art... Tino Sehgal

Tino Seghal
This Success
or This Failure
Institute of Contemporary Art, London
29 January - 4 March 2007

Pushing open the large, heavy door to the main gallery I see ten or so children of various ages and one adult dispersed throughout the room. Amid the stark white walls of the gallery and the bare concrete floor, the pulsing shapes of children at play begin to animate the space and dispel its visual emptiness. Besides the occasional effervescent peep or giggle, the hushed mood of the room seems at once disturbed by my obvious intrusion, but I soon learn that the game at hand is Sleeping Lions, a game that depends upon a certain attempt at quiet. Out of instinct I approach the adult, but she seems disinterested by my presence. The children, however, are only too inviting. In the short time since my intrusion, the children seem to have identified a winner, and its time for a new game to begin.

Alright, time for an abrupt change. The new game will be Sleeping Bears instead of Sleeping Lions; both involve the same rules but yield a contrast undecipherable to anyone unable to distinguish the roar of a lion from the roar of a bear. My focused study of the group has generated curiosity among my subjects. They perceive my smile as a subtle request to join them. I am only too willing.

Like the other participants, I lie down on the bare concrete and silently await the hunters. With eyes closed, I listen for the other bears to be awoken by the stealthy hunters as they stalk and startle their prey. Peeking only occasionally to assure myself that I am not the only participant left alone on the floor, I wait to receive the due attention of the hunters. Before long, footsteps creep toward me and the ferocious growl of a child comes down upon me. Elated, I open my eyes to stare face to face with a giddy, smiling seven year old boy. He has played well his part in this game, and I am only too happy to be his prey.

For only a moment, my elation is pure and tangible. Not only am I accepted and included, but I have played an integral role in the joy of others. My participation has added something wholly unique to the moment. The game is a better one for my involvement in it, of this I am at once quite certain.

As I rise from my sleeping posture, I notice the walls of the gallery lined with several more adults, just watching and observing the random play before them. They have crept in unnoticed and remained beyond the boundaries of our game. They sit with blank expressions on their faces and exude a sense of disappointment.

This success or this failure.

Soon a fresh group of children arrives in the room, and those I have played with are gone for a break. I am not surprised to learn that the artwork consists only within this gallery. Like the experience of most of Sehgal's work, I exit with more questions than answers.

Let me say very clearly to the skeptical: this piece is not an experiment. But rather, it was a moment, a completely unrepeatable opportunity. Sehgal has offered each visitor either the chance to redeem a small interval of time or the invitation to lose another moment to distant observation.

Fortunately for us, the general ambiguity of his work and the lack of dictated instruction allows each visitor to internalize the opportunity for maximum effect. Without a prescription for success in this interpersonal puzzle, each person must confront their own fears and anxieties in order to learn what they wish to gain or lose from each experience. Sehgal has placed this type of moment under the microscope of careful reflection by constructing these authentic encounters in the gallery. They feel so real because they are, and they are real so that they might have an actual effect on one's daily life.

How many opportunities like these fill our days without us ever engaging them with such introspection? I would guess quite a few of these moments pass us by each day. Most of us have never taken a moment to consider just how isolated we are as individuals in today's complex web of social specialization. Where is the meaningful contact that we all long for? Could it be just beyond the bubble of one's own perceptions of isolation, alienation and loneliness?

To redeem these moments for all the good that God has hidden within them, one must venture a great risk. I must wager my own vulnerability against the potential effects (both positive and negative) of interaction. What is the good news of Jesus' restoration and reconciliation of sinners to God and to one anther if not a promise of hope for such free and honest exchanges? It has taken the giddy smiles of young faces in Sehgal's relational space to help me recall this great truth; no doubt a providential gift to a father awaiting the arrival of his first child.

In this way, perhaps, Sehgal's This Success or This Failure is a poignant emblem of the choice embedded within the contemporary challenges of engaging art. We all want a meaningful experience of art, but how many of us are willing to extend the personal wager it might require to ensure such an experience? It seems that the climate of contemporary art refuses to accommodate the social specializations that sustain our comfortable isolations, and therefore we may need to adjust our own modes of perception and engagement to find a way through.

This problem or this possibility...


redeemedson said...

I think Sehgal's form is obviously different than what we have seen in the past. I enjoyed reading your account of this work. Art that requires engagement is a facinating subject to me. I approve of his content and the vehicle through which he asserts his view. That is great. Success if the Mr. Worley's of the world walk through and failure if the head-scratchers enter the room. Will we engage? Will we fearfully restrain ourselves. If I understand his message correctly, he has "successfully" caused me to engage his work and thus modify my actions in the future.

TBW said...


Yeah, I appreciate your sympathetic reading of my review. The trouble with much of contemporary art is that it can be equally dismissed or engaged. I mean if it turns your head you have the option of either diving into to find out more or just continuing on your way. I think this condition is actually an intentional move. Sehgal is a good example. In my review, I tried to subtly hint at this sort of thing, but maybe I should say more.

Sehgal's work is always an experience packaged in a scenario that never comes with instructions. Much of relational aesthetics simply offers the gallery visitor a chance for an experience without the criteria to distinguish between an authentic or inauthentic encounter. Basically, whether you get it right or whether you get it wrong is something only you can know for sure. In that way, it is both relative and subjective, and at the same time, it is completely individually determined.

All that to say, that I would refrain from labeling my experience a definitive success, the normative experience envisioned by the design of the work. I cannot say whether the head-scratchers ultimately failed at taking something from their experiences simply from what I observed from them. I hope that they had a meaningful encounter, but I can only describe with confidence my own.

redeemedson said...

I wonder if the intended or envisioned experience of this approach to art results from the artist's underlying (conscious or unconscious) presupposition that there are no absolutes!?!? If so, Sehgal seems to be making his audience make an existential determination of their own fate. If so, I would conclude that he is failing in his attempt to produce meaningful and lasting art. While I applaud him because he is being true to his own world view, he is not producing works that are true to reality. Therefore the technical aspect of his work is flawed and insufficient. However, that is a mere layman's assessment.


TBW said...

Wow! There's a lot of if's in that response. Can you tell me why you think the work might be philosophical, and not rather social? Why does Sehgal have to make a philosophical statement?

There is a great deal of postmodern art that merely asks questions, often about how we ask questions. Could this not be an open inquiry into the possibilities of social interaction without necessarily involving implicit philosophical assumptions like the one you point out?