—has been much quoted and is still relevant today. (2) Perhaps the proverb can equally be applied to the relationship between contemporary artists and museums. By placing his works inside the typical white and airy spaces of museums, Sehgal questions from within the identity of this space itself, the role musuems play in political, social, and economic systems, as well as the opinions and feedback from the “consumers” of museums.
Sehgal’s works consist of spontaneous conversations on-site with real people, and are based on a pre-planned “script” and defined “label” (that is, the title introduced by interpretators when they start the conversation) yet they still follow the traditional exhibition model of the museum, operating according to the opening and closing times of the institution. Surprisingly, perhaps, the vast majority of his works have been collected by museums; the Guggenheim, Tate Modern and MoMA have all collected his works at great effort and expense. First of all, the artist demands that no record of the work be left behind, which therefore requires legal personel and witnesses to be present at the transaction; second, such round-table discussions have to wait while he leisurely makes his way by train or boat, as Sehgal insists on not flying. (Presumably companies in the carbon footprint business—whether for-profit or not—must be dying to have Sehgal as their spokesman.) To that we can throw in the fact that he used to be a dancer.
Theorists from Walter Benjamin to Giorgio Agamben have described the museum in a colorful variety of metaphors: the “hidden closet of capitalism,” a drawer, a coffin, a mousetrap, and the “white cube” which we often hear on everyone’s lips. In the work “This is New,” each headline came from mass media, so it also deals with the relationship between the museum and mainstream media.
For Lu Xinghua, “Museums believe in using a critical and theoretical discourse to guide us, while the mass media tries to guide us with the zeitgeist or spirit of the time. Mass media tells us the zeitgeist of the past two weeks, and this is forced upon the viewers. Every time a museum opens it needs to repudiate what the mass media forces on viewers and the audience; the two are always in opposition.” (3) However, mass media and especially social media today are constantly redefining this zeitgeist, and moreover the right to a voice has become ever more attainable in general. The emergence offensi [a Chinese transliteration of the word “fans,” and can encompass “followers”] is also helping to strengthen, to an unprecedented degree, the discursive power of certain groups of people. If, as the curator Biljana Ciric says, Sehgal wants to give the discursive power of speaking about the market economy (which in China amounts to the same thing as talking about politics) to a public that normally does not possess it (and indeed may not care about it at all), then this may not be practical—especially when the curator and the artist discovered that those who wanted to “open their mouths and speak” amounted to no small number (85%, which was actually a lot more than previously imagined). As we all know, everyone in China has tried being a “commentator on political economy.”
So if such assigned and compensated conversations had not occurred in a museum but rather on the street or some other non-museum space (be it inside or outside) and therefore lacked the environment of the museum, then Sehgal’s critique of the museum itself would be much weakened and become a simple performance where no recording is permitted. (Sehgal himself abhors his works being described as “performance.”) Therefore, Sehgal’s choice of presenting his works within a museum space precisely highlights the museum’s functions, which have been explored by countless critics. As Lu Xinghua notes, “As soon as a product is placed in a museum, it becomes art. This process can be called ‘museum-ification.’” (4)
Whereas Liu Jianhua talks about the “authority of the museum,” Alexander Brandt touches on the difference between the museum and the studio: “The difference between the two is that in a museum the work seems finished. You cannot say it is still in an experimentation stage, but only that it is completely finished. So objects in a museum are completed; though alive, they are at the same time dead.” (5)
Sehgal puts forth the same argument in critiquing his work “Kiss”: “[My creation] is about the interaction between people, so ‘Kiss’ is a beautiful work, because it’s much more interesting than those ‘dead things’ that have materialized.” (6)
In many ways, Sehgal’s works go far beyond Hu Jieming’s idea of the museum as a “stage.” For Hu, a museum “is still a place to display artworks, whether they are physical or spiritual [i.e. non-material], for they are objects that operate on the visual level at a precise time and place.” (7) In contrast, Sehgal creates a script of real situations where real people can interact, fully mobilizing the mobility of the individual and of the surrounding social context. This is what Sehgal has referred to as “constructed situations,” parallel to which are the conditions—bare space—and the definition—fortuitous, aleatoric art.
