Tino Sehgal at Tate Modern, London

by Matthew Steinbrecher, September 2012

Since 2000, Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Modern has played host to the Unilever Series, an annual commission asking artists to create new works specifically for the site. This has led to the development of monolithic works such as Olafur Eliasson’s towering sun in Weather Patterns, Miroslaw Balka’s box of overwhelming blackness in How It Is, and Ai Weiwei’s sea of porcelain for Sunflower Seeds. The latest and final work in the series sidesteps the necessity for objects to mediate the distance between content and viewer. Titled These Associations, London-born artist Tino Sehgal solely uses a group of participants to create a situation that points to the ways in which “civilized” people behave as participants within the world’s various systems of organization.

No stranger to occupying a vacant institutional space, Sehgal cleared out New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2010, leaving the white spiraling walls bare. In the work This Progress, an “actor” would lead visitors up the rotunda one-by-one, while asking questions about topics such as progress, happiness and current events. As the visitor was handed off to actors increasing in age as one ascended the Guggenheim’s ramp (forming a physical timeline of sorts), these questions formed the skeletal basis of the visitor’s experience, allowing the conversations, differing from person to person, to inform the work.

This relationship between actor and visitor, scripted choreography and chance encounter are further enacted in These Associations. The work relies on a set choreography that, while confusing at first to decipher, reveals itself during prolonged interaction. During an hour-long stay, the large group first stood still near the back of the large hall, each with a blank expression. Then, one by one, the participants began to take small steps. Over the next few minutes, these steps grew wider and faster; the group would expand and then retract, bringing to mind a flock of birds moving collectively. Every few minutes one of the participants would break away from the group, walk up to a visitor and begin to tell a story. These stories ranged from intensely personal accounts of families breaking up, to tales of stealing junk food from the corner store as a child, to a reflection on the strangely beautiful experience of swimming in the ocean with no one else in sight.

As the group swelled, the participants began to run from one side of the hall to the other, looking straight ahead. Their pace slowed to a walk, and as they continued their stride from the front to the back, the lights in the hall turned off row by row, echoing the group’s movement (and certainly adding a sense of a larger presence outside of the group’s control). A low hum began to reverberate, and this hum grew into a chant. While the chant was difficult to interpret (the participants’ voices added to the din of noise reverberating in the cavernous space), one could make out the verse:

Today we have begun to create natural processes of our own,
And instead of surrounding the world with D-D-Defenses
Defenses against natures, natures, natures…
We we we we have channeled these forces into the world.

The lights of the hall turned on and off simultaneously to the chant. After, the hall grew silent, and the group slowly walked backwards, facing forward. At this point a new group was brought in. Similar choreography repeated itself again in a continuous loop (upon a later visit the chant was an ode to the marvel of electricity).

The breaks in the loop that forms These Associations are the individual conversations that visitors have with participants, by which spectators are provided with an opportunity for honest interaction with a stranger. Here, familiarity is a non-issue. Included in the larger group, visitors have the chance to step outside of their individual selves to become part of the communal body (also seen in the many people adding to the group’s humming).

The social patterns enacted through the odd (and at times banal) choreography and “rules” that Sehgal creates point to the social codes that are subscribed to unconsciously. Constantly changing, yet very much dictating civilized behavior, in These Associations codes are broken down abstractly, with Sehgal pointing at both their absurdity and necessity in an organized, modern reality. Here ritual, industry, national defense, personal anecdotes and family stories come together as part of the same conversation, each affecting the individual and their role in relation to others. While obtuse at times, These Associations works to reveal that this time of crisis we inhabit remains just as puzzling as you look deeper into the shifting foundations on which the collective body stands.

The Unilever Series: Tino Sehgal 2012
24 July–28 October, 2012
Tate Modern