Let’s talk about the art world’s paradoxical discomfort with objects. I say “paradoxical” because that’s what artists historically did: make stuff. The anti-object crusade only reached critical mass in the 1960s, with artists like Douglas Huebler claiming, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”
In recent years, artists have shunned objects and instead set up off-shore abortion clinics and networks devoted to alternative radio, beekeeping, or sustainable agriculture. They have founded renegade art schools and open universities. But if you work within the gallery and museum system, how do you avoid making objects, or effectively address their complications?
Embraced on the biennial circuit, Tino Sehgal is one of the celebrated examples of this anti-object genre. Now, he’s hooked a big institutional fish: the entire Guggenheim rotunda. The museum has even emptied it of art objects for the first time.
On the ground floor is an older work, Kiss (2002), in which a man and woman—Sehgal calls them “interpreters” rather than “performers”—make out in slow, choreographed motion. For the viewer, it’s like an uncomfortably visceral version of a Rodin or Brancusi sculpture.
The main event, however, starts just after the first turn up the ramp, where a child of eight or nine introduces him- or herself and asks, “What is progress?” After replying, you’re handed off to a twentysomething interpreter, who engages you in a quickie debate about your answers, only to be interrupted by a middle-aged person who interjects with a non sequitur and then leaves you to an older man or woman who shares some life wisdom about the meaning of progress. (Get it? You’ve just “progressed” through the human life cycle in about six minutes.)
After doing This Progress, a couple of times during the press preview, I was thoroughly annoyed. Not even posing as a Neo-Nazi the second time—”euthanasia” and “eugenics” were my answers to progress—could make this exercise anything more than a vapid, middle-brow cultural amusement-park ride. I guess I’m not a fan of hit-and-run profundity.
Afterward, I headed down to the white cube wasteland of Chelsea, where the wacky Viennese collective Gelitin was confronting the object problem in a different way—by making a sculpture in a theater pit, with seating for spectators. The trick is that Gelitin members wear blindfolds and rely on the help of “assistants”: well-known artists like Mike Smith, Adam McEwen, Cecily Brown, Jim Drain, Amy Sillman, and Jon Kessler.
You may remember Gelitin’s 2005 Tantamounter 24/7 project at Leo Koenig, where you could deposit an object, and the group, holed up in a sealed-off living space inside the gallery, would create an impromptu “copy,” which you were free to keep. This time, you can watch the artists work, but they can’t see you as they construct a sprawling object from materials hauled into the gallery.
To amp up the absurdity, the sculptors—but not the assistants—wear sloppy costumes (some more elaborate than others). Asses and penises hang out. Smoking regulations are ignored; whiskey and beer flow freely between artists and audience.
The difference between the Sehgal and Gelitin approaches is striking. Though his earlier works have an affecting presence and uncanny seductiveness, Sehgal’s recent works feel slick and contrived. The show at the Guggenheim ostensibly includes no press release (although one fell into my hands) or catalog, and Sehgal doesn’t allow his work to be documented with photographs. Gelitin, while not as extreme in their performance antics as the Vienna Actionists or Paul McCarthy, colonizes the white cube and turns it into its own, private Bohemia, offering a messy rumination on spectatorship, intervention, and object making.
But maybe I missed something. With that in mind, I went back to the Guggenheim, fueled with a slightly malicious desire to smash Sehgal’s non-object.
This time, mid-week, the interpreters were looser. When I told the first kid I didn’t believe in progress, he shrugged and said goodbye. “She doesn’t believe in progress,” he explained to the adult supervising the kid-interpreters. So I took the ride again and offered the self-reflexive answer—”Progress is art”—which stumped my next precocious Sibyl. Then I got an interpreter to break script (although he claimed he broke me) halfway up the rotunda. We argued cheerfully for 25 minutes. Afterward, I went up to the interpreter holding pen on the fifth floor, which was buzzing with conversation, and talked to a couple of young artists conscripted for the piece. Experiencing the work outside of Sehgal’s intended confines—now this was progress.
I went back to Chelsea. More smoke. More whiskey. More blindfolded theatrics. Only now, it all felt boring and static. You could see where the object was headed (toward a Franz West/Isa Genzken assemblage, only more random and messy). But this underscored the point: Watching the creation of art objects is like watching paint dry. The only way it’s interesting is when turned into a carnivalesque spectacle. (To hedge the boredom, most artists I know listen to music or NPR in their studios.)
In both cases, experience supersedes things. This is work in which memories or transformation are the goal, not what Duchamp called “retinal” effects.
None of this is exactly new. In the ’60s, Hans Haacke asked museum visitors to stick votes in a ballot box, and later, Adrian Piper taught people to dance. Still, Sehgal, the control freak, has tried to plug the conceptual holes left open in earlier periods, forbidding documentary photographs, which can later be sold as objects, and catalog essays that frame the event; rather than lamenting the hegemony of the gallery system, or its customary showroom role, Gelitin takes up residence like a messy, demanding guest. Neither eradicates that other contrivance, the “critical object”: the piece of writing that results from such works. Sehgal’s work will exist in memory but also in text, and the Gelitin situation is even stranger, such that I’m writing about an unfinished sculpture and you’re reading about a performance that now survives only in photographs and text.
So we’re probably just seeing more of that recent cycle in which objects are the enemy and, per Experience Economy theorists, encounters and events are the consumables du jour. After all, you can buy a Sehgal (MOMA owns Kiss; it’s just on loan to the Guggenheim). The fate of Gelitin’s Blind Sculpture was undetermined as of this writing. Maybe it will be trashed at the end of the show—or end up one day on the block at an auction house near you.