8:30am. I roll out of bed, go about the standard procedure to get myself outside and to the airport to fly to Berlin to interview Tino Sehgal, which took months to arrange, for the publication that I work for and set off for a fairly standard business trip to Europe.
Stepping out of the taxi in the neighborhood where Sehgal’s studio is in the southern part of the city, I’m taken aback by the emptiness of the place and the fact that its been trashed. ‘What happened?’ I wondered. And it dawned on me; there had been a violent protest here the night before between the right-wing ‘nationalists’, bald males in general, who felt that there were too many Muslims in Germany and that their national identity was being eroded, and the left-wing ‘liberterians’, also known as ‘democrats’, who felt that their freedoms were being diminished under Government policies. The street is basically a mess, with trash everywhere, cars burnt, street signs on the ground, traffic lights, shop fronts damaged.
I take out my pocket map of Berlin and figure out how to get to Sehgal’s studio, which I imagine, must not be that big since, well, he doesn’t actually make anything, why would he need a big studio?
I arrive at the buzzer and am let in, a modest renovated industrial building and take the elevator to the 1st floor. Door opens and the place is, white. White walls with no decoration, white ceiling and off-white shiny floor that seems to go on and on into the distance, save for a pair of glass doors that unlock with another buzz, signalling that I may enter. Its like a minimalist palace, with not much around except for some desks in a work area, a meeting room and a lounge area with sofa and coffee table and lots of open space.
Sehgal’s assistant greets me, and we chat for a bit about the trip here and the situation outside. Then I ask, “so where’s Tino?”
“He’s stuck in Turkey. There’s a storm in the Atlantic and his cruise ship had to turn back.”
“Oh….oh yeah, he doesn’t like taking airplanes…”
“Can you call him and let him know I’m here, and figure out how to do this interview?”
“Nah…he doesn’t carry a mobile around when he travels. But I can point you to some other people, people who are his mentors or who are close to him and share his views who would basically, say the same things.”
“Oh right. Okay, well I’ll give it a try.”
She then shows me around a bit, although there really isn’t much to see in the studio, just a lot of open space.
I then remembered to do this important thing:
“Oh about the contract, can we sort that out?”
“Yeah. Its just as we agreed over the phone. Let me get my stuff and take you to the accountant across the street, we’ll do it there.”
Another Sehgal trademark: he uses verbal agreements, witnessed by a notary person such as a lawyer or accountant on everything. Needless to say, there are no written records of his dealings; they only exist in memory.
I am whizzed into the building across the street and into an accountant’s office, who greets us at the door with a wide smile and we exchange cards. He shows us into the meeting room, offers us tea and closes the door behind him. Then Tino’s assistant pulls out a manila envelope from her hand bag, takes out a big wad of 100 Euro notes and hands it to me. The accountant stood and watched.
“As you had agreed with Mr. Sehgal.”
I can’t help break out in a wide grin and say “thank you.”
Then the assistant and I leave, say goodbye and go back to the studio, when she starts telling me about this watch repairer and some of Tino’s mentors that I should go talk to.
I guess there isn’t an interview but I’m getting an education.
I walk into the watch repairer’s place; an old, little bit dusty, rustic kind of place with a lot of aged wooden furniture, classic light fixtures and what seems to be ancient artwork, pieces of stone with neanderthal paintings on them framed and hung on the wall.
“I’ve been sent here by Tino Sehgal, since he hasn’t made it back from his trip.”
“Oh yes. Tino. I’ve known his whole family since they moved here 20 years ago. Nice fellow. Deep thinker.”
“A bit eccentric don’t you think? He doesn’t like flying on planes, doesn’t carry a mobile phone on trips..”
“Hoho…I think he might have a fear of heights or something, well artists are sometimes like that,” he replied.
“And he doesn’t make anything, or keep any record of his dealings, nor does he like anyone to photograph his performances. In a way it makes one think he might be trying to hide something from the authorities,” I said.
“He always complained about his parents being materialistic, about assigning their worth according to what they possessed, so I think he just took this anti-materialism idea all the way didn’t want to make nor keep objects that could be assigned worth,” the old man replied, striking a more serious tone.
“Wow. Are those real? Where did you get them?” pointing at the ancient paintings on the wall, and needing some time to absorb what he just said.
“Got them from the south of France, a dealer dug them up out of the ground, before the Government shut the whole thing down.” Then he continued, philosophically,
“You know, culture, used to be passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Take these rock paintings for example, they weren’t done in order to be sold to someone else. No. They were done to commemorate something; a story to be told, passed word of mouth, from one person to another. The value of it is not in the object of the art, but in the relational experience.”
“Hence not keeping records, and not allowing anyone to keep a record, is not to hide from anyone, but because the worth and identity that Tino places on his work, is to a certain extent, on the relationships and not the monetary gain.”
