By Armelle Leturcq

On the occasion of Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel’s nomination as the associate director of Lafeyette Anticipations, rediscover our meeting with her from our issue 77 in 2016.

What can we say about an artist who declines all media attention and refuses any representation of his work? Tino Sehgal, a major figure of his generation, reinvents performance through works that exist exclusively in the present moment, making them impossible to reproduce. Curator of the Palais de Tokyo, Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel is presenting the largest personal exhibition of “living art” ever put together, while inviting the public to take part in Sehgal’s work. Given carte blanche, he will transform the 13,000 m2 of exhibition space at his disposal in order to deploy his immaterial art, setting the stage for the kind of presence and exchange that will enable visitors to live an exceptional human experience that pushes the boundaries of traditional art.

How did you decide to work with Tino Sehgal on this carte blanche project?

Our relationship with Tino began with the Philippe Parreno exhibition in 2013. It was the first time the expanded Palais de Tokyo had given carte blanche to an artist. In collaboration with Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno launched a project in 1999 entitled No Ghost Just a Shell, which used the manga character AnnLee, a virtual little girl whose rights were purchased from a Japanese agency, freeing her from the entertainment industry and introducing her into the art world. For several years, Huyghe and Parreno invited different artists to work with AnnLee, transforming and embodying her character; among them Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, François Curlet, and Tino Sehgal. In 2013, during Philippe’s carte blanche show at Palais de Tokyo, a little girl hardly ten years old emerged at the end of the film like an apparition, telling visitors about the conditions of her existence, her transformation, and how she, AnnLee, had now become a work by Tino Sehgal. We were profoundly touched by the intensity of this piece. And it was that piece, along with our long admiration for Tino’s work, which led Jean de Loisy to invite him to organize a carte blanche show.

Does that mean that AnnLee is the central theme of this exhibition?

AnnLee is not exactly the central theme of the exhibition, but she did spark our invitation. That said, AnnLee could function as a metaphor, a contraction of Tino’s research; what creates being, presence, sign, through tools that include voice, movement, the body, and exchange. Huyghe and Parreno’s approach to AnnLee, which consists in imagining a collective work composed in ricochet fashion, which is transformed each time a new artist takes part, is also very similar to Tino’s collaborative approach. His works exist through the subjectivity of each participant and each visitor, who meet within the exhibition space and give birth to a work, a constructed situation.

Does the exhibition feature many new pieces?

It’s the biggest living art project ever produced and the most important project ever put together by Tino Sehgal. Our institution is offering 13,000 m2 of empty exhibition space to Tino, giving him carte blanche to deploy his universe with as much freedom as possible. A hundred participants will be present throughout the spaces to deploy Tino’s constructed situations. He also chose to invite artists, whose works bear witness to his deep connection to the French art scene. These works resonate with the conceptual research Tino has developed since the 2000s, and each one of them poses the question of experience in its own way; the work is no longer an object we observe but an object we experience, which only comes to life through the visitor who physically encounters and explores it. In fact, as Tino sees it, an exhibition of this scale cannot and must not be created in an individualistic way. The carte blanche given to Philippe Parreno, who also presented other artists during his exhibition, including research by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, his collaboration with Douglas Gordon based on Zidane, and, of course, Tino, established a model that we will continue to explore. The goal is to defy the individual exhibition model and the myth of an artwork that stands isolated or impermeable from its environment, as though the artist were working in retreat from the world. On the contrary, Tino works to produce a post-individual exhibition, one that reveals the multiple ties and relations that artistic research holds with the flux and thoughts of its time, the extent to which this process is an encounter and a dialogue, an organism that is constructed and transformed upon contact with the other. For that reason, Tino’s project not only brings together an incredible number of participants, but it also retraces every steps in a thought process he holds in common with the guest artists, who share the same profound exploration of what makes an artwork, as well as a practice that transforms the exhibition into a living ritual in movement. For the exhibition, we cleared 13,000 m2 of our museum, removing the walls from many of our spaces; our aim is to minimize the sense of isolation, to expand the horizons of perception in an exhibition that functions as an organism in perpetual metamorphosis.

