Tino Sehgal Doesn’t Make Much Progress

02/23/2010 12:36 PM |

I can’t get over the feeling that I wrecked my enjoyment of Tino Sehgal’s This Progress at the Guggenheim by thinking about it too much. I know writing such things makes me sound anti-intellectual, but seeing as how I went from genuinely liking the piece to leaving angry, there might be some substance behind these worries.

Now entirely emptied of its contents save for visitors, Sehgal’s exhibition at the Guggenheim consists of two pieces: The Kiss, a performance in which two people make out in slow motion in the rotunda space, and This Progress, an experiential work that takes place on the ramps of the museum. There’s a little too much this-is-a-really-important-kiss-because-it’s-deliberate-art feel to the former, but Sehgal’s primary piece boasts a few more memorable moments. The most enjoyable part of The Kiss was witnessing a one-year-old baby frantically crawling toward the performers as though it wanted to participate. A parent intervened, and that was the end of that.

The show’s centerpiece, This Progress, begins at the foot the museum’s rotunda with a small girl asking your definition of progress, and ends with at the top of the ramp with a middle-aged person talking abstractly about the concept. In short, volunteers discussing the idea of progress guide a visitor’s entire walk through the museum. The physical representation of this idea seemed rather elegant as I walked up the ramp with my tour guide, though that assessment only held true so long as I didn’t think about it at great length. It is, after all, an awfully simplistic representation of a complex idea.

During my walking tour, I told the little girl at the beginning that progress probably had something to do with development. “At one point, we didn’t have toasters, now we do.” I worried this was a dumb answer—but then, what was the likelihood that a child no older than seven was going to know the difference? I didn’t bother mentioning that progress, as far as I’d defined it, was wholly connected to family legacy: my great-grandfather invented the toaster for Westinghouse in 1910.

When the little girl passed me off to the next docent, she explained to a 15-year-old girl that I thought progress was technological innovation. I was impressed with her summary. The teenager was not. “We’re stuck to our cell phones,” she told me hotly. I had a slightly more practical take on the matter, having gone through high school without one. “But if our car breaks down, we can call someone to help us,” I started. I only got about half way into this rebuttal before a man a little older than myself interrupted and began discussing nostalgia.

One more docent walked with me after this, but by this time I was mildly annoyed for having my conversations interrupted. Why did Tino Sehgal get to dictate the terms of my progress? Was progress nothing but a constructed story he’d taken the liberty to choreograph himself?

I took the tour again, determined to draw further meaning out of the work. A different, still younger child greeted me this time. “What do you think progress is?” she chirped. I wasn’t sure she would like my thoughts on the matter, so I asked her what she thought. The girl smiled, drew a deep breath, and recited a line, “I’m really more interested in what you have to say.”

“Fuck Tino Sehgal” I thought. Good art is supposed to challenge the viewer, but I wasn’t sure I liked the results. “It doesn’t exist” I conceded. “It’s just a story we tell ourselves so we can function in the world.” Thankfully, she didn’t understand.

10 Comment

  • Isn’t the point of piece like this to create a different experience for each vistor, one personal to their interaction with the piece?

    Just because you were frustrated with the terms of the interaction, doesn’t mean the piece was unsuccessful.

    You went from liking it to NOT, is that not a type of progress? (even if it results in a negative opinion)

  • Love the answer! re: Progress… “It doesn’t exist” I conceded. “It’s just a story we tell ourselves so we can function in the world.” Thanks for sharing this!

  • You are a very bitter woman. Your critiques continually bore me to death. I guess I keep reading them because it’s like juicy gossip… Like “Seven days in the art world” with a hipster edge.

  • Refreshing to read this take on the show. I can relate to your response. the Patty Jonestown commenter seems to be projecting with some weirdly irrelevant sexist insults. Sock puppet for for Tino?

  • Paddy. This just reads like a description of your inability to experience the artwork. “Why did Tino Sehgal get to dictate the terms of my progress?” He’s the artist, that’s why. Am I missing something? “I took the tour again, determined to draw further meaning out of the work.” What meaning was that? You don’t even discuss it. Why did you need more? You didn’t like the results? What results? I personally think the Sehgal piece is fantastic, so I’d like to actually know why you don’t like it, if in fact you don’t.

  • I saw the same piece in the ICA a couple of years ago, and it was literally one of the most thought-provoking experiences I’ve ever had. I loved it. Here’s the exact point at which the reviewer went wrong, I reckon: “I took the tour again, determined to draw further meaning out of the work.” It’s not a game to be beaten, or even a puzzle to be figured out. And the first time is always the best, of course. Better to stew in the incompleteness of it, or draw your own conclusions. When the whole piece is a question, how can you blame it for not providing any answers?

