MARRAKESH — As the afternoon sun radiated onto Jemaa el-Fna square in the old medina quarter of the city, nine bodies emerged before me on the ground, beatboxing and gyrating, surrounded by curious onlookers. Inside and outside the former Bank al-Maghrib building, these performers gathered for four weeks as part of a public art project by Tino Sehgal, vibrating to the tune of his most well-known choreographed sequences, including, “Yet Untitled” (2013), “This Variation” (2012), and “Instead of Allowing Something to Rise Up To Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things” (2000). Curated by Mouna Mekouar, Sehgal’s constructed situations in Marrakesh were in dialogue with a centuries-old Moroccan tradition known as halqa, which emphasizes circularity.
In mythology, the circle has an important relation to Arabic Islamic culture. In Medieval Morocco, halqa took place in duwar — the space where nomads erected their tents — and in the evenings people would gather to tell and perform stories using song and dance. As with the halqai of centuries past, no performance of Sehagl’s work was the same, evoking the mystical pagan rituals of halqa respectively and in tune with other halqa masters (malaam) on the square. Most days, Sehgal’s works made me feel like I was participating in a sort public, pre-linguistic dramaturgy, simultaneously comic and tragic, drifting in between halqai on the square, totally bewildered, yet somehow confident that what I was experiencing was a sense of spiritual and cultural pulsation in reciprocity with all of Jemaa el-Fna.
The work has helped breathe new life into Sehgal’s oeuvre, both as his first site-specific work in a public space and his first work in North Africa — an important break from his earlier works in museums and on stages throughout the West. Sehgal, an artist, choreographer, and former student of political economy, has been creating “constructed situations” — his preferred term to describe his practice’s combination of theatre, dance, and social research, combined with the residual language and space of contemporary art — for nearly two decades.
I spent nine days circulating with Sehgal’s work in the square, sampling the vibrations of not just the performances, but also the unpredictable oscillations of life in one of North Africa’s most infamous, mystical, unforgiving, and indomitable public spaces. During the day the square becomes overwhelmingly hot. It’s a space where fresh fruit juice vendors, snake charmers, and tourists circulate side by side with children, other artists, and merchants. This is known in Western art discourse as a transitory, or “liminal” space. For children, the liminal space of Jemaa al-Fna opens up between two disciplinary apparatuses: the school and the family. For merchants of the square, the liminal space is used for commerce; for tourists, it is a space of spectacle. For Sehgal, it became a transitional space where a new communities could be conceived and imagined in response to an expansive repertoire and language of choreography, infusing his work with circular meaning around the animist, pre-linguistic ethos of halqa.
However, as day transforms into night, the atmosphere of the square is recalibrated to the tune of Chleuh dancing boys, storytellers, magicians, and peddlers of various wares and crafts. They assemble to the rhythm of street musicians from Gnawa — former slaves from West Africa — who now assemble every day in the square to perform music full of African animism and spirit. Together with the Berbers, the Gnawa and other cultural groups from Morocco, they all contributed collectively to the performative atmosphere of the square and, in doing so, to Sehgal’s work as well.
Sehgal’s sequences in Marrakesh manifested as such: for six days a week, his performers entered the square at dusk to extend the variation of the day’s activities into the night. Most nights they began by establishing some sort of mise en scène on a concrete niche directly in front of the former Bank al-Maghrib building.
For Sehgal’s artists, everything here became spontaneous and temporary. No single day or performance was the same. A halqa might begin with Thomas Proksch and Davide De Lillis beatboxing a random Missy Elliott song, or Justin Francis Kennedy reaching deep across the space of the square with his voice and penetrating stare, belting out: “A whole lotta mercy!” Vocally and rhythmically, Liz Kinoshita and Chris Scherer infused Sehgal’s work with breathtaking patterns and arrangements. Alexander Achour was also notable for his range of intuitive movements and strong baritone voice. Moss Beynon Juckes, Adalisa Menghini, and Louise Hojer injected each performance with pre-linguistic, primordial movements. When taken together, these performers would use the liminal space of the square as a choreographed canvas to execute what, in my opinion, formed the basis of an entirely new and bold direction for Sehgal’s work.
The cooperation and interaction between Sehgal’s artists and other halqai of the square provided the project’s most compelling moments, particularly their exchanges with Said Lakhdar and Walid Rkaika, two young men who were recruited by Sehgal’s team to perform in an official capacity with the work. In the evening halqai, Sehgal’s performers would sometimes interact with Hicham Enouti, a master snake charmer, reinforcing the dialogue between Sehgal’s dancers and other artists on the square — some of whom are part of families who have been performing in Jemaa el-Fna for generations.
