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.