  • nick, your resolution that “he’s the artist, that’s why” is extraordinarily troubling. perhaps you are forming an interpretation that centers around the facilitation of the audience’s progress through the piece. because, yes, in fact Paddy did progress from one state of opinion to another. (we can now applaud and congratulate Tino on his meta implications.) but hold on, this skirts the most potent idea in Tino’s piece: namely that progress is defined throughout history by dominant forms of power. Tino’s piece takes place in a powerful art gallery. Tino is an artist who exercises power of representation by disallowing photos. Tino enables the experience and the parameters of that experience; he doesn’t just plop people into a space and tell them to talk about progress, he plots an escalation of inquiry which never actually breaches into the realm of applicable philosophy; in other words it remains cute and contained; it’s a gimmick, mind you a very well conceived one. when one steps into a performance one is entering into a contract, if you are ok with this contract then by all means enjoy “the incompleteness” as thoughtwax put it, but know you are depriving yourself of the ability the challenge the apparatus. why couldn’t Paddy vehemently question the child for an answer until the kid went off crying and Paddy was thrown out of the gallery? (why: a multitude of reasons, one of which is the child is relatively innocent.) we like to be tickled, and when someone can tickle us the right way, it is pleasant and we kindly ignore the motivations behind the tickling, and escape into reverie. but, nick, ask yourself if the artist actually deserves the power you so easily relinquish. what are his motivations? how is he benefiting from your participation?

  • When you look at a Chardin, do you complain about how the artist is controlling your experience of the painting? Do you ask, WHO is Chardin to dictate the terms of my visual perception?! When you walk into a museum you presuppose that your experience is going to be curated, crafted, controlled. That’s art. My comment “He’s the artist, that’s why” was also directed at the fact that the review just throws around sassy claims without really justifying them or explaining them. Paddy complains about Sehgal “dictating the terms of her progress” without saying why the complaint is legitimate. I think the piece deserves more illuminating critical treatment, even if at the end of the day the criticism is negative.

    Your understanding of the significance of the work just seems wrong, or at least short-sighted. You say that Sehgal “plots an escalation of inquiry which never actually breaches into the realm of applicable philosophy.” I don’t know what you mean by “applicable philosophy”, but above someone says “it was literally one of the most thought-provoking experiences I’ve ever had” — is that applicable enough? Or do you want to characterize that as “an escape into reverie”? That strikes me as a bad (presumptuous) mischaracterization. For all you know these could have been thoughts about how to “challenge the apparatus”.

    For my own part, one thing the work forced me to do was to reconsider the assumptions I make about strangers. I had a series of unusually deep conversations that revealed how much I have in common with complete strangers, which in my everyday practical moods I write off as completely “other”. What a dangerous mistake! The piece put pressure on me to revise my view and feel the weight of that convenient mistake. And to the extent that I DO revise my view, haven’t I made some progress? It’s not merely “cute and contained,” or a “gimmick”.

    Another feature of your interpretation that seems totally wrong (or at least out of left field) is the claim that Sehgal’s work embodies the idea “that progress is defined throughout history by dominant forms of power.” Were you reading Foucault while walking up the ramp instead of talking to your guides? You were the one asked to define progress, not Sehgal. And whatever answer you gave was respectfully and critically probed by successive guides. I really don’t see where your political, and honestly rather tired, interpretation comes in. It’s not a potent idea, even if it were in the piece.

  • Like almost all ‘conceptual art’ this piece flatters itself with the conceit that ritual and ambiguity are commensurate with deep and meaningful intellectual endeavor. It isn’t. It is the shallow indulgence of lazy, and poorly read adolescents. A little thought experiment: after reading the descriptions and reviews (which are all mind numbingly similar) have you formed any insight or awareness that you did not previously posses?
    Art is “fetishistic” to the degree that it does have the power of magic to transform, transport, and reinvent the world through shared experience rather than shared indulgence. Duchamp was a game player, but most of his games weren’t very interesting. He lived outside of human experience and his contribution to it was parochial and provincial; he never ventured too far from the small salon of ‘artistic’ thinking. Most of the heavy lifting was done later by his apologists and critics. Sorry, Paul, this crap leaves me cold. And once again the emporer’s state of sartorial neglect has been witnessed.

  • I was one of the interpreters of “This Progress.” One of the old ones, who picked up the conversation at the 5th level. I can’t tell from your account that you actually got through the work. At any rate, you miss the point spectacularly. Even some of the least sophisticated of the museum visitors got it.

    You were coming to the museum not to see a work of art but to help us make a work of art. You crapped out. You were not anti-intellectual; you were both cynical and completely mistaken about why you were there.

    Had you entered the museum, as one should always enter a museum, in a spirit of creative play, ready to deal with what you found there, you might have found us more interested in you.

    You obviously failed to engage with the teenager, who came up the back stairs and gave us a description of you and a summary of the conversation. For people like you, the teenager might have, “it’s the blonde in a blue hoody. S/he is a dud. ‘Progress is technological innovation.’ S/he doesn’t have any ideas.” I might asked, “Is s/he talkative?” To which the answer might be, “Yeah. S/he is a smart ass. Might be an art world person.”

    If such reports were confirmed by the first part of my conversation, after I met the person, I would often, say, when we reached the gift shop on the sixth level, “Perhaps you want to stop in her. They have some books on art and a lot of nice things.”