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This is so contemporary!

Gina Fairley

It's a statement we've all heard; Tino Sehgal gives us his spin on the topic but are audiences getting into the contemporary jive?
This is so contemporary!

This is hardly so contemporary, Sehgal's interpreters without their costumes or performing, complying rigidly to the artist's desire for his work not to be documented. 

What is a live encounter, or to use Tino Sehgal's preferred term, a constructed situation? Head to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) over the next two weeks and find out as celebrated London-born Berlin-based Sehgal occupies the gallery's imposing traditional foyer in the most surprising of ways.

Walking into the gallery unsuspecting visitors are "set upon" by four interpreters, as Sehgal calls them, dressed as gallery guards they chant and dance slightly pinning them in as they attempt to enter the gallery. 

Reactions are mixed. Some delight, others scurry away only to be followed by a somewhat hysteria pack, and others flee - while watching today a family of Chinese tourists turned on their heels and headed straight back out, a little girl's trailing voice could be heard: 'daddy I don't like it in there'.

The experience is disarming. John Kaldor, Director of Kaldor Public Art Projects, said: ‘Sehgal’s works open our eyes to a radical new way to engage with art and that must be experienced to be fully understood.’

Most would agree. Certainly, Sehgal's piece at AGNSW is memorable and challenging in the most delightful way - a far better result than his inclusion in Kaldor's project last year 13 Rooms, which was lost mere as someone giving directions. 

It is not surprising to learn that this is another Kaldor Public Art Project, purchased by the well-known collector who first introduced Australian audiences to Sehgal's through 13 Rooms. Kaldor said Sehgal was delighted this work was in the collection. He added that in museums the work tends to get shown and then shelved. 

Kaldor intends to tour This is so contemporary to other Australian cities and is already in discussions.  

He added, ‘I first saw Sehgal’s work Kiss at the Berlin Biennale in 2006. I was mesmerised by its power and simple beauty. This is so contemporary is one of my favourite works. It’s joyous and spontaneous, involving and engaging the audience directly.’

Sehgal was trained in political economics and choreography and creates artworks with no physical form. He orchestrates live encounters through movement and discussion, drawing visitors to the gallery into direct dialogue and reflection about philosophical or economic issues. 

This piece is certainly physical, while not so obvious in its philosophical position. But it is there. Simply, it is key that no physical object exist, be it written explanations, wall texts, documentation and photography of the artwork. I am told by his team in Sydney that Sehgal is so vigilant in this request he even has people working for him to remove images posted on the internet of his work. There goes that idea of sharing a video! 

How then are the artist's intentions conveyed to those who perform his work?

Melbourned-based Becky Hilton has been given the job to communicate This is so contemporary. That it is aurally transmitted it pivotal to the piece. She said, 'Tino wont do it unless he knows the people connecting him to the work.' Hilton, who has a background in dance, shares a common friend with the artist, Xavier Le Roy, whose live art was also presented at 13 Rooms

Hilton added, 'Part of the framework is that I travel by train. No planes. Nothing is written down. It is all phone calls and emails.' She added, 'It is fun to be the lioness guarding that position.' 

Of the work itself Hilton said, 'It is the perfect storm between the intellectual and the physical. Human interaction sits central to the whole conception and delivery of the constructed situation.'

So you will just have to get yourself along to the AGNSW and get caught up in the dervish chant that is, This is so contemporary.

And if you are a bit skeptical about this “contemporary art” intervention, clearly Sehgal is doing something right. His recent exhibitions include This Progress at the Guggenheim New York in 2010, These Associations at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2012, This Variation at the last Documenta 13 and this piece was presented at the last Venice Biennale where he won the Golden Lion.

'Sehgal creates something that is at once valuable and entirely immaterial in a world already full of objects,’ explained a statement on Sehgal’s project. We agree.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This is so contemporary

Art Gallery of New South Wales

6 – 23 February.


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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