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"Ceci n'est pas le vide"

An encounter with the artist of transience Tino Sehgal. By Sebastian Frenzel

ccTino Sehgal and Thomas Scheibitz, 2005 © Lisa Junghanß, 2005
Tino Sehgal likes places he has never been before. For this reason, he would have liked to come to a little café at the edge of Berlin-Kreuzberg but then there wasn't enough time, so we had to re-locate the meeting to Tucholsky Straße in Mitte, not far from his apartment. Sehgal is a sought-after man and he has his hands full, because together with the painter Thomas Scheibitz, he will be representing Germany at the Venice Biennal which opens on June 12.

But he doesn't seem too stressed when he appears. He throws his black trench coat over the back of the chair, orders a tea and sinks into the soft cushions. And he begins to talk. About this café and how he, new to Berlin, came here for the first time in the mid-90s. And about the music that was playing here and that he liked. He's likeable and modest, even though he has the right to be pretentious. The invitation to the Biennale is the highpoint of an already impressive career. Sehgal has exhibited at Frieze Art and at the ICA in London, he was represented at the Manifesta in Frankfurt and the Biennale in Moscow, he took part in Hans-Ulrich Obrist's "Do it" and won the Art prize of the Böttcherstraße in Bremen two years ago. And Tino Sehgal is just 29 years old.

To understand why this man is attracting so much international attention, one should try to understand one of his exhibitions. Imagine entering a gallery room and seeing nothing. The room is empty, there are no pictures and no sculptures. And suddenly, a museum attendant enters and hops from one leg to the other, swings his arms in circles and cries: "This is good. Tino Sehgal. 2001." In another piece, a woman collapses for no apparent reason, lolls about on the floor and then stands up and says calmly: "Tino Sehgal. This exhibition. 2004. Courtesy the artist."

What seems like a coincidence is the result of a carefully planned sequence of actions. Sehgal stages situations in which the observer is directly addressed and required to react. He surprises his viewers without making unfair demands on them. The brief moments in which something happens actually create a feeling of deprivation, the impression that something is missing. Because one wonders more about the framework in which the actions take place than about the the actions themselves, about how all normal exhibition practices are being ignored. "Literally every child knows that the museum is the temple of things. This constant is overridden in my work." A performance artist? "No way," says Sehgal emphatically and at this point he gets quite serious. "My works belong in a museum."

A visual artist who creates no material objects – this contradiction can best be explained through Sehgal's biography and all the paradoxes it contains. Tino Sehgal, born 1976 in London to an Indian and a German, studied economics and dance: subjects which seem diametrically opposed. "As a kid I was interested in politics and studied economics to understand the foundations and to see how our economy functions," Sehgal explains. "Generally our society defines itself through technical progress – development means technology's transformation of natural resources into ever more refined things. But we already have far more than we need, and the mode of production is not sustainable and on top of that, a bit boring. For me the question was how to oppose this without lapsing into asceticism."

In looking for an answer, he turned to dance – which most of his friends and family did not understand. Even he must grin as he explains what happened intuitively but, in retrospect, seems to have had a logic of its own. "I wanted to see whether there are other ways of producing things. And dance was the first solution for me: one is engaged, one does something without producing any material product – nonetheless, it's a thing, a work, which one can talk and think about."

With political motivation on the one hand and dance as form on the other, Sehgal turned to art. "What intrigues me in art is the tradition of Duchamp, the possibility that a thing can become different and at the same time remain the same. The objectness of art however, never interested me. Because every object-based artwork affirms the highly problematic mode of production - the transformation of material - because it is produced in the same way."

Sehgal does not transform material, but rather actions; he works with fleeting words and movements instead of fixing his works in time and space. And he takes this to its logical conclusion. There are no photographs, no videos of his works – they are saved exclusively in the memory of the participants. it is possible to buy a "Sehgal" – but only in the presence of a notary, with whom one negotiates how and where the piece is to be executed.

Scanning art history for a parallel to Sehgal's work, one arrives at Yves Klein, the great master of nothingness and of meditations on emptiness. In 1958 he invited viewers into the Paris Gallery Iris Clert where there was nothing to see other than white painted walls. He called the piece "Le vide" – emptiness. Tino Sehgal: "The spiritually loaded aspect of Klein's work makes me suspicious but nonetheless, 'Le vide' is an important work for me." Sehgal's first exhibition was a direct engagement with Klein's work – but it took a major step further. Sehgal emptied the entire gallery space but when the viewer entered, the gallery owner stepped backwards out of his office and said, in a play on Magritte: "Ceci n'est pas le vide" - this is not emptiness.

One can understand this sentence as a programmatic statement on Sehgal's work. Sehgal wants to go beyond emptiness without losing himself in metaphysics. "For me it's a matter of looking: what comes after emptiness, how can I create something beyond asceticism or pure negation? One element is certainly the empowerment of the viewer. Anyone who comes in notices: what I'm doing is significant." What the viewer sees depends on the instructions that the actor has been given by Sehgal; but the works remain highly contingent. "Normally the artist's subjectivity is manifest in his work; at some point he stands in front of it and thinks, that is mine. I can only do this to a certain extent. My works exist in the form of a potentiality – they are realised when the visitor enters. And what happens then is not entirely in my control. "The experimental nature of Sehgal's work was likewise evident in his exhibition in the ICA in London. Five men approached the visitor, stood around him in a circle and called: "The objective of this work is to become the object of the discussion." As soon as a visitor countered them, the actors responded by launching into (what was supposed to be) an intellectual discussion on art. The tautological trap snapped shut: the discussion had become the work, which had the goal of becoming the object of a discussion.

For Sehgal such situations contain an inherently playful moment: "The thing can only work because there are certain conventions and the situation plays with these conventions." But his works do not become strictly representational, they explore the space between the proof of reality and the art-imminent reflections. The interaction between the viewers and Sehgal's actors follows no particular rules, but rather creates them. And perhaps this is the fascinating thing about Sehgal's works: it arranges situations in which the distinction between artist, work and viewer are blurred. At this point zero of the white cube logic, something happens which in its fleetingness defies an attempt to interpret; something that is significant but whose significance cannot be pinned down.

What does he plan after the Biennale? Tino Sehgal wants to continue in the direction of interaction and play, he wants to create moments that develop their own dynamic. In his works, visitors should land in unfamiliar situations. In places previously unknown to them.

This article was originally published in German on June 6, 2005 in the taz.

Sebastian Frenzel is a freelance journalist in Berlin.

translation: nb - let's talk european