August 1, 2015

Tino Seghal at Martin Gropius Bau. Or the Cynicism of the Art Critic

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Walter Benjamin presented radio broadcasts for both adults and kids. One was about the Carousel of Jobs in which Benjamin asked his audience to describe the influence of their job on their mood and views and to think about the person they were when they took the job compared to the person they became in the job. Being an art critic it was last Wednesday that I noticed how I have turned a little cynical. And it was when visiting Tino Seghal’s exhibition in Martin Gropius Bau that I did so, which is funny enough, because it’s Tino Seghal who I always find a little on the cynical side. I especially disliked his work shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin, which consisted of an actor dressed in the same uniform as the (real) guards, singing a short text whenever a visitor entered the space. I found it cynical that the actors were all casted to look like the (real) guards - a kind of stereotyping of people. I found it also cynical to play with a profession like that (just try to imagine an actor is casted to look like you, is then dressed like you to sing a high pitched song) - especially a profession that is certainly not highly paid and very highly respected. Why not clone the director of the museum and make him (no question it's a "he", right?) sing a song? Wouldn’t that be funny? On top of it, it was always a woman singing in a high-pitched voice the line “This is propaganda” - which I found cynical as well: women have no authority in our, oh so free, society - our higher voice, for instance, being one of the factors that is associated with low power. In general, I find artists cynical who belong to this privileged international art tribe and turn people into marionettes for their convenience.* 

So I was telling all this to my friend Fabio who joined me to the show of Tino Seghal in Martin Gropius Bau. And it was at the moment when I started to say what a calculated market strategy Tino Seghal had developed by not allowing photos to be taken of his work and only selling by handshake instead of a contract - indeed, it was at that moment that Fabio rolled his eyes and told me to shut the f* up. He said so in a nice way, of course, using a metaphor. Imagine, so he told me, you're in Hong Kong and it’s really hot. You would have two possibilities: or you keep complaining about the heat and make it worse, or you just surrender to the heat, let go of any resistance and melt in it. Alright, OK ...  I got the message and, anxious to be seen as a cynic, followed up by surrendering to the exhibition of Tino Seghal, which involved several dance performances going on in various spaces of the Martin Gropius Bau. And I did enjoy it, yes I did. I was happy to see my favorite dancer of all times, Justin F. Kennedy, performing. And I especially valued the fact that there is no material involved in this show, no set-up, no mise-en-scene - which is great in the current art world of materiality and mise-en-scenes. 

In the Tino Seghal exhibit it is not only about dancing, but there's also singing and philosophising going on. Fabio explained to me that Tino Seghal reads a lot of Lacan and Nietsche and stuff like that. OK, I could see that. My favourite scene was the one with children: a little girl acting like a manga character, asking the audience deep questions like “what do you prefer: to be too busy or not busy enough?” Fabio decided he’d rather be “too busy”. Well, he’s moving to Switzerland to work in a big shot gallery - I guess he will get what he wished for... (is this me being cynical again?)

* about artists using people as marionettes, read this great article by Ken Johnson in the New York Times.

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