I’ve seen Tino Sehgal’s work twice now, live, and live is the only way you can see it. The first live piece I saw was This Variation at dOCUMENTA 13, and the second live piece was an exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, which involved a haunting performance called Ann Lee, performed by a young girl alone in a room.
I keep repeating “live” because Tino Sehgal is stringently anti-documentation. He does not want or allow traces of his work to exist where possible, and Ann Lee has miraculously escaped being recorded at least in video form that I can find. In the words of Lauren Collins for the New Yorker, “His [Sehgal’s] pieces leave no physical residue. To see one, you have to either visit the museum or consult a tertiary report.” In fact, Collins followed Sehgal to an acquisition, noting that “when a person buys one of Sehgal’s works, that person acquires the right to have people enact it in the future. There would be no contract, no certificate of authenticity. To complete the transaction, a notary would orally validate the agreement, circumventing the paper trail.” So I have to bring you into Ann Lee in words. As Eileen Kinsella writes:
Ann Lee, as each performer introduces herself, is a Japanese manga character brought to life, who makes doll-like hand gestures and speaks in wondrous measured tones about having been set “free,” meeting humans for the first time, and becoming a three-dimensional, rather than a two-dimensional character. Her monologue is punctuated with direct questions to particular audience members, such as when she asks: “Do you know Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno?” Ann Lee addresses this phenomenon when she tells the audience she used to be with Huyghe and Parreno, but that they have gotten “busy.” “Lately I’ve been trying to hang out with Tino Sehgal, but he, too, has also become busy,” she explains, as her speech becomes more halting, and she slowly moves her hands up and down as though she is weighing the matter . . . Each Ann Lee singled out at least one audience member and asked permission to pose a question: “Would you rather be too busy or not busy enough?” (Most respondents chose the former). “Why’s that?,” continued Ann Lee, before pondering that answer and proceeding with no further comment. Each performance ends with one last question “What is the relation between a sign and melancholia?”
There’s a lot of invisibility involved in Sehgal’s work and the first kind of invisibility to address is the absence of an object. This is something we’ve been reflecting on in Mark Sussman’s research-creation class this semester: what is research-creation without an object? Tino Sehgal’s work has been referred to as “living sculpture” or as “interactive human installation,” or, in his preferred terms, as “constructed situations.”
As backstory to the Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno question that she herself poses, Ann Lee was originally a manga character that Huyghe and Parreno acquired from a design company for 460,00 Yen (560 CAN) and passed her on to other artists to create stories for her (see videos below). They then assigned a copyright to Ann Lee so she could no longer be exploited. Eight years later, Tino Sehgal found her. In the words of Thierry Somers for an article for 200% The Lengths to Which Artists Go, “I ask [Asad] Raza [Sehgal’s producer] how Sehgal was able to secure Ann Lee’s copyright as the copyright was assigned to her. He laughs and says, ‘In the contract there wasn’t any mention made that the character couldn’t be brought to life. When I met the lawyer I told him that we have found a way to use Ann Lee for free. He answered, Yes, you have found the loophole.’”
Philippe Parreno, Anywhere Out in the World, 2000
Pierre Huyghe, No Ghost Just a Shell, 2001
This is something, again, that circles back to discussions of trying to find out what it is to move away from objects in research-creation; perhaps, moving toward gesture? In her article “New Materialisms and Performance Studies,” Rebecca Schneider counts the amount of times the word “gesture” appears in a 2008 article “Open Forum Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism’” by Sara Ahmed (twenty-six times). In a moment of what Schneider may refer to as “turn fatigue,” we could even call our theoretical moment the “gestural turn.” Is Ann Lee, then, a gesture?
Another axis of invisibility in Sehgal’s work is the invisible labour that becomes present when we discuss this kind of artwork.
In her article “Material Traces: Performativity, Artistic ‘Work,’ and New Concepts of Agency,” Amelia Jones speaks of the ways in which the material labour of the artist appears in the work of Heather Cassil as she literally boxes with a large piece of clay on stage — but in the work of Tino Sehgal, where is the trace of the work? It is enacted via the bodies of performers, such as Ann Lee, for whom there are casting calls held before each show. Anecdotally, it’s usually dancers that Sehgal ends up casting for the role, and not, as one might think, actors.
Collins writes: “An irony of Sehgal’s collaborative approach is that he has created a sort of art factory—an enterprise that at times provides work for several hundred people and pays by the hour. Sehgal is the overseer, not the artisan, deriving his livelihood from the labors of others.” I looked into it, and for his work These Associations at Tate Modern, the “interpreters,” as he calls them, were paid just a tick above Living Wage.
This is theatre or performance work, you might say, yet Sehgal made the somewhat controversial decision of distancing himself from theatre, from performance art, and situated his work in museums. One of the first things Ann Lee says to you when she walks into the room is, “I like museums. They communicate with the past . . . What a beautiful idea, communicating with the past.”
With that, I wanted to close with a couple quotes that could open this piece into further discussion.
Rebecca Schneider asks, referring to Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett:
When does a trajectory of human or nonhuman agency begin and end, and whom does it sweep along with it, where? What part rat, what part human, and where do we account for difference? . . . Does it matter who (or what) is speaking? (13).
And from Jones:
The shift to concept or idea and away from form or thing was not in fact a total rejection of materiality as such: all artists with conceptually based practices continued to work with materials, albeit sometimes quite ephemeral ones such as actual bodies performing in actual spaces, or the bits and pieces of documentation and other remainders that sustained historical memory around each conceptual art gesture. Even more importantly to the point I am making here, the gesture of the readymade referred back inexorably to the materiality of the choosing subject, the artist (31).
Who and what is Ann Lee? Is she a character? An avatar? Is she human? Non-human? Is she matter, vibrant or not? And what is Ann Lee by Tino Sehgal, who trades in ephemera? Is this a work of choreography? A co-production? Or is Ann Lee a sort of deixis, a pointing to a “here” or a “there”? If so, what kind of gesture is this?
And: what is the relationship between a sign and melancholia?
Jones, Amelia. “Material Traces: Performativity, Artistic ‘Work,’ and New Concepts of Agency.” TDR: The Drama Review 59.4 (Winter 2015): 18–35.
Schneider, Rebecca. “New Materialisms and Performance Studies.” TDR: The Drama Review 59.4 (Winter 2015): 7–17.