His works have also been included in “relational aesthetics” (8) by some critics, a term that originated from the French curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who deployed this theory in studying the works of two very interesting artists among others—Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick. Tiravanjia insisted on the audience personally being present there and then (eating his Thai food) and interacting with other audience members. Liam Gillick, on the other hand, hinted at more hypothetical relations: normally these relations did not really exist, but he still emphasized that the presence of an audience was of utmost importance to his works. (9) As Liam Gillick said, “My work is like the light in the refrigerator; it will only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art—it’s something else—stuff in a room.” (10)
Relational aesthetics has characterized diverse artistic practices since the 1990s, and types of Relational Art have constructed forms of social situations which take as the starting point for creativity and reflection the human intervention of social relations. Artistic practice no longer existed in a separate and private space, while individual expression is displaced in favor of the “communal.”
For Sehgal, however, this audience that must be physically present was divided into two groups. One group consists of the “interpreters”; as the executors of the artwork, they can feel like actors, though in reality they all have their own careers (often with nothing to do with the arts). The other group is the audience, who decide of their own accord whether to participate in the work or not, and therefore decide to “sell” their product or not (i.e. their views on the market economy).
Undoubtedly, the interpreters are very important as leaders of the exchange. They have to possess a warm human touch and conversational skills. It is perhaps interesting to recount the process by which these enactors were selected. Earlier in the year, the curator Biljana Ciric sent out the call for interpreters, where she asked for “a certain understanding of the global economic situation and of political economy, as well as an interest in talking about such topics,” and a necessary ability to converse. Possible candidates were first chosen by Tino Sehgal’s assistant and Ciric, and their details were sent to Sehgal; together, they discussed and ranked the candidates. Finally came Skype interviews with Sehgal and any relevant training. According to Sehgal, he wanted enactors who were “fairly intelligent and able to speak some English, bright and academically minded.” And “they cannot discuss the art market.”
On the other hand, there were the participants, many of whom responded enthusiastically, according to the interpreters and the curator. For instance, students who had just finished their university entrance exams were more than happy to receive discounts on their tickets and talk for a while; there was even a top student in economics who completely befuddled an interpreter with a series of economic theories. And then there were some visiting or resident foreigners who, being rather familiar with the museum system and thinking that a museum is a place to view art and not to discuss economics, refused the invitation to have a conversation. Overall, though, Ciric and Sehgal were overjoyed by the “chatter boxes” in the Chinese audience.
The starting point for this project came from Ciric’s first experience of Sehgal’s work. “It was at the 2005 Venice Biennale,” Ciric recounts, “and there were a whole bunch of people crowded around looking at a boring sculpture. Suddenly, out of the crowd skipped three middle-aged men and women all wearing the same suit, dancing in a comical way, waving their hands and kicking their legs up. Drawing smiles and chuckles from the crowd, they shouted, ‘This is so contemporary, so contemporary, so contemporary.’ At the time no one knew why but they could not help but laugh. At that time I didn’t even know who Tino Sehgal was.” (11)
In an evaluation of his own work, Sehgal says: “I feel like the works [displayed in the museum] can be about the work people are doing—not the people, but things they are doing. For me, ‘This is so Contemporary’ is the same as an installation, like an installation with three walls that moves forwards towards you and then backs off. But this space is made up of three people in a mood of celebration.” (12) This curiosity perhaps comes from Sehgal’s childlike sensibility, or maybe his playfulness.
As for his works’ criticism of the art system, Sehgal said, “I feel the twentieth century was driven by the question of ‘how’—how am I a product, or how am I connected to these people? […] And what kind of ethics does this imply? [Therefore] my works are misread as ‘resisting the market’ by some in the art world. What I’m challenging is the economic basis of taking the exchange of material production as the end, and the subsequent values/worldview and social phenomena.” (13) The questions Sehgal asks of the art market are in fact his skepticism towards the current economic system. Through the peculiar ways of buying and selling [his] works, he hopes to effect a change in economic preconditions and requirements.
As I was leaving the Shanghai MoCA, I noticed a crowd huddling around the interpreter on her shift. She invited more and more people passing through into the conversation, and the circle kept growing. Seeing a group of completely unacquainted folks in the same space at the same time talking together, with their parallel lives bent into an interlinking circle, was for me perhaps the most poetic and human aspect of Sehgal’s work.
When and where to see Tino Sehgal’s project (part of “Taking the Stage Over,” curated by Biljana Ciric):
June 21-July 10
Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai. Opening hours: 10 am to 6 pm, Mon to Sun.
July 19-August 21
Minsheng Museum, Shanghai. Opening hours: 10 am to 9 pm, Tue to Sun.
Rockbund Museum, Shanghai. Opening hours: 10 am to 6 pm, Tue to Sun.
