The fine art of conversation
'This Progress' by Tino Sehgal was on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from January 29th until March 10th, 2010. My friend and I enjoyed this pleasant, interactive art piece. It filled the entire Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda. As we walked up four floors, four strangers treated us to a delightful conversation about 'progress'.
On the second floor, a young child greeted us and asked for a definition of progress. After I scrambled to provide him with a simple answer: 'when things get better', he stumped me by asking for an example. My friend Emily could think on the spot faster and suggested evolution. While walking, our new friend asked us questions about what we meant.
On the third floor, a teenager who questioned the notion of progress itself appeared, and our younger child left. Our new conversationalist invited us to examine why 'things must get better'. He asked us to consider other forms of progress and to provide examples from our personal lives. He shared a few of his own, including his memorable frustration with the way new technology only sped up the amount of time we wasted.
Once on the fourth floor, he left and a charismatic woman replaced him as our walking companion. She was closer to our age, and advocated using anger to achieve our goals because it was 'more efficient and direct'. I enjoyed her analogy to the two sides of this argument. She asked me if I was "more like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X? You seem like you're more Martin Luther. You probably wouldn't hurt a fly." When I replied that I was more like Martin Luther King, she pointed out that he was dead.
On the fifth floor, soon after our young woman disappeared, we met a senior gentleman. As we strolled a bit slower up the rotunda, he asked us about the weather. Once at the top, he wished us both a nice day and hoped we enjoyed the conversation.
Sehgal's work began with a scripted introduction, and continued with the personal experiences of the people who engaged us in conversation. In interviews, Sehgal described his work as 'constructed situations' and abhorred any comparison to performance art. Instead, he insisted that he challenged the authority of the museum as a 'temple of objects' by substituting art objects with live people.
Perhaps more intriguing was Sehgal's refusal to document his work. Aside from the visitors, who were not allowed to take pictures, he insisted that the museum could not create exhibition catalogues. Moreover, the contract to purchase his work (which fell in the six figure category) was oral. If the purchases failed to meet his strict provisions the work became a 'fake'.
Although Sehgal did not intend his work to be humourous, I found it immensely amusing. I have never enjoyed myself so much in a museum. Nor have I ever had a conversation with a work of art that answered me back.