What takes place in between? Tino Sehgal in Kiasma

Text & photos: Marko Gylén, September 9th 2015

How to write about works of art, if almost any piece of information is said to disturb the experience of them? One cannot but try and be careful, refraining from giving too much information or representations of the works.

Already at the counter I am interrupted. I have entered Kiasma and try to ask about Tino Sehgal’s exhibition, but the receptionist seems rather hesitant to give any answers. No, there isn’t the usual sheet of written information, I am told. And one must be careful not to call the artworks performances because, quite frankly, they are not.

I reply to her that I’m already beginning to like this exhibition, albeit not having encountered the works yet. Later I regret such a presumptuous wording. Why didn’t I hold my mouth? It’s not my place to announce my appetite or to reduce the works to the enjoyment of a viewer.

I am also told the museum shall not provide any press material, so I have to make it very clear that the photos are taken by me. Sehgal prefers his works not to be photographed. I decide not to give my reader the normal visual representation of the works, as one would like to have them beside the critique. The artist… no, it is the works themselves that won’t let me .

Finally, the receptionist also reveals to me that this year six new species of lichen have been found in Finland. The piece of information belongs to a work by Sehgal, called “This is New” (2003–). So, some information of the exhibition is finally given, but it is a random headline of today’s news and itself a work of art, rather than information of one. Or, one may be tempted to ask: Where’s the difference? The work, its linguistic description, the event of both, and the uninformative silence all merge. Information does not come easy. Why do we crave for it? Why do we allow ourselves to be bombarded by it? Why do I pose these questions, and keep asking for more information? I must stop.

I turn around and discover that one of Sehgal’s works, or “constructed situations”, as the artist prefers to call them, is already happening in front of me. A couple, dressed like any other people in the museum, slowly embraces, kisses, and fondles each other on the floor. Actually, it is not them who are in front of me but I am in front of them. No, it’s perhaps better to say that they are at the front door of the museum. They are there to be confronted. But there is no front, no frontier, no opposition. They are just a couple, two human beings kissing each other. Do they have to be an object for an aesthetic evaluation? Certainly not.

And yet I fall for the evaluation. A momentary lapse. I can’t help but notice and conceptualize certain slowness, smooth rhythm, choreography. There is no mark of “institutionalized” art dance however, no elongated arms or the like. This constructed situation is called “Kiss” (2007). Some pictorial works of art of the same title may come to one’s mind: Rodin, Klimt etc. The slowness of the couple makes the postures visible enough. As they linger one has time to remember some instances of art historical imagery.

A glimpse of Sehgal’s “Kiss” in Kiasma (Photo: Marko Gylén)

Time is without doubt one of the elements to be explored in the work. Space and bodily movement likewise. (I am inclined to say Zeit-Spiel-Raum, but I promised myself not to get all too Heideggerian this time.) The two human beings draw the room anew. The work literally takes place. We look at them, circle around, and sidestep. We yield. In ancient Greek language the word for picture, eikon, is of the same root as the verb for yielding, giving way, and withdrawing, eikein. We, the yielders become part of the yield, part of the work and the product of the production. We participate in drawing and withdrawal, as we dwell in the same room. We do keep a safe distance; we withhold ourselves, careful not to break the spell, the spell of suspension. We are at the verge of spelling some words, but somehow it would be inappropriate.

We prohibit ourselves from interrupting the situation exhibited. And yet we are already within.

The Kiss is part of the exhibition. The kissers exhibit themselves. By inhabiting the vestibule of the museum they inhibit the visitors from advancing forward. They keep the habit of kissing and habituate us to a vision of it. They are having it out, ex-habiting, within the institution of the exhibition prohibiting us from touching the works. Or is it rather the intimacy that prohibits us, not the institution? The private situation does not let itself to be rehabilitated.

My words encircle each other as the artwork continues embracing itself.

I detach myself from my wordplays and proceed to the second floor. There one is supposed to find the next constructed situation by Sehgal, called “Yet Untitled”. It is there waiting to be titled, waiting for language to enter. Does the “yet” say “so far” or “nevertheless”? No, enough with these conceptualizations. It simply remains untitled. Still. I let it be.

I encounter a couple sitting on the floor, dancing much in a similar rhythm and speed as in the previous work. Here, however , the dancers hardly touch each other, but they sing together in some repetitive or continuous syllables and rhythmical click consonants. Very beautifully – if the word is still allowed in my genre of writing – and harmoniously they attune, moan, chant and hum the hymns.

A piece of floor reflecting Sehgal’s “Yet Untitled” (Photo: Marko Gylén)

There is some familiarity in the chants, something that resonates with my memory. There are hints of words and shades of popular melodies, but I get the feeling this line of thinking is beside the point. Something else is going on. I decide to situate myself at the whole work and let the singing appear as the root of all songs, a prelude, a pros-ody.

Although there aren’t any recognizable words, they seem to share some verses and have a conversation. The song converts itself to the movements, more in fashion of contemporary dance.

Sometimes his singing seems to persuade her to take certain positions and movements. She bends more on her back, rotates, comes closer, and withdraws. Sometimes it’s the other way around. At a certain point she resists him and sings stronger while he lowers his voice. Then he murmurs and babbles along her melody. Now she stands up and leaves the room. He’s alone and after a while he accelerates his rhythm of tunes, as if talking to himself. Another man comes in and they engage in a duet with bodily interaction. They seem to discuss what just happened or what to do next. Or is this just my imagination? Why do I have the need for a narrative sense when there may be none?

They are people, hence the sense. With their movements they organize the situation, make sense of it. But the communication or interaction appears to be phatic, stressing the contact in communication and keeping open the communicative channel, thus carving and moulding the social space.

I am interrupted by a thought. Did I mute my cell phone?

The voice makes the architecture appear more vividly. The room does not simply echo the voices, but resonates. If I write about Echo I must write about Narcissus too, and of the mirroring of voice and visage. But this frame of reference does not suit here, since they interact and respond with each other and with the architectural space hosting them.

The artwork makes room for something to take place. There is something here. The endless loop of Sehgal’s work does not merge with the wandering visitors. It keeps a distance. It does not perform or represent anything, however, but presents itself and the surroundings. By merely happening there, by its sheer presence, it challenges the visitors. It insists. They are there, unavoidably. They persist.

There are no separate spheres for the audience and for the singer-dancers. Of course, we do act differently, but we take part in the same situation. The song-dance is inexplicable and unable to be titled. By being there, it suspends us visitors on the threshold of making sense. But we are not making any sense, we are just sensing each other’s presence.

The situation opens up the social space. Where I am, is, who I am. For the time being, for the human beings, we are here. This happens all the time but is left unnoticed or unfelt.

Am I aware of myself? If “aware” means some representational knowledge, then no. I do not reflect myself. I am merely being careful, with sophrosyne, or prudence, and thus sensing myself, and ourselves. Discreetly, I have entered the temple. The temple is not the shrine of Apollo in Delphi, or the museum of contemporary art, and not the constructed situation by Sehgal either. We participate in con-templation.

I go back downstairs to exit the museum. I bypass the Kiss and a couple looking at it. The couple looking at the work are kissing too. The work has habilitated the ability to kiss.

They are regular visitors, I suppose.

Tino Sehgal in Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art
Aug. 15th 2015–Sep. 27th 2015
In co-operation with Helsinki Festival, Federal Foreign Office Germany, Goethe-Institut Finnland, HIAP.
Mannerheiminaukio 2, Helsinki
Tue 10–17, Wed–Fri 10–20.30, Sat 10–18, Sun 10–17