More Than a Fleeting Glance: Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim
Sunlight flooded the white foyer at the center of the Guggenheim, empty except for a boy and a girl wearing grey low-rise jeans and green tee shirts, pressing their hips, their lips, and their foreheads together in front of a crowd. A spectator in a fur coat turned from them with pursed lips. “Vulgar,” she said. An older couple took a seat on a stone bench, their backs to a wishing fountain floored with pennies, and seemed to be trying to figure out just where the art was in this new generation. An overweight couple joined hands, moved to a periphery of the performance space, and started their own slow motion make-out session, smiling smugly as if they were the first pair to think of such a thing. “Kiss,” a performance piece created by Tino Sehgal in 2002, in which two professional dancers press against each other, is the first work you will see when entering the Guggenheim (on until March 10th). But the distance established between performer and viewer will be quickly dissolved as you make your way up the first white ramp of the Guggenheim spiral.
A small boy with sand-colored hair thrust his arm at me. I gave him my hand to shake. “Hi. I’m Aiden,” he said quietly. “This is a work by Tino Sehgal. Would you like to follow me?” He led me into a brightly lit alcove with blank white walls. Other people were staring at the walls up close, trying to figure out what art they were missing. “May I ask you a question?” the-ten-year-old asked me. “What is progress?” While I attempted an answer (“Progress is moving forward,” I said) Aiden guided me up the first ramp and challenged me to clarify my thoughts. “Can you give an example?” he gently prodded. I said, “A computer.” After rounding a corner we stopped in front of a teenage boy in jeans and blue sweatshirt, leaning against a column. “This is William,” Aiden said. Turning to William he explained, “I’ve been told that progress is moving forward. An example of this is a computer.” He pivoted and walked down the ramp.
I only half-listened as William shared half-baked philosophy about personal progress and change, while I scanned the empty walls of the rotunda. After some unsuccessful attempts at engaging me in conversation, William delivered me into the hands of a woman in her early thirties. She wore a black dress and had dark brown hair and wide brown eyes. She began matter-of-factly, “In our age, where all landscapes are mapped and viewable online, it seems harder and harder to get lost.” She encouraged me to walk up the spiral with her while she explained her nostalgia for an age where people truly could explore untraveled terrain, a mysterious frontier. “Do you think it’s a shame we can’t get lost anymore?” She asked me.
“I get lost all the time,” I answered, growing impatient with the forced conversation and what I might be missing by being ushered through the museum so quickly.
She opened her wide eyes wider. “How?”
“In my mind, in my life, in the city.” Encouraged by beginning to feel like I’d managed to retain some wild disorientation in my life, I continued, “I lead backpacking trips and have gotten lost in untrampeled woods beyond cell phone range. I was the most truly lost one spring in southern California when I hiked a few miles away from a friend’s house on a morning walk and found myself profoundly turned around under hot sun where the small shrubs and sandy earth looked the same in every direction. It was the days before cell phones and the time before college, when I was wandering the country with a backpack. I was lost in almost every way I could have been.”
“I wish I were more like you,” she said as we came to a narrow space between a column and a low wall. She motioned for me to go ahead of her as she continued, “I feel like I set…” I turned around to catch the last of her sentence but she had vanished. There was only the white column behind me, and I was alone. In that moment my brain froze, trying to grasp the trick it had been dealt, and it was then I got on board with the “piece.” In my vision was glowing white space, in my head the shock of silence after her sentence was cut short. I felt like a character in the movie Waking Life, in which a disembodied protagonist walks through a dreamscape encountering strange characters who quickly, awkwardly, and randomly morph from one to the other. When I turned forward again a woman in her fifties stood before me and greeted me warmly, sensing my surprise.
We continued to walk, now on our last ramp of the spiral. She chatted bout the dilemmas she faced as a progressive parent. Her son wanted to join the boy scouts but how could she let him be part of an organization that doesn’t allow gay members? She asked me what I thought my parents might have done. At the top of the spiral she said, “This piece is called ‘This Progress.’” She smiled, shook my hand, and disappeared into the back stairwell.
If you say ‘no thank you’ to the child who approaches you at the beginning (as about 50 percent of visitors do), you miss the only entrance to the main exhibit at the Guggenheim right now. Some angry museum-goers who had rushed by the children–in such a hurry to take in art that they missed it–demanded their money back at the end of their visits, angry at having spent $20 on an empty museum. (This is the first time in the museum’s fifty-year history that the entire rotunda is cleared of art objects–and the space is even more stunning when empty. It provides a rare chance to look up at the Guggenheim’s glass ceiling, which is almost always covered to protect the paintings hanging on the walls.)
Sehgal’s work asks the mindlessly shuffling consumers of art to do something more than gaze at paintings and read texts on the walls. There is nothing to take in from the main museum other than the interactions taking place, the people moving through the space, and the ideas being discussed. He wants patrons to engage with the work on display, and to shift from being voyeurs to participants who create the museum and its art as they walk through it.
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