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July 31, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:36pm

Sehgal’s ‘These Associations’ at Tate Modern and the Value of Nothing

By Spear's

‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’  

THIS IS A 1970 quote by Douglas Huebler, not the rallying cry of the poster people for relational aesthetics, who condemn the overload of things in the world and attempt to sell only non-documented, un-photographed, oral agreements as art. Though it could be. Tino Sehgal, a student of dance and economics, launched the 13th Unilever installation in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. The work, entitled These Associations, consists of 200 performers or ‘interpreters’ as he refers to them, that cluster in groups, file past visitors, and engage them in conversation or recount personal anecdotes — the first such undertaking of performance as art at the museum.  

In all probability it’s an edition of 5 and will cost well over $100,000 to own; and what do you get for the outlay? An oral agreement in front of a notary with a few witnesses and the right to show the work under what can only be described as stringent conditions. Sehgal’s art is never to be officially photographed, re-enacted for less than a specified period of weeks with specially trained participants, or for that matter traditionally documented by receipt, contract or certificate. And these works can only be resold under acceptance of the exact conditions. This is an exploration not of the merits of the art, but rather the notion of getting nothing for something; call it the documented, photographed story of Tino’s market tactics

In an article in the Guardian on July 23 2012 by Charlotte Higgins, Sehgal posits some interesting points. ‘Objects, he suggests, offer false promises of stability and security, just as writing offers a false promise of precision (what does he have against words, they don’t hog space?). The paradox of economics, he believes, is that we derive income from transforming the earth into goods, but you can’t keep on transforming the earth. “I felt I wanted to study that. Art is essentially something that is produced. What I think is overestimated is the power and potential of things. My work is a product, though – not a thing.”’

I disagree that an image is necessarily weighted (and freighted, conceptually) any more so than a kiss, a conversation or an embrace in the name of art. I am intrigued, don’t get me wrong, but something sold is something sold, even air. Knowing Sehgal’s team, they do erect a convincing front. As they obviously don’t do stuff, they borrowed my TV (and Skybox no less) to watch Wimbledon, as Sehgal’s sidekick producer happens to moonlight as a professional tennis writer, right out of the Royal Tenenbaums. In favor of shedding possessions, he stated in an email that it ‘strikes me that it doesn’t mean committing to any more than taking care of a painting or installation, just don’t need warehouse space.’ As one who is about to suffocate under the weight of his possessions, that rings (stings) all too true.

Yet, despite all these attempts at re-categorization, it smacks of false starts; a product, even one self-consciously denuded of its thing-ness, is no more intangible than a cup. You own it, codify it in your inventory and when you croak you pass it on to your descendants as part of your estate. It’s there all right, orally or otherwise: the cloaked invisible object, a novel set of the Emperor’s finest. A notary, trained interlopers and an exchange of cash equals to me an object, albeit an ethereal and conceptual one; but a tangible, economic entity nonetheless. And I am not alone in the thought, otherwise an institution as conservative as a museum wouldn’t step up.

There is a viable, sensible, even moral argument to be made for relational works when you contrast them to the enormity of Julian Schnabel’s smallest painting. It’s the bigness of big art movement, or even worse, the bigness of bling. What a bore to dangle priceless trinkets in the way of kitsch and razzmatazz fabrication methods masquerading as intelligent art. So, yes, admittedly (to own) the right to congregate in groups could be a palette-cleansing remedy compared to the fetishized surface of a Koons. But, if you are going to charge $100,000 and more for the right to own an un-photograph-able piece of nothing, to me that is not much different than indulging in a Porsche. And I assure you they will somehow be treated the same.

The youth of today aspire to a universal culture of easy money, do-nothing celebrity, and the accumulation of as much as possible along the way. I have at times fallen victim myself—collectors enjoy the pursuit as much, if not more, than actual acquisitions, leading to a perennial state of dissatisfaction and lack of (emotional) fulfillment. I understand we have reached a spotted threshold of me-me-me materialism, one person’s gain at another’s loss, call it thing-ism. The attraction is that possessions never let me down and offer some respite from my self-critical views, even when leaking oil. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but what else is the ambition of laissez-faire economics? It all goes right to the marrow of what has become meaningful in art—that would be money and what you get for it, or think you get for it.  

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Unauthorized image of This Progress by Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim, 2010, museum purchase

When I and countless others blog art on fb and the web it’s free (for now) and virtually (sorry) nonexistent. What goes online stirs immediate participatory (re)action, and for zero money. So if you make people buy nothing then the price should be just that, nada. On the other hand, I don’t have a grudge against the sale of a little smoke and mirrors, but don’t call it product without physicality. The minute the wire-transfer clears it’s an object and an expensive one at that no matter how easy to pack, ship or store.  

With Sehgal, it’s an extreme case of less is more, the slogan on many a T-shirt nowadays: an OWS (Occupy Wall Street) punk, nihilistic fuck you to the bifurcated world of haves and have-nots we live in. But art is a brand name business and a Sehgal has just as much juice as a Jeff (Koons) in the all-inclusive, anything goes marketplace. Like Vito Acconci who’s non-collectible art became staples of museums (but still not supported by a strong market after all these years—a travesty that won’t last for long), Sehgal headed to museums first, strategizing a clever end run campaign for which collectors are sure to follow (in herds, which is how they roam).

I am not an enemy of the absurd or too prudish to have once purchased a puddle (as a sculpture), though nothing quenches like drinking in a painting, drawing or sculpture. And in a practical sense, having the burden to train and pay (also dictated in agreement of sale) generation after generation of interpreters, block the requisite amount of time, recast and reconstitute these non-objects is more difficult and cumbersome than housing and displaying a football pitch worth of installation art.

On a certain level, relational aesthetics misses arts medicinal, ameliorative effects through the casual encounter as well as the studied, focused glance. Don’t forget the humble, old-fashioned drawing that like all art offers what amounts to a transcendental viewing experience, just a different, more nuanced kind of understanding. More traditional art forms suck you in and radiate out to the retina and mind, effortlessly and at will. C’mon, lighten up, I admittedly love junk and preserving historic material is on a higher plateau then your sundry, run of the mill conspicuous consumption.

Over the course of the past 100 years or so, various artists, with varying degrees of success, have attempted to distance themselves from the physical nature of art and the art market and make works with little or no presence and no financial value. Been there, done that, we’ve seen it all before. Rauschenberg was one of the early adapters and also an important player in the world of performance art. He erased a de Kooning drawing in the name of non-art, art, but as is often the result, created something artier and more valuable in the process. Let’s face it, high valuations get attention, and museum curators are easily forced into a stance of worshiping those valuations, even if such a position doesn’t at first come easily to them. And they are in bed indeed with the immaterial instigator.

Sehgal studied dance and economics and has been trying to integrate them since, which he has done more successfully than anyone could or would have imagined. The economics of dance is a one-person art movement led by the dancing economist. When my well-versed 13 year-old got a whiff of the Turbine Hall installation he responded with the touching freshness of a child’s unadulterated, pure, honest impression: ‘Instructions aren’t art, I hate all that shit.’ A final word on something: there is something to be said for a pretty picture. 
Read more by Kenny Schachter


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