PARIS — It’s Monday, September 26, 2016, an unusually warm and humid autumn night. At the Palais Garnier, a dazzlingly lavish and eclectic Second Empire building located on the Boulevard des Capucines, four new works of dance and ballet are being premiered by Justin Peck, William Forsythe, Crystal Pite, and Tino Sehgal.
I came for one reason and one reason only: to see if Sehgal, 40, recipient of this year’s Hans-Molfenter-Preis, could successfully make the exodus from contemporary art back into ballet. In his early years, Sehgal performed for the French choreographer Jérôme Bel, working also with Les Ballets C de la B, a highly conceptual contemporary dance company in Ghent. Numerous connections to other dance-world notaries like Isadora Duncan, the Ballets Russes, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer can be found throughout his work. However, Sehgal is an artist whose work eviscerates any boundary between dance, choreography, human social relations, sculpture, and political economy, in the process forging new ground as one of the world’s most relevant, provocative, and puzzling cultural producers of our time. He has helped breathe new life into contemporary art by deascensioning it away from material-object-oriented culture, creating famously objectless works — what curator Jens Hoffmann famously called a “museum of dance.” His tailor-made projects investigate how myriad social relations can form the substance of an artwork beyond any static or strictly material essence. It’s a type of socially engaged practice that I have come to really appreciate in recent years, but one that Sehgal did not invent. Since the 1950s, well-known groups such as Fluxus and the Situationists, as well as more underground collectives like “Museum,” began to change how artworks could be seen as per the formatively gestural. An interesting and little-known example is the work of Raivo Puusemp, whose radical experiments with group dynamics and sociopolitical processes as a conceptual artist in 1970s eventually led him to become mayor of Rosendale, NY, whereby a lifelong project saw art fully dissolve into politics so as to become indefinable from one another. Sehgal, however, is much more subtle. He is neither strictly an artist, dancer, choreographer, or theatre-maker, and his work is increasingly difficult for curators and critics to define. This is really what I like most about his work. It’s what curator Mouna Mekouar describes as Sehgal’s ability to encompass numerous “hybrid” characteristics.
I walked into the made-for-people-watching lobby of the Opera Garnier open-minded. The miraculous Beaux-Arts structure is entirely covered in lavish decorative elements that range from multicolored marble friezes to columns and images of deities from Greek mythology. The Grand Foyer — where Sehgal’s dancers performed an hour prior to the official opening — is based on a model of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, a room so decadent and lavish it was almost hard to believe. They performed underneath marvelous ceiling paintings by Paul Baudry, a fantastic 19th-century painter who focused his small output of only 30 known works to figurative compositions of dancing and music. The central rectangular panel under which Sehgal’s dancers engaged is “Music,” while the oval panel at the western end is “Comedy.” This setting is entirely different from where Sehgal orchestrated his last constructed situation in Jemm-el-Fna, the large, formidable public square in Marrakesh, Morocco. The opera house was constructed by Charles Garnier from 1861 to 1875, under the patroness of Empress Eugénie during Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s appointment as Prefect of the Seine. It was built to symbolize the incredible cultural and geographic expansion of France and as the ultimate site for experiencing the decadent art and culture of the Second Empire period.
Despite the monumentality of the building itself, Sehgal’s affects became apparent almost immediately upon entering. The first work visitors encountered, “This is so contemporary,” consisted of Sehgal’s “interpreters” (his preferred term for the dancers who execute his work) who basically repeat this phrase as they prance and jump around. To be honest, the work—one of Sehgal’s cheekiest and most audaciously childish—kind of pissed me off. But the more I reflected on it, the more I found it appropriate for the audience and context of the Palais Garnier. It seemed designed to unsettle. It left me with a rather strange feeling, something like being accosted on the subway by someone you don’t know. All told, it seemed pretty brazen for Sehgal to re-present this particular work in the context of the Garnier, but the more I thought about it, the more necessary it seemed as an apt lubrication for the orchestrated dis-arrangements that would follow.
Contextually, Sehgal’s work at the Palais Garnier sought a complete disentangling between art and life. The audience was instructed to arrive an hour before the official opening time to experience several of Sehgal’s more well-known “constructed situations.” The works performed before the show saw Sehgal’s interpreters dispersed in the foyer and around the lobby. They included Isabel Lewis (also assistant choreographer of the work), Justin Francis-Kennedy, and Margherita D’Adamo, in addition to several dancers of the Opera Ballet, all of whom delivered arresting performances in a setting designed for a kind of dramaturgy of people-watching. The setting was apt, though many spectators appeared quite cordial and gave the interpreters superabundant space without disturbing or interacting with them. On the whole, the audience appeared a bit uptight and prone to giving the interpreters distance rather than intimacy. Nevertheless, Sehgal’s performers added beautiful social coefficients to the space by executing slow movements, whispers, songs and gestures.
In a short essay entitled “Means Without Ends” (2000), Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben attempts to unravel the meaning of the Situationist practice of “constructed situations,” a term which Sehgal borrowed, as a way of giving definition to formulae between art and life, as a space where borders between audience and participant, artist and spectator, and citizen and consumer all become increasingly blurred, if not invisible altogether. “What is a constructed situation?” asks Agamben: “a moment in life, concretely and deliberately constructed through the collective organization of a unified milieu and through a play of events […] neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art.”
The work that followed, “(Untitled)” (2016), which Sehgal executed beginning in the main auditorium, will likely go down as one of the 21st century’s most interesting hybrids between contemporary art and dance.
At a certain moment, with the lights still on, the music began: creepy yet strangely beguiling, a sublimely magnetic score perfectly outfitted to Sehgal’s work composed by Ari Benjamin Meyers. The curtain lifted, teasing the audience, then immediately fell back down again. Back up, then down again. The stage eventually came into focus, albeit completely empty, devoid of any dancers whatsoever. Like an operatic body without organs.
