Tino Sehgal: A Discussion of Non-Object-Based Art

As long as a commercial market for art has existed, artists have worked in physical mediums that could be sold, transported, and owned. Artists of the Post-Minimalist, Conceptual, and Performance movements rejected this standard conception of art and sought to make art based on an idea whose expression did not depend on the creation of a tangible object--"non-object-based art." These artists created performances, which left videos, photographs, and objects as relics of their occurrence or conceptual works, where the concept took precedence over secondary concerns about the execution of aesthetic and material objects.

A recent art exhibition at the Guggenheim entitled "Tino Sehgal," by the artist Tino Sehgal gave rise to a conversation about non-object-based art with Jeff Bergman, a curator, dealer, friend, and co-author of this piece. Specifically, Sehgal's exhibition requires visitors to directly engage and interact with the performers, called "interpreters," in the emptied rotunda and ramp. This led to fascinating questions not only about the genre in which Sehgal works, but also about the vital role that museums as institutions play in supporting exhibitions of non-object based art. Additionally, Sehgal's work highlights issues regarding artistic preservation, and the important role that museums fill by documenting these non-object-based artworks so that they can be recreated when exhibited at a future time.

Tino Sehgal's form of non-object-based art superficially displays characteristics similar to Conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt, but his practice actually challenges the Conceptual movement notion of dematerializing the object. LeWitt's non-object-based art takes the form of instructions for wall drawings that can be executed at a future date by the artist's studio (now run by his estate). Sehgal's work, by contrast, is completely devoid of any material object from the point of creation to the sale of a work. Sehgal creates 'constructed situations' - performance-based artworks where 'interpreters' approach the visitors and ask them questions that they choose to answer, thereby becoming part of the artwork. Sehgal's unique practice relies on the human voice and movement combined with social interaction to make art that resists the production of a physical good. The artist is rethinking aspects of the Conceptual movement by taking his practice a step further and refusing to allow any documentation of the artwork, whether it is in the form of video, photographs, wall labels, or documents for contractual commercial purposes. As Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Guggenheim explains, Sehgal questions "the false hierarchy between the actual event and what becomes a substitute for that event." Sehgal emphasizes the non-object-based artwork by doing away with any substitute for the work itself.

Despite LeWitt's and Sehgal's varying levels of commitment to non-object-based artwork, both of these artists rely on a formal institution, namely a museum, gallery, or art space, as a necessary pillar of support in displaying their work. LeWitt's career most likely could not have flourished without institutional support to execute the large-scale and conceptual artworks that he envisioned. On the other hand, Spector clarifies that Sehgal is "using the museum as a platform; he is using the utopian underpinnings of the 19th century museum, which were based on the idea of making culture available to all people." His practice returns to the ideals of the museum as a means of disseminating culture compared to the institutionalizing character it developed later on. However, Sehgal's work requires that the visitor's subjectivity be engaged and that he/she look introspectively -- a practice not traditionally undertaken in the museum setting where a viewer expects to look at an art object. This makes the museum all the more necessary as a pillar of support for Sehgal's work.

In addition to the museum acting as a platform for dissemination of the arts, the institution performs an increasingly important role in the artistic preservation of non-object-based artworks that must frequently be reconstructed for future exhibitions. As LeWitt's work began to thrive in the commercial and institutional spheres, the artist began cataloging his work and issued certificates for his wall drawings - making the museum's ability to not only document, but also recreate the works, more manageable. LeWitt's small army of studio assistants would execute his wall drawings, which could easily be removed and recreated in another space. An ever-moving fresco, unable to be permanently displayed or destroyed, the wall drawing became certified and catalogued. LeWitt passed away in 2006 and his studio has maintained his work and installed many of the nearly 1,261 wall drawings in recent years. LeWitt's work continues to evolve by being installed in new spaces, such as MASS MoCA's realization of 100 wall drawings on view for 25 years. The institution has acted to ensure the longevity of a process that would otherwise be fleeting and ultimately lost. In this case, institutions and the market largely drove the preservation of LeWitt's wall drawings.

Sehgal's practice, however, presents the museum with very different challenges in preserving his work. Despite the artist's objection to documentation, Sehgal does not resist the commercialization of his work, which is created in editions of "constructed situations" that can be recreated. The same system of verbal contracts put in place to transfer ownership of the work has been used to catalogue his work by the institution. However, unlike the LeWitt's written instructions for his wall drawings, Sehgal's work risks changing with each manifestation as oral specifications for works like "This Progress" are passed on from curator to curator and institution to institution.

The legacy of these artists will be substantially different than that of artists who preceded them. These non-object-based artworks have the inherent potential to mutate and evolve with each presentation of them. Towards the end of the discussion Nancy Spector told me she believed that 'all great art forces the institution or the museum to question itself and its methods and reinvent them" and so perhaps one of the defined and lasting legacies of artists creating non-object-based works will be the way in which the artists have challenged the museum and caused them to evolve as well.

"Tino Sehgal" is on view at the Guggenheim through March 10, 2010. (http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view-now/tino-sehgal)