And with that I was speechless.
The next stop I gather, is Paris, the place where all of Tino’s professional mentors are located.
“Hello, I’ve been referred to you by Tino Sehgal, since he cannot make it back in time to do an interview with me…”
“Oui. Venez me rencontrer dans le parc des expositions Elephant Paname, dans le huitième arrondissement, 10 rue Volney..”
‘Great. He doesn’t speak English.’ I thought to myself.
“The elephant what?”
“Elephant Paname. It’s une danse ‘alle.”
“The elephant paname dance hall? Ok i’ll find it. See you there in 45 minutes.”
Tino used to dance and had worked for this choreographer before, so I thought I could understand his work better if I paid a visit to his ‘teacher’.
As I arrive there were dancers gathered on stage, taking turns being the lead, pop music blaring in the background:
“Because I’m happy….”
“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof…”
“Because I’m happy…”
“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth…”
“Because I’m happy…”
“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…”
There were dancers young and old, some were tall, some were short, one was even in a wheel chair; needless to say the dance did not look formal, but just a bunch of people having fun.
‘Definately doesn’t look like the leading edge of the avant garde in contemporary dance’, I thought.
I flowed into the hall next door, and this time there were a bunch of about 15 ‘dancers’ men and women, dressed casually, facing the audience, randomly spaced on stage and each wearing headphones. Each of them were in their own world listening to pop music of the 1980’s and 1990’s; sometimes they would belch out some lines of a pop song, the absurdity of the scene accentuated by the fact that they were at the top of their voices and off-key, and sometimes they would be silent.
“I can’t get no….satifaction…”
“And aye….e aye……….will always love you….woo.. will always love you…”
“I’m still standing…”
“I’m so sexy sexy…”
“Fame…I’m gonna live for ever…”
“Do you really want to hurt me?….Do you really wanna make me cry?….”
As the performance went on, they started belching out lines of the song more frequently, sometimes interjecting each others lines, disrupting the ‘order’ (of belching one after the other) one thought they had. Then one by one they exited the stage, and that was it.
In another hall, which was quite dark, a group of performers and visitors – I couldn’t tell who was who, walked around pausing to toss out questions or tell personal anecdotes related to the economy, religion, and other topics with a visitor. When someone responded, the other performers would gather around and chime an affirming “yes” or “no” or have some follow up questions.
Outside, lying on the corridor, a man was writhing, in slow motion, rehearsing the various motions in his ‘performance’. But upon closer inspection, he wasn’t just rolling around on the floor, he looked like he was caressing someone; carefully and forcefully adjusting his arms to allow for space that would be occupied by his imaginery girlfriend.
‘I’ve seen that before…’ recalling scenes of Sehgal’s ‘The Kiss’; a couple rolling around on the floor kissing each other at the museum lobby. Just then, another ‘performer’ ran past us, as if he was doing the 400 metres at an athletics event.
Outside a room where a girl pretended to be a robot, asking people philosophical questions, like whether they thought it was better to be too busy or not busy enough, Tino’s teacher came by and said, “Désolé, I had to go and assister une urgence meeting.”
“Okay no problem. Nice show.” I said, trying to be polite and go easy.
“Yes. Show. Hmm…you see, I have a problem with that concepcion. Ow many times in life or even per day do you speak truthfully? And is it then not a show as well?
“Yes…I thought you were a dance choreographer? It looks more like an art performance.”
“Oui, I tried many years ago to do a danse performanse, but in the end I failed. I couldn’t do it te. I found it wasn’t interesting. But I loved danse, so I tried to invent a new type of cross-concepcion of art, danse and performance.”
“I always wondered about these ‘constructed conversations’ and ‘constructed situations’ in Tino’s exhibitions. They look so…normal, so casual, like everyday situations. Where’s the art in that?”
“In the history of art, there is an objectivication of what we see; we make an object of whatever is ‘good’ art. Look at Michelangelo’s David, or Rodin’s “The Thinker” or Klimt’s “The Kiss”; objects make for the glorification of our prevailing tastes in art. But these objects do not talk back. If art is a mode of communication, its all one-way streete. So, why can’t people be a work of art? If people were the art, they could talk to you, the viewer, and you could talk back. And you could ‘ave a dialogue, which was not possible previously with a sculpture or a painting.”
“Hmm…I never thought of it that way…”
“And the world is becoming more and more ‘objectivized’, with machines taking over the jobs previously held by ‘umans, so csis is also a critique of czat situation.”
And with that I said some more non-sensical pleasantries, with me playing the part of an editor and he playing the part of a dance choreographer, and then we parted ways.
I thought I was going to see a dance performance, but in the end saw an art performance, which critiqued how much of life is actually a performance and now I’m going to go back and pretend to write an interview and review of Tino’s work, but its actually going to be a reflection of the world and its current affairs.