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Making Art Out of an Encounter

January 19, 2010

Justine Kurland for The New York Times

Tino Sehgal, foreground, with his associates in Central Park, across from the Guggenheim Museum.


I first encountered Tino Sehgal’s work under ideal conditions: total ignorance. Happening to be in Berlin in 2006 at the time of the city’s art biennial, I heard from an art-dealer friend that there was one exhibition not to miss. “I won’t tell you anything more,” he said, as he walked me to the site and bid me farewell. I trod up a creaking staircase in a building from the turn of the last century and entered a decayed ballroom, its ornate moldings and gilt mirrors testifying to a more glorious past. Lying on the floor, a man and a woman, fully dressed, were embracing languidly. There was no one else in the room. My presence went unacknowledged. In a state of mounting confusion and embarrassment, I stayed until I could stand it no longer, and then I retreated down the staircase. Out on the street, I sighed with relief, because I once again knew where I was.

Had I remained longer, I might have recognized that the two were re-enacting the curved-arm caressing gesture of Rodin’s marble statue “The Kiss,” as well as poses from other osculatory works, some less widely known but in their own way iconic, like Jeff Koons’s ceramic sculpture series “Made in Heaven.” And eventually I would have heard one member of the intertwined couple speak these words: “Tino Sehgal. ‘Kiss.’ 2002.” But I didn’t need that information for the piece to linger in my memory and arouse my curiosity.

I knew the name of the artist, and I watched for him. Although Sehgal was very busy, thriving in the incubation culture of art fairs and international exhibitions, he did not surface in New York until his inaugural show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in November 2007. This time when I walked into the exhibition space, I had more of an idea of what to expect, but once again I was knocked off-balance. “Welcome to this situation,” a group of six people said in unison to greet me, ending with the auditory flourish of a sharp intake of breath; then they slowly backed off, all the while facing me, and froze into unnatural positions. At which point one of the group recited a quotation: “In 1958, somebody said, ‘The income that men derive producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence.’ ” Jumping off from that statement, the conversationalists — Sehgal refers to them as “interpreters” — began a lively back and forth.

Read more at: Making Art Out of an Encounter

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