Sehgal’s work in Marrakesh became totally responsive to the rhythms and patterns of Jemaa el-Fna. That said, there were also nights when the square became somewhat unforgiving and difficult. Numerous times I witnessed intense male aggression and infighting on the square. For better or for worse, Sehgal’s work relied on the square’s oscillating rhythms, which only added layers of dimensionality to the pieces. In doing so they seemed to represent an important departure from his earlier, highly stylized, and comparatively safe works made for large Western art institutions.
Sehgal isn’t the first artist I’ve seen work with the public, nor is his work necessarily the most avant garde of its type. Drifting in and out numerous art and activist scenes for almost a decade, I’ve come across substantially greater and more direct interventionist aesthetics, which, in some ways, I still tend to prefer.
In 2013, I participated in a piece of street theatre in Bologna, Italy, titled “Assemblea Infinita CRISI,” which was tailor made for Piazza Verdi, an iconic square important for its place in Italy’s political and social history, particularly as it relates to the Red Brigades. The work, created by Etcetera, became an aesthetic manifestation of a fictional political event — an assembly — complete with “representatives” from different activist movements and large cardboard cutouts of world leaders, including Pope Francis, Mario Draghi (the Head of the European Central Bank), riot police, and gnomes. The piece addressed itself to the public rhythm and daily life of Piazza Verdi, underscoring a rather interesting gesture — the idea of bringing political assembly back into direct contact with public space.
Ultimately, both Sehgal and Etcetera use site specificity to give context to their public performances, each utilizing location as a sort of all encompassing character, though each differ substantially in their chosen sites, methods, and tactics. I suspect that for Sehgal, the interventionist aesthetics of Etcetera would seem rather ungentlemanly, crass, a bit too literal, or harsh. But, on the other hand, it seems his piece in Marrakesh requires a great deal more circularity and integration with the public than anything he’s previously done. The rhythm, life, and pulse of Jamaa el-Fna are totally different from the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, for example, where he has previously staged work, and in this way Sehgal seems to be gesturing toward a more interactionist — rather than interventionist — aesthetic.
This is where I commend Sehgal’s new work and direction in Morocco. Guided by Mekouar’s pertinacious curatorial vision, Sehgal’s latest exhibition took to the public space of Jemaa el-Fna with total reciprocity for the halqa tradition, which seemed to add a new layer of spirituality and animism to the dramaturgy of his “constructed situations.” This, I think, signifies an important turn toward a new performative and interactionist vocabulary within Sehgal’s oeuvre as a whole, and perhaps a new direction for the artist moving forward.
Several of Sehgal’s critics have argued elsewhere that the artist’s constellation of exchanges are both too rarified and too esoteric for many audiences, notable among them the Harvard art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who once dismissed his work as “bullshit.” Nonetheless, Sehgal has achieved significant critical success in the confines of the art world’s most important museums and prestigious biennales, even earning Jerry Saltz’s praise for creating the only work of art he’s ever encountered that “could cry back.” I think Sehgal’s new work in Jemaa el-Fna clarifies an evolving connection to the street, a new direction I absolutely applaud him for exploring.
By combining the languages of halqa, contemporary theatre, dance, hip-hop, and philosophy, Sehgal’s work in Marrakesh crystallized as a site of collective, circular experience in direct reciprocity with Jamaa el-Fna itself. The relationships built between Sehgal’s performers and the malaam (masters of halqsa), children, and other artists on the square, added significantly to the dimensionality of Sehgal’s works, which above all else remained attentive to the circular patterns of life on the square.
Sehgal’s halqai successfully wrestled reciprocity and participatory interactionist aesthetics away from contemporary selfie culture. (Sehgal is famously antagonistic toward nearly all forms of documentation; no photos or videos are allowed of his work.) The focus became totally about presence and experience. When left alone with my thoughts and reflecting on the experience of the interactions, I began to encounter again and again the word “presence.” A quick etymological search for the word revealed some rather well known connections to the Ancient Greek words eidos, archē, telos, energeia, and ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject, and energy), transcendence, consciousness, god, and man, and so on. But none of these words accurately described what I was feeling as I stood in Jamaa el-Fna. For the first time in my life, I lacked the words to describe my experience.
I reluctantly left Jamaa el-Fna after nine days in Marrakesh with the curious feeling that not only would I never be able to write an article capable of capturing the sum total of the actions and events that took place there, but also that I didn’t really care because doing so would only detract from the experiences they encompassed. In a way, only the relationships and fleeting essences I collected on the square mattered. Dancing, sharing, and reciprocating, I made my way home to the tune of Jamaa el-Fna’s ultra-halqa-light-beam.
Tino Sehgal’s exhibition at the former Bank al-Maghrib building (Jemaa el-Fna square, Marrakesh, Morocco) ran May 13–June 5.