The rotunda at the Guggenheim is currently cleared of all its normal art to allow visitors to focus on the works of British-German artist Tino Sehgal. Sehgal has two pieces showing at the museum: “The Kiss,” and “This is Progress.” Neither piece has an accompanying catalogue; next to neither piece can an explanatory placard be found – these pieces are made of people, and Sehgal allows no record of his work, not even a paper contract upon sale. Once the exhibition is over the art disappears; it remains only in the memories and descriptions of those who saw it.
“The Kiss,” currently located in the lobby of the museum, consists of two dancers writhing in slow motion on the floor, recreating famed kisses from other artists’ work. The dancers are hand chosen by Sehgal, intensively trained and rehearsed, and work in three-hour shifts, before being mirrored and then replaced by another couple. Throughout the duration of each shift, the dancers (one male and one female) swap gender roles numerous times, and occasionally interact with a sometimes delighted, sometimes confused, and sometimes uncomfortable audience.
“This is Progress” takes the art of human contact even further, inviting the viewer to become an active participant. The piece begins on the lowest level of the rotunda ramp, where a seemingly innocuous group of children turns into an enthusiastic and somewhat aggressive bunch of tour guides. Each person climbing the ramp is swiftly met by a child who introduces him or herself, notes that “this is a piece by Tino Sehgal,” and invites his or her new charge to proceed up the ramp. My child lead me into the nearest room off of the ramp, and pensively asked, “What is progress to you?” We discussed our definitions of progress (change, improvement, evolution) until a slightly older guide replaced him; he, in turn, would be replaced by a guide slightly older again. Finally, one floor from the top, a man old enough to be my grandfather took over, discussing with me notions of art and love and life, before declaring, “This piece is called This is Progress,” and disappearing back down the ramp.
I was left mildly confused, but mostly intrigued by my experience. How much of what the guides said was scripted? How different would our conversations be if I went back down and did it all again? As I walked down towards the lobby, I passed other museum patrons with their own guides: oldest guides on the top floors, getting younger as I went down – a kind of reverse progression. I envied them their first time through it. The piece had made me feel like an accessory to art – I didn’t create it, but I’d played a hand in executing it, and no matter how many other people spoke to my guides, their work would never be exactly like my work. And when the exhibition leaves the museum, I will be the one piece of proof that my contribution to it ever existed: only my memories and description of it remain.
Become an accessory to art! Create your own work as part of the Tino Sehgal exhibition, now through March 10. Admission to the Guggenheim is free with a valid CUID as part of the Passport to New York program.
Emily Mousseau, GS ’10