What will remain after the exhibition is finished?

The memories of those who experienced it.

No photos are allowed during the exhibition.

The fact that people cannot take photos or videos of Tino’s pieces, which has been the case since the beginning of his career, is widely discussed and commented – at the risk of generating, in my opinion, a misunderstanding about his work. This aspect is a condition of his work’s existence; in no way is it a starting point or an end in itself. Tino’s work is rooted in the experience, in the visitor’s subjectivity, their physical and intellectual encounter with a situation created upon contact with the participants. How can an image or video record the unease and surprise that take hold of me when a child comes up to me and asks me what progress is? How can these media capture the emotions and mental images that arise in me when I hear the words of the little girl embodying AnnLee? No photograph can communicate the intensity of that moment, nor the complex emotions and energies that construct it – that present moment cannot be translated into an image. Tino’s work, because it unfolds in time and space through an exchange between several beings, cannot be captured. In addition, because it is a work that is constantly transformed by all the subjectivities that come into contact within its space, labelling an image as the work of Tino Sehgal is something of an aberration: Tino’s space is a flux, a movement, a ricochet, an exchange between individualities that is renewed with each new interaction – something that images, which immobilize, or video, which cannot reveal the movement taking place within the person, are incapable of transmitting. Finally, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the photos and videos of Tino’s work that are available here and there are uninteresting and extremely banal: all you see are a few people in a room that, typically, is all white. That is one of the most groundbreaking dimensions of Tino’s work: nothing can replace your personal encounter with his work. Nothing outside of your own physical presence at the exhibition can enable you to experience or access this transformation. 

Is it similar to theater or dance in that in takes place in the present moment?

What is human is less a substance and more a process, and these different practices imply vastly different ways of thinking and experiencing what is human, which in turn involves very different ways of thinking and experiencing what is present. In Tino’s work, the notions of spectacle, of play in the theatrical sense of the term, and of meeting all vanish. All the modern dynamics of representation have required the physical separation of individuals across the stage, a hierarchy of roles indicated by lighting actors and leaving the audience in the dark, the stillness of those who come to see the spectacle, even the idea of a performance time establishing the precise hour at which an event of a particular intensity will take place, etc. Tino swept aside this writing of division and separation, in a process that aligns with the contemporary research led by choreographers and dancers like Boris Charmatz, Xavier Leroy, and Jérôme Bel, with whom he has previously collaborated. Tino develops an art of contingency. He constructs situations in which subjectivities can meet and interact, in which it is consequently impossible to predict what gestures or speech might emerge: no script is given to participants, no materials are supplied outside of their own eloquence and ability to communicate, they interact with visitors who are also invited to show the same level of spontaneity. Tino’s constructed situations are almost like mental tools, each piece stages an emotional landscape, and I often think of the Palais de Tokyo exhibition as an interior odyssey, towards an encounter with our own transformation and all of our potential selves. In the exhibition, the visitor creates their world, as the architect of their own experience.

How will that work? Will visitors also take part in the exhibition? What is the role of the 160 participants present in the installations?

For over a year, together with Tino Sehgal, Asad Raza, and Julia Simpson’s producers, we met with several hundred people from every background in Paris. For example, they include architects, poets, writers, retirees, students, engineers, psychologists, journalists, etc. They responded to an ad that we distributed as widely as possible, and we selected them to take part in the project based on their open-mindedness, curiosity, eloquence, their capacity to tell their story, as well as their ability to reach out to others and talk with them. They will take part in different pieces that explore a part of our humanity. At every moment, participants will respond to whatever resources are offered by visitors.

Will every visitor play a direct role in the installations?