Then the music suddenly turned jarring and the lights started flickering, controlled from back stage by Lewis in masterful sequences perfectly timed to Meyer’s pulsating score.
Next, a white door was revealed at the very back of the stage that opened to reveal its innermost chamber, a magnificent long room lined with mirrors and a beautiful glass chandelier hanging overhead. (In the 19th century, this area of the Palais Garnier was where the ballerinas warmed up before performances.) Suddenly there emerged three ballerinas shuffling quickly with their backs toward audience, followed by a dozen or so other dancers who emerge from the side stage, also with their backs to the audience. Dressed in sporty everyday attire, they glided swiftly but only very briefly across the stage. The dancers all dashed toward the exit just as fast as they emerged, leaving once again the original three ballerinas who kept their backs to the audience. The tension built as they approached the edge of the stage closest to the audience, only a few inches from the chamber orchestra pit. And then it happened: One broke the forth wall, leaving the stage entirely, climbing through the orchestra pit and directly into the front row of the audience. Suddenly, 30 more interpreters appeared on nearly every level of the auditorium dispersed among the audience. They danced in unison in a kind of trancelike state, tilt-a-whirling, head-banging, and humming to Meyers’s fantastic score as the audience watched in near-bewildered amazement. Some of the interpreters started interacting with the audience, causing even more confusion. Eventually the performers dispersed from the auditorium and out onto the staircase back into the lobby of the Garnier, leaving the auditorium entirely. Most of the crowd remained in their seats to see if they would reemerge. They did not. The work ended after the performers exited the auditorium. It finished with a beautiful arrangement delivered by the dancers in complete physical proximity to members of the audience, all of whom assembled on the staircase outside. No bow, no curtain call, not even a clear ending — a perfect operatic assemblage of nonlinear relations.
In Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (2000), the University of Toronto historian begins by arguing that another ballet, “The Rite of Spring” (1913), composed by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky — widely considered one of the finest examples of modernist aesthetics combining visual art, music, and dance — could be seen as a kind of anecdote to the historical and social conditions of the early 20th century. He argues that Stravinsky and Nijinksy’s ballet symbolized the zeitgeist of the era, prefiguring the emergence of the mass psychology that was necessary to the emergence of “total war.” When “The Rite of Spring” premiered on May 29, 1913, it caused fury and a near riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. According to Eksteins, ’’to have been in the audience that evening was to have participated not simply in another exhibition but in the very creation of modern art.’’ The music was disharmonious, and the dancers were, too. At a certain moment, mayhem and chaos ensued among those attendance, which included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy, all of whom bore witness to one of the most significant and mythological dance events of the 20th century. The event transcended reason, Eksteins argued, and by extension the aesthetic sensibility of its time. Total art (in German: “gesamtkunstwerk”), Eksteins concluded, like the emergence of total war, existed as both ”provocation and event.’’
Today, in an era arguably defined by nonlinear or asymmetrical warfare, could Sehgal’s new work symbolize not just a blurring between art and life, but between reality and fiction? If “The Rite of Spring” by Starvinsky and Nijinksy can be connected to the emergence of the First World War and it’s totalizing aspects, as Eksteins suggested, could Sehgal’s “constructed situations” — with their ability to stand out paradoxically because of their ability to blend in — be symbolically connected to a typology of nonlinearity?
The term “nonlinear” has an interesting trajectory in recent political history. It has been used by members of the U.S. military at least since 1994. In a paper drafted by G.L Walters entitled “The Art of War, Nonlinearity, and Coping with Uncertainty” (1994), the author gives strategic weight to a concept of nonlinearity as it relates to military planning, informed by a distinctively artistic way of thinking. “In a nonlinear world it is possible for a truck to leave ten minutes late and never be seen or heard from again. In a nonlinear world the convoy is strafed by enemy air, ambushed by guerillas, makes wrong turns, experiences breakdowns, and arrives a day late with half its payload, and no one did or could have predicted that it would happen quite that way.” The term “nonlinear” was also reintroduced in 2014 in a short story written by one of Vladimir Putin’s closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, and published only a few days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Surkhov describes it as a kind of constantly shapeshifting and chameleon state of global geopolitics, different then “the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries [when] it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all.” A total blurring between bilateral or multilateral state relations, media, propaganda, truth, economics, and aesthetics. I wondered, could Sehgal’s art point to nonlinear aesthetics in an age of nonlinear war?
Arguably, we live in a world where old geopolitical paradigms are no longer valid. As the West faces down a shadow enemy in the form of “international terrorism,” old alliances like NATO and the EU are starting to wane in comparison to commercial ties and economic interests between states and major multinational corporations like BP, Exxon, Mercedes, Shell, and others. These alliances are forged not for the control of traditional borders, but rather to enforce the seamless integration of trade blocs like the TTIP, all to gain control over critical resources, global trade, and finance. Though I see Sehgal’s work as totally peaceful, beautiful, loving, and subtle — basically the opposite of violent, destructive, or containing any warlike overtures whatsoever — there remained an inkling in me that hinted at some sort of broader historical and social coefficient to the artist’s work. Could it be that the artist is more a political economist than we as critics, fans, and outsiders have been led to believe? All told, it felt like Sehgal’s works are intended to create a complete discombobulation of the fourth wall. Could this signal a possible turn toward art for art’s nonlinear sake? Or simply a hybrid of aesthetic and social forms? I’m still undecided.
Sehgal / Peck / Pite / Forsythe took place at Palais Garnier (8 Rue Scribe, IXe arrondissement, Paris) from September 26 to October 9.