Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Looking at Art 3: Tino Sehgal at Tate Modern

Looking at Art: personal and opinionated rambles on what I've seen, probably with a lot of reference to my own work...

Tino Sehgal at Tate Modern, London 24 July 28 October 2012

Tate Modern - any visit to London's temple to Art always throws up unexpected delights, you go for one thing and come out with another.

Take today for example. If anything, I would have thought I'd be writing about the Edvard Munch show. I'd found the 1992 Munch show at London's National Gallery intensely moving like no other painting show I'd seen. This Tate show though, turned out to be a more academic presentation, which for me served to suck the emotional punch out of the work.

So maybe it would be the Tanks. Unrefined, industrial spaces just off the Turbine Hall, strange to think these huge rooms have been there all along. Unfortunately, at the moment they're filled with the kind of dark room, TVs on the floor art that I find underwhelming and unengaging.

The double photography show then,
William Klein and Daido Moriyama. Some good work here but the sheer quantity is quite overwhelming, and all fairly similar. Nothing that grabbed my attention. Well, there was something that did, but we'll get to that!

I've enjoyed pretty much all of the Tate Turbine Hall installations. They're usually pretty adventurous commissions, whether it's a little crack in the floor that changes the space in a big way, or bringing the outdoors indoors, or creating the very blackest of black spaces to make you wonder if you exist at all.

The current installation was by Tino Sehgal, an artist I didn't know. All I did know was that he had brought in performers to engage you in passing conversations. Not really my sort of thing, sounded a bit pretentious. So I decided to give it a go and hung about in the wide open space after I arrived to see what happened. Nothing did. I looked for the wall text, the leaflet, the whatever, to tell me what I wasn't seeing. Nothing anywhere. So I'd moved on to the other attractions, as above.

Up in the
William Klein show, a little side room showed one of his films. This little side room overlooked the Turbine Hall, and there was something going on down there. In the big open space at the far end little groups of people were chasing each other around. 'There's the art!' I thought.

Back down for a second look. The usual people milling around; students, families, trendy types, older couples, school parties. Then somebody walked past me. Backwards. Then somebody else. I turned around, and in amongst the sparse crowd there were a few of them, then more, walking backwards towards the end of the huge space.

It was quite unnerving, to have these people amongst us in on a secret we don't know. The sudden unified sense of purpose was jarring, like being in a zombie film. Where were they going?

Children and grown ups joined in compulsively with the backwards walking. Now, who was who again? Which ones were the 'performers'? And so it went, a pack running around, chasing and dodging each other in smaller groups, sidestepping, sitting, strolling and humming. And all the while you can get right in amongst it - it's quite exhilarating!

Or unsettling. Like when the players whirled around you at speed, like you may have seen fish do in packs to protect the group from predators. That kind of passive aggressive feeling was underlined when they'd purposefully fix your eyes with a steely gaze as they passed - a chilling encounter.

At points, the individuals (they didn't seem like a group) would sit down and start a complex poetic choral recital in unison, all around you - the effect was dizzying and euphoric. To be amongst such a range of voices, to move from one to another freely was a wonderful experience. Sometimes the lights in the whole hall would go on and off in unison with their chants - interesting, but felt a bit distant from the work for me, a bit too gimmicky. When they sang, you could see who the performers were, but as maybe not all of them sing, still nothing is certain.

Now and again a performer would approach you purposefully and directly and simply say 'This piece is called Other Associations. It's by the artist Tino Sehgal'. And there was my wall text announcing the piece. So simple, but so different, a great idea.

And there were the conversations. They'd sidle up to you, starting 'When I was young...', 'A couple of years ago...', or 'There was a man I very much admired...'. I heard stories from various lives. About wanting to tunnel to New Zealand as a boy, then remembering
that decades later atop a volcano on the South Island and having an epiphany of arrival . About getting caught out on live TV, skipping school for Glastonbury. About a mother whose son left a musical recording on her computer when he left to live in Spain, a thank you for her patience while he learnt the guitar in his own way, rather than how she did. About a guy she knew who always used to explain his outlandish actions, like keeping a wild husky dog in their holiday ski lodge, with the phrase 'I couldn't resist!'.

But this wasn't like a play, or immersive theatre. It felt quite comfortable for me to talk back. These were conversations. So I'd ask questions, and we'd end up talking about the growth of the internet since we were young, digging on the beach, Iggy Pop, music lessons, and on and on. Coming at the end of a week where I'd been talking about my work at a Private View and an Art Fair, it seemed quite natural to converse with these strangers. An unusual situation - not to be repeated I'm guessing.

One person who spoke to me answered some of my questions - yes, it was a true story, yes, some people refuse to talk back, and yes, some readily took offence. It occurred to me that I could play a character too, and be nasty or dismissive. Might be fun, but I didn't have the courage for it, and besides, it's nice to be nice.

The further thought occurs that perhaps not all the conversationalists are part of the piece. If you want talk to strangers at length with no real risk of repercussions, this is the time and place to do it. And why not? If the participant's stories are true anecdotes from their own lives, yours are no less valid. 

All in all a great piece that left me with lots of questions about how we deal with other, and with memories of those exciting moments in the midst of frenzied activity. I'd thought it wasn't really my thing -  but patience and openness paid dividends.

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