None of Tino’s pieces can exist without the presence of the visitor, though each one engages the work in a very different way, and it’s always a new economy of exchange, a new economy of connection, a new geometry of the individual and the collective that is created. Each of us will experience an encounter with ourselves and with the other, with a multiplicity of self and a multiplicity of potential others. And each of us will experience something different because the pieces will not be viewed at the same moment in time. This is an exploration into the infinite possibility of what an exhibition can be, and Tino is reflecting on what the exhibition of the 21st century will be, how to renew this ritual while emancipating it of its established format, in which visitors come to see and look at inanimate objects. In addition, and in continuity with the projects he presented at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin in 2015 and on the Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh a few months ago, he is giving his work a new degree of complexity in which the pieces themselves will interact, merge, dance together – to the point of effacing the very idea of an artwork in a set form, fixed in time and space.

Will Tino Sehgal be present at the exhibition?

Tino will be present at every moment. The exhibition is a flux, an organism in movement that takes shape on several levels and according to many variables, and he will be present to oversee the composition, its evolution, and its transformation. Every organism needs certain things in order to grow and not die, so to speak. For this project, these things include the number of visitors and the temperature in the spaces, as well as the rhythm of participants’ movement through the exhibition and the intensity of light in certain pieces, just to name a few of the elements that will construct this experience, while keeping in mind that many of these elements will not be planned, and that we have no way of anticipating them.

How will the opening take place?

There won’t be an opening. Tino’s work questions a number of rituals, such as the opening, as well as set meeting or event times. His work builds on the history and affiliation of the visual arts, instead of performance, which asks visitors to meet at a specific time and invites us to mentally prepare ourselves for a spectacle, for an intensity created within a very specific period of time. On the other hand, his works will be on permanent display throughout the institution’s hours of operation, flying in the face of the traditional performance model. The intensity is diluted, diffused, it ricochets, it disappears, it is in movement. The concept of an opening, of a spectacular event with a specially invited audience goes against this type of thinking. It’s magnificent how Tino’s work forces the entire Palais de Tokyo to evolve, as is always the case with the carte blanche events, inviting us to reinvent our models and formats, so they conform as closely as possible to the artist’s thinking. So the exhibition will kick off without the art world’s sacrosanct ritual of the opening; doors will open to the public on October 12 at noon, with no indicated entry point or destination.

So there are no visuals to represent the exhibition?

Absolutely none. As all of Tino’s work concerns the question of presence, we have not released any images and the introductory text was kept to a minimum. Only those who are present at the exhibition can talk about what they experience, and the only visuals of the exhibition will be the images that their stories conjure up in the minds of their listeners.

Though Instagram already features many images of his work.

We cannot prevent every visitor from taking photos or videos of Tino’s exhibition and work, but we can inform them. Of course, none of us wants the Palais de Tokyo to turn into some sort of police state, quite the contrary; visitors are free to come and go as they please, and to do whatever they want with themselves and their time within the spaces. It’s a liberal project in which each person is responsible for their own choices and actions. That said, I sincerely feel that it would be a shame for visitors to disappear even for a second behind their cameras instead of coming to grips with the work at hand, a work that depends on their presence. The symptomatic gesture of our time, that desire to capture everything in a snapshot, is extremely paradoxical; the image proves that we were present in a given place at a given time, although the act of capturing the image completely detaches us from the present – the image prevents us from experiencing the present moment. That obsession with photography and recording makes our history a sum of archives rather than memories. Tino’s work calls us back to the present moment; it’s not about what you see, instead it’s about what you experience, not what you saw, but what you felt.

So there will not be any censorship?

