Like the rest of the Dublin art contingent, I attended the conversation between Tino Sehgal and Rachael Thomas at IMMA last night. Certainly it was a rare occasion to hear the artist speak about his work, but strangely I left with more questions than answers. For me, Sehgal’s work occupies a somewhat contradictory position, in that whilst he claims it to critique the structures of neo-liberal power and exchange, it appears to me a parroting of these very structures: immateriality, check; fluidity, check; centrality of experience, also, check. As Pamela M. Lee says;
[T]he will to reflect on such art world phenomena cannot escape its own mirror image, a globalizing mise-en-abyme that incessantly reproduces its own representation even as it desires to stand outside it[i].
At what point, I cannot help but wonder, does Seghal’s practice diverge from the self-same practice of neo-liberalism? How does it move beyond a re-iteration or representation of it, and become something different? One of the central specifications of This Situation, according to Sehgal, was to imbue the viewer/participant with power. By this strategy, the performers literally announced the arrival of the viewer into the space. Importantly, Sehgal later clarified this point by defining this announcement not solely in terms of a gifting of power, but also of responsibility: to perceive of oneself as subjectively powerful or relevant is always accompanied by the weight of responsibility. How the subject reacts to this address, this call, is what is of crucial importance. The literalness of the action – this very direct pause in action – is though what confuses me. By this, it seems forced, disingenuous almost. Is this not the register of the address towards the consumer?
Sehgal labored the point of creating a sovereign viewer through their implication in the situation. I wonder, though, whether it needs to be so literal. Does not a painting offer an address? And in this address is there not the possibility of subjective remaking by the process of aesthetic experience? If we perceive of aesthetic experience – by whatever means – as acknowledgement of the prodigious capacity of human judgment, then surely the subject is remade as sovereign by every instance of aesthetic experience. With this, also, comes responsibility, and the demand of ethics. It might be argued that the form of the address should act counter to the tendencies of neo-liberalism, in garnering a more productive response. I am not for one minute arguing that we should all give up performance art and dig out those easels once again. Rather, I think the form of the work should be considered: Seghal’s works are not object-less, they have a very material basis.
Tangentially, back in the fifties or sixties, pre-made cake mixes were first put on supermarket shelves. All they required was the addition of some water, put it in the oven and voila cake. Strangely enough though, they did not catch on as anticipated; if anything they were too easy. And so what did the manufacturers do? They made it more difficult. With the addition of eggs and milk, the process appeared more taxing, and thus the customer held more ownership over the final result. Sales increased exponentially. There seems to me a parallel between this strategy, and that of ‘relational’ art more generally: the viewer, by implication in the scenario, holds more ownership over the work. It holds a subjective affect, which is perhaps less apparent in traditional work. To paraphrase one of Sehgal’s interpreters last night; some of the other interpreters were truly astounding with compliments. Perhaps we need a work that flatters less obviously.
[i] Forgetting the Art World (2012) MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England, pg. 14