Ceci N’est Pas Performance Art

“Would you hang a Picasso on a stage and have people come and watch it?”

So responded the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief curator Nancy Spector when asked to engage in a little thought experiment last week involving Tino Sehgal, the kinda-sorta performance artist from Berlin whose much-anticipated solo show at the museum opens on Friday, Jan. 29. The experiment was pretty simple: Would Mr. Sehgal’s work retain any of its power if it were taken out of the museum context and performed onstage instead?

“It’s a perversion of his intent. It wouldn’t happen,” Ms. Spector said. “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the work, so I don’t know why anyone would do that.”

Mr. Sehgal’s works are not the kind of thing the Guggenheim usually exhibits. That is because they are no kind of thing at all, but ephemeral, immaterial “situations” that will, for six weeks, come into existence every morning when the museum opens and disappear when the humans who act them out go home at the end of each day. Mr. Sehgal, 33, will have two such works in his Guggenheim show, one a brand-new piece whose particulars have been closely guarded by the museum, and the other a sort of live human sculpture from 2002 called The Kiss that features two people embracing on the floor. Both pieces will be up all day, allowing visitors to look at them for however long they want before moving on. 

If it wasn’t being exhibited in a museum, Mr. Sehgal’s work would most certainly be classified as performance art or experimental dance. But Mr. Sehgal, who completed studies in dance and economics, does not consider himself a practitioner of either, and vehemently insists that his work—though choreographed, rehearsed and presented live in front of onlookers—should be thought of as conceptual art, to be displayed not in theaters or performance halls but art galleries and museums. He also, unlike most performance artists, forbids any documentation of his pieces, meaning no one can videotape them, photograph them, or issue certificates of their authenticity.

This insistence has been a lucrative one for Mr. Sehgal, whose works—some of which exist in what he calls multiple editions—have reportedly been bought by collectors for sums in the six figures. (Owning one of Mr. Sehgal’s works, whether you’re a museum or a private collector, means having the right to call upon him and have his “interpreters” come present the piece whenever you want.)

How Mr. Sehgal is able to have the career he has while doing what he does is not self-evident, and there are those who question the validity of the distinction he draws between his work and the kind of stage-based theater, dance and performance that so often goes ignored by the art world.

“You can go to any number of dance panels where this comes up—about context and why artists are able to support themselves and dancers aren’t,” said RoseLee Goldberg, the author of a history of performance art and director of the performance art biennial Performa. “They don’t understand why if you did the same work in a dance context, you wouldn’t be able to command a price to sell the work. You’re looking at the very crux of the difference between these two economies and the histories that shape them.”

The charitable view of Mr. Sehgal’s project is that he is investigating the nature of objecthood: According to Ms. Spector, the project is about “finding a way to make something that is inherently ephemeral repeatable, commodifiable, collectible, preservable.”

Mr. Sehgal’s self-identification as a visual artist has inspired a range of reaction from people in the experimental dance and theater community in the U.S., which compared to the contemporary art world is underfunded and enjoys a much narrower audience. 

“As a person who is stuck in the economic model of dance and downtown theater, which is horrible, I have to say I think it’s very canny,” said the choreographer and N.Y.U. professor Annie-B Parson, who co-founded the Big Dance Theater. “When you’re in New York, you have a premiere every two years, let’s say, and you get probably 10 percent of your budget from the theater. The rest you fund-raise yourself from foundations that are basically going out of business. It’s sort of like producing an indie movie.”

Were Mr. Sehgal to try to get his work performed in New York’s “black boxes” rather than “white cubes,” he would have only a handful of venues to choose from. The Guggenheim rotunda, let’s say, would not be one of them.

“There aren’t many venues that support it or understand the objective or are sensitive to the aesthetics of it,” said Steven Reker, a choreographer and dancer based in Brooklyn. “There’s not too much money, especially now. It’s funny, because I’ve had a really successful last couple of years as far as my career goes, but I’ve also never been so broke in my life.”

Brian Rogers, who is the co-founder and artistic director of the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City (one of the handful of spaces in town that regularly mounts shows that marry dance, theater and visual art), is among those in the dance community who looks skeptically at Mr. Sehgal’s career. 

“We’re definitely the poor stepchild of the culture world in a lot of ways, and that’s a gap that’s been widening and widening,” Mr. Rogers said. “There’s just something about the fact that what we make cannot be purchased. You can’t buy a dance and keep it in your collection and then sell it for a profit down the road, and I think that’s a lot of why my field has grown increasingly marginalized in the U.S. In a way, what Tino Sehgal is doing is making a joke. … I almost think of it as a thumbing of the nose at what my whole corner of the world does.”

Ms. Spector defended the artist’s program, arguing that to compare his work to that of people working with live performance is to miss the point entirely.

“This is visual art we’re talking about, period,” Ms. Spector said. “Tino made that distinction. Either you respect it or you don’t. It makes perfect sense to many of us.”

She conceded that the distinction is a nuanced one, and is likely to bewilder many museum-goers.

“People are going to come in and talk about it as performance and they’re going to talk about it as theater,” she said, “and I feel like our job at the museum as curators and our visitor service people and even our guards is to help the public understand.”

The art that matters most, Ms. Spector said, is art that changes the rules, and ”makes you consider everything that came before and what’s going to come after.”

“Art sometimes just functions as an ingenious move,” Ms. Spector said. “Richard Prince taking his first photograph of a photograph in 1977. No one else had thought of doing that at that moment. Marcel Duchamp—who else thought of the ready-made? It was sitting right there waiting to be taken… I mean, funding in the visual arts is as problematic as funding in the dance world. The grass is always greener.”


Ceci N’est Pas Performance Art