I think we are as far from censorship as we can possibly be. Visitors are invited to move throughout the exhibition, in all of their subjectivity, individuality, and singularity. Unlike our ordinary experiences in museums and institutions, where the body is traditionally monitored and controlled by security, which extends from the prohibition against approaching or touching artworks, to the more or less tacit law of silence and discretion, as well as the texts written by the institution to guide visitors’ understanding of the artwork. None of these elements, to mention just a few examples of what ordinarily frames our visits to cultural sites, will exist. There is no competent authority or guide, except the actual experiences lived by visitors. In addition, the fact that Tino’s work cannot be photographed in no way prevents it from being talked about, again quite the contrary. His work only continues to exist in the stories told about it; those told by the participants present at the Palais de Tokyo through the two and a half months of the exhibition and whose bodies and minds will make up these constructed situations, and those of the visitors who will explore the installations. I had the chance to interact with different people who have had very different experiences almost everywhere around the world, and it’s always a pleasure and truly an intense experience for each of these witnesses to feel responsible for the continued life and memory of this work. And, of course, none of those who have experienced the same work have described it or commented on it in the same way. Marcel Duchamp, at the beginning of the 20th century, revolutionized our relationship to art by introducing the notion of the viewer; our gaze creates the work. Outside of the work of Tino and his guest artists, I think it’s rare to see just how crucial a role is played by the viewer. But in this case it is not simply a viewer who observes, but a transmitter who activates a work; the viewer not only watches the film, but the film comes to exist within the viewer. Without someone to serve as a transmitter, Tino’s work vanishes. And if the transmitter does not talk about their experience or emotion – as positive or negative as it may be – the posterity of Tino’s work comes to an end.

Will the exhibition have a catalog?

No. No catalogs ever accompany Tino Sehgal’s exhibitions, and the project at the Palais de Tokyo is no exception. People can still write about his work, but he does not wish to be one of those commentators. It is also extremely rare for him to give interviews. His aim is to minimize the discourse surrounding his work in order to enhance its experience, similar to the principle of communicating vessels. My suspicion is that he is trying to disappear.  

Does he work with any galleries?

Yes, with Marian Goodman and Esther Schipper. Although they are immaterial, his works still comply with the rules of the art market: they are bought and sold, and are held in private and museum collections. For example, his works feature in the collections of the Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, with the notable difference that the sale of his works takes place through the oral transmission of the artwork’s protocol. I have never been present to witness these transactions, but I know, based on what I’ve read, that, in the presence of a witness and notary, Tino explains the artwork’s protocol to the collector, asks the collector to repeat the protocol to ensure that the transmission is complete, and then the notary signs the bill of sale. The collector then becomes the proud owner of a Tino Sehgal work. It bears a trace of Yves Klein’s inaugural gesture, in the late 50s, when he sold his zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility. Also taking place through a meticulous protocol, collectors owned what we might call an empty lot; Yves Klein then demanded that all receipts attesting to the sale be burned in front of the witness – so that the immateriality of the work would continue to be respected even in that aspect.

Tino does allow portraits of him to be taken.

Yes, that’s right. He sometimes allows his portrait to be taken, though less and less often. It’s a kind of parade responding to the media’s need to have visuals, except an imbalance arose and his portrait is now everywhere. Ultimately, no one totally accepts the impossibility of images, despite what are, in my opinion, the very logical reasons explaining why any image of Tino’s work is senseless. We are working on coming up with new solutions, notably by inviting other artists to create visuals based on Tino’s work.

Are drawings allowed?

Yes. In fact, for the Frieze review, Jennifer Higgie thought of brining in a portraitist who normally does courtroom sketches to come draw a scene from Tino’s work.

Does he only tell you about his project orally, or does he also send diagrams?

All of the discussions we have by email are very pragmatic, extremely short as far as Tino’s answers go, much less brief in terms of the number of my questions, and when we talk about the project it is always done orally. It’s a very fluid process and Tino is always available. The nature of his work, whose primary material is the human person, forces all of us to remain highly attentive to all of the elements and variables that will create the situation in which the visitor will take part.

So it all happens through words.

More so through presence. Presence includes the body, language, discussion, or, sometimes, the decision not to discuss, to disappear; it’s always a choice, and through these choices we create our reality. Presence is the encounter. The human person, which is both a projection into the future and an imprint of the past, is often caught between two times. In that case, there is no other possibility but to be present, to be part of the suspended time that constitutes Tino’s exhibition, an organism which, like the visitor, is in permanent metamorphosis.

Photographer: Elise Toidé.

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