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BERLIN — As I entered the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, I spotted two people at the room’s center engaged in a slow, intricate dance of embraces. They quietly nestled and weaved their way through each other’s arms, while visitors’ footsteps and a far-off rumble of chants and drumming reverberated throughout the glass-ceilinged space. Friezes lining the ceiling with ceremonial scenes of devotion, love, and abundance in ancient Egypt — remnants of the museum’s past as an exhibition space for the spoils of German excavations abroad — formed an oddly grandiose frame for the display of such private moments.
Viewers familiar with Tino Sehgal’s past work will recognize this choreography as “The Kiss,” although the lack of titles or wall text in his retrospective seems aimed at undercutting these connections and creating a free-floating space for visitors to experience his art. With this quiet and contemplative beginning, Sehgal sets up museumgoers for an unanticipated fall into the very heart of such spectacles of intimacy. The experience could be likened to that of being pushed off a cliff — it’s horrifying, surreal, and there’s no going back.
For the retrospective, Sehgal has taken over the museum’s ground floor to install five different scenes of intense engagement — or as he prefers to call them, “constructed interactions” — between his cast of hired performers and museum attendees. When I followed the percussive sounds into the first room off the atrium, I found myself in a pitch-black space, enveloped in the booming voices of beat-boxers and singers around me.
My first response: fear. I felt paralyzed by the darkness and encased by the thunderous thumping and harmonizing of bodies around me. As my eyes began to adjust, I could start to attach voices to individuals dancing around the space. When I moved toward the perimeter of the room, one performer approached me and began singing the chorus of Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” in my ear, while almost grinding on my left leg. I couldn’t make out the person’s face, but the experience was startlingly intimate; I could smell their shampoo and feel their breath on my cheek.
This kind of encounter with a perfect stranger was titillating, yes, but it also demonstrated my own vulnerability — as well as that of the performer. I couldn’t help but wonder to what end Sehgal intended to use this vulnerability as material for his exhibition. Did he mean to create a spectacle of transgressions between strangers, or was there more at stake in the provactive sociality he effected?
Even as I began to feel comfortable enough to freestyle and dance with the performers around me, I felt unsettled by this interaction. Participation by visitors was quickly rewarded, as performers would gather around me to harmonize whenever I decided to contribute to their songs. The space felt like a black hole where one could spend hours savoring odd intimacies with strangers — who could just as well be Sehgal’s performers as other museum visitors (in the dark, it’s impossible to know who’s who). It was empowering to have a role in shaping this piece, but the community of collaboration was transient; people were free to go and come as they chose, and when performers trickled out of the room to fill the atrium, it was clear that the work — our work — was out of my hands.
I followed Sehgal’s cast as they flooded into the atrium from all rooms. Until they began to pose like statues, I had forgotten I was in a museum. It was as if Sehgal had emptied the gallery of its sculptures and replaced them with responsive, singing gargoyles. Their choreography of poses and songs echoed throughout the space, forming a collective and animate art. As a mass of performers began to crawl and writhe their way back toward the dark room, they overtook a couple seated on the stairs, frozen, holding each other in awe.
The seamlessness between Sehgal’s constructed interactions creates a distinctive sense of fluidity throughout the retrospective. As a result, the show feels less like a retrospective of Sehgal’s dispersed artworks and more like a holistic experience that is singular for each visitor. This porousness is reiterated in the dress of the performers, who wear clothes that any Berliner might, thereby blurring the boundaries between artists and attendees.
I left the atrium and walked into a second room, where I stood with a group of people, all of us waiting and staring at each other in a circle of anticipation of someone beginning to carry out the next of Sehgal’s pieces. It wasn’t until a young girl walked slowly into the room and took up a pose in front of us that I realized we had all been visitors. The uncertainty here was both funny and thrilling.
With her hair pinned back such that two long strands dangled on each side of her forehead, the girl introduced herself as Ann Lee and began to tell us of her transition “from two into three, and now four, dimensions,” which began with her being purchased “by Philipe and Pierre.” Research after the fact revealed this as Sehgal’s response to French artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe’s “No Ghost Just a Shell” project, in which the pair bought the copyright for the manga character Ann Lee and animated her by accessorizing and featuring her in a series of video works. Here Sehgal has taken the notion of animation one step further by employing young girls to breathe life into this shell of a personality. Sehgal’s Anne Lees (there are multiple girls performing this role on rotation) enter the gallery only after visitors have already occupied the space. Once there, they ask viewers questions about the function of museums, the value of business, and the difference between a sign and melancholia — perhaps a nod to Walter Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel, on the interpretation of signs in art as a redemptive exercise in melancholia. They then leave quickly when the interaction is over, only to reinstall themselves and begin again if a group of people lingers, like living sculptures that can be removed and replaced in a gallery at will.
Ann Lee’s inclusion provokes reflection on the nature of museums and on the stakes of celebrating and interpreting art objects as if they were animate. The piece asks visitors to compare their experience of viewing sculpture with viewing humans-as-sculpture. It asks why we would want to relate to a person as sculpture, and whether the mystical functions we bestow on art objects are just stand-ins, in an age of object fetishism, for the relationships we are denied to other people. This is complicated by the fact that Ann Lee undermines the notion of disinterested viewing by posing questions to her viewers and eliciting responses. To be sure, Sehgal’s not outright condemning the value placed on art’s animate qualities, but by situating a person where we would expect to see an object (a bold reversal of the more common narrative of industry replacing humans), he’s asking visitors to question the role of museums in institutionalizing this mode of relation within society more broadly.
In a similar vein, Sehgal, who studied dance and political economics at Humboldt University, has choreographed the other two rooms as open exercises in movement and philosophical conversation. His performers spin their way along gallery walls, pausing to toss out questions or tell personal anecdotes related to the economy, religion, and other topics. The conversations are open for visitor participation, but there is a certain rhythm in which the performers express agreement or disagreement when one of them says something another disagrees with, chiming “yes” or “no” and often asking probing follow-up questions. At one point, a performer called attention to the way a visitor took the hand of their friend when someone else spoke about a loss of tradition. He said how much appreciated seeing that affection in the midst of the conversation.
Without producing any objects, wall text, or material residue, Sehgal’s retrospective is an utterly unforgettable art experience. Some of his pieces, such “Ann Lee” or “The Kiss,” which is in fact derived from famous love scenes in art history, could benefit from more context, including titles and information on the artworks they’re intended to critique. Nevertheless, Sehgal’s choreographed situations effectively ask visitors to question the production of spectacle inside the museum as a method for questioning the structures of society at large. They pack entertainment with a punch of anxiety from not always knowing whose job it is to entertain. The show is enormously productive in this way: it generates more questions than answers, and produces a space for visitors to transgress the politeness of spectatorship and jump in.
Tino Sehgal continues at the Martin-Gropius-Bau (Niederkirchnerstraße 7, Berlin) through August 8.