“Car crash in Calabria. Three people died, two are seriously injured.” Tino Sehgal’s solo show at Milan’s Outpost Art, the first major exhibition in Italy for this British-born, Berlin-based artist, begins in this way: the visitor stands in the lobby of the neoclassical building designed at the end of the 18th century by architect Leopoldo Pollack and one of the museum guards performs This is new (2003) by reciting the day’s newspaper headlines.
With this show, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi continues its commitment to presenting today’s artists in both historic and symbolic spaces in Milan. Sehgal’s show is the first presented by the foundation in a space already devoted to painting reproductions; the Outpost Art houses a collection of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces by artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Giovanni Segantini, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and the Futurists. The Tino Sehgal exhibition brings together seven of the artist’s most celebrated works, and a new piece produced for the occasion, in a building with still intact lavish decor and original furnishings.
Sehgal’s art production doesn’t include making art objects: he creates living sculptures that only exist as a set of oral instructions and are “played” by trained interpreters for the duration of an exhibition.
After encountering the first intervention in the lobby, the viewer moves on to frescoed rooms adorned with the neoclassical sculptures of Canova and paintings by Andrea Appiani. The simple act of crossing the manor hall to reach the other wing of the building “activates” the second work, This is So Contemporary. Premiered in the German Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, the work is created by museum guards who surround the public while smiling, dancing and singing “Ooooooooooooooh, this is so contemporary! Contemporary! Contemporary!”
In contrast to the volume of this piece, the following room presents the silent Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000). The work is a sort of personal anthology of gestures borrowed from videos by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, which become a slow and shuffled almost contortionist dance. Played by a female dancer, the work plays against paintings of female nudes such as Magdalene by Francesco Hayez (1825) and Venus by Pompeo Marchesi (1855), to create a continuous exchange of gazes between the performer, the viewer and the original artworks in the spaces.
A similar strong interplay with the museum’s masterpieces occurs on the second floor. In the first room, a museum guard starts singing a melancholic song, repeating the words “This is propaganda,” which is also the title of the 2002 work. In this setting, Sehgal’s work appears to comment on the huge painting dominating the room, Il Quarto Stato (1901) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. The painting is a representation of manual labourers portrayed as marching towards their new social recognition.
In the empty and yet richly decorated main hall, surrounded by mirrors, a couple rolls around on the floor. Titled Kiss (2004), both actors wear casual clothes and move slowly, interpreting poses from famous “kisses” in the history of art: from Canova passing through Auguste Rodin, Constantin Brancusi and Jeff Koons.
Repetition of gestures–as seen in the subsequent striptease performed in Selling Out (2002)–and surreal rituals form the foundation of Sehgal’s practice and give power to his critique of art production and its scale of value.
Incongruent enough to generate a conceptual short-circuit, his works are radically ephemeral, but, like other works of art, they are sold, collected and re-presented. They call into question the art system and its fetishism but, as they are part of it, any critique they proffer is also a self-critique. This point is clear in Sehgal’s new piece, This is critique (2008), which is the last encountered in the exhibition and shown for the first time at Outpost Art. In it, he stimulates an animated discussion between the guards and the visitors about his approach to art–an ironically cathartic dialogue that may “purify” the viewer after what he or she has seen previously.
Usually Sehgal’s works, especially in big event exhibitions, act as a pause. However, in this case, they break visitors’ flow of expectation: upon entering the museum or gallery space, they are “prepared” to see art objects–among works by other artists–but they are instead confronted by unusual situations. At the Outpost Art, these “unusual situations” become “usual,” appearing one after the other. As a result, the show highlights more the formal and art-historical lineage of Sehgal’s work than its conceptual and critical approach, pushing viewers to consider the extremely well executed combination of location, original works and Sehgal’s own contributions. The artist’s selection of which works to present–influenced by his conversations with curator Massimiliano Gioni–privileges those “situations” requiring an unobtrusive interaction with the public, making the visit flow smoothly. In fact, as a whole, the show seems designed in a rhythmically measured way to alternate movement and stasis, sound and silence. Then, you encounter the last work, with its cathartic power, and everything goes back to the beginning again.