In 2012, Tino Sehgal will be having an exhibition in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, where “Sunflower Seeds” had just been exhibited by the recently released Ai Weiwei. Born in 1976 in London, with a Pakistani father and a German mother, Sehgal grew up in Dusseldorf and Paris, and went on to study political economy and dance, which later become the two poles of his artistic creation. In 2000, he officially became an artist.
Voices of the Participants:
Interpreter, drama performer
We are required to follow strict rules and to state the topic clearly. But we aren’t just standing there like a rock, or like a computer—we are made of flesh and blood, so accidents and conflicts will happen. This opportunity of working with Sehgal gave me the chance to practice my own work. For me, topics could involve things around economics, like politics or communication and so on. But calling this my work, or a work within a work is just a matter of speaking; what’s key is that we carry out these exchanges and experiments.
We need this kind of work, the whole world needs this kind of work. We can explain this need this way: with all this mass of jumbled up information and data out there, our brains can only take so much and choose to remember what’s important and necessary for us. So we remember Van Gogh, Picasso, da Vinci, since we need their creations. In the same way, we take part in Tino Sehgal’s work and discuss it because we need this.
As Biljana Ciric said, the target of Sehgal’s criticism is the museum system. At the end of 2010, I carried out a three-week residency project at the Natural History Museum in London. (1) My main focus was the John Reeves Collection, and I created a piece that was related to this collection. The work is now being shown at the museum and will be on show until the end of December. (2)
The museum system there [in the UK] dates back a couple of centuries and has developed really, really well. As a project participant, I could access the museum warehouse, archives, and borrowing privileges with my staff access card. But the really important thing was how bright light shone throughout the atmosphere of the musuem, which is completely different from the Shanghai Natural History Museum—gloomy, unchanging, and lifeless. (3)
(1) This project was held at the London Natural History Museum in conjunction with Gasworks, and it asks the artists to build a work based on an engagement with the museum’s collection.
(2) A portion of the collection including works from 1812-1831 is called the John Reeves Collection, which involved over 2000 drawings and watercolors of Chinese natural species by local Chinese craftsmen.
(3) Author’s note: to this day, I can still remember that mottled olive-green wall and the big dinosaur specimen that inspired such terror
Member of the audience, artist
“This is Exchange” has an interesting subject and form, which I experienced in person as a member of the audience. As someone from the 80s generation, we don’t really have a deep, first-hand experience of China’s planned economy before the reforms, but we did witness the transition. This actually isn’t an abstract topic but has everything to do with all the different aspects of life. To get such content from participants through this topic provides a great deal of freedom. I think what he has achieved is definitely connected with the basic structure of the art system in the West as well as the room to maneuver within this structure—like the structure of public opinion and the audience, etc.
In my view, an artist’s job is to collect, and the works should on a certain level reach an intricate assembly: to gather people around and entrust them with a power of “transmission” and allow for the chance to speak out. Of course, he is still working within the system and brings along some values within the system. There is a “skillful” (qiao) formal element in his work; he molds a scene that is relaxed and uncertain, letting enactors lead participants along with these so-called rules.
Even though it was first created in 2003, bringing this work to China means this kind of “constructed situation” would change, since the environment is different—especially in China, where there is a lot of uncertainty. Chinese people wash down politics everyday with their liquor over dinner; it’s actually common and also unrecorded. What’s special about what he has done is to let this happen.
Notes (for the main text):
(1) Excerpt from an upcoming text by Tino Sehgal in Artforum.
(2) Full quote of the proverb: “Marriage is like a fortress under siege: those outside the fortress want to get in; those inside want to get out” (Le marriage est comme une forteresse assiégée: ceux qui sont dehors veulent y entrer; ceux qui sont dedans veulent en sortir).
(3) The quotes from Hu Jieming, Alexander Brandt and others came from the talk “Future Holiday” at the installation of the Liu Wei show at Minsheng Museum on March 14, 2011.
(7) From the talk “Future Holiday,” op. cit.
(8) Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle (Paris: Les presses du réel, 1998), 113.
(9) This paraphrases Claire Bishop: “I have chosen to discuss the examples of Gillick and Tiravanija because they seem to me the clearest expression of Bourriaud’s argument that relational art privileges intersubjective relations over detached opticality. Tiravanija insists that the viewer be physically present in a particular situation at a particular time—eating the food that he cooks, alongside other visitors in a communal situation.” Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,”October 110 (Fall 2004): 51-79.
(11) Interview with Biljana Ciric.
(12) Artbaba. Op. cit.