What would be the absolute bare minimum regarding materiality to be still called an artwork? Is a dematerialization of the artwork possible?
The curator, art critic, and activist Lucy Lippard was the first to give an account of the dematerialization of the art object in her straightforward essay “The Dematerialization of Art” in the late 60’s. She penned the essay at a time when there was not yet a sufficient term to describe this development. She called it an “ultra-conceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively.” She operated as an early advocate for conceptual artists who “attempted to escape from the frame-and-pedestal syndrome which art found itself by the mid-1960s.”
For these conceptual artists, the idea itself was superior to the material form. She described this evolution as a reaction to two decades of an anti-intellectual and emotional, intuitive art-making process. She predicted that if the trend of dematerialization would continue, at some point it could result in an extinction of the art object.
It seems to be that Tino Sehgal thought that that would be an interesting aspiration. In the work of German artist Sehgal who was trained as an economist and a dancer, one experiences a constructed situation that is “temporarily materialized in a body.” He exchanged the material art object for a situation between two people. As curator of the exhibition A Year at the Stedelijk: Tino Sehgal Martijn Nieuwenhuysen has stated:
“Sehgal’s work exists only at the moment when the visitor enters the gallery space and is compelled to engage with one of his “situations.” Then it happens. When you leave the space, it’s gone. It is a wholly unique and individual experience at a very specific moment.”
Sehgal does not permit any visual documentation of his pieces. He does not even allow any kinds of no information tags on the wall or exhibition catalogs. In doing so, Sehgal intentionally prevents a translation of his performance into a two-dimensional medium. He hereby avoids the unintended transformation of a document to a surrogate of is work. Moreover, Sehgal tries to oppose the mode of permanence and conservation other artists surely embrace.
Funnily enough, Sehgal is conventional in the way that he sells his work at art fairs and at the gallery Jan Mot. He sells his works for prices ranging between $85.000 and $145.000 apiece. Since Sehgal’s refusal of documentation also applies to a purchase of his work. The sell occurs orally and requires a lawyer or notary willing to witness and approve it. Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that it is sold in editions of four to six and Sehgal preserves an “artist’s proof.” The purchaser is restricted by an indispensable prohibition of future documentation. Moreover, Sehgal demands that if someone sells his work again, it has to be in correspondence with the way it was originally purchased.
Just like other works of art, they are able to lend Sehgal’s work to museums to display or for exhibitions. When the work is on view, it has to be available for the full extent of the opening hours of the venue, just like the other artworks. The work can be repeated at another place and time. In this way, it endures and can be transmitted.
An interview with Ulrich Obrist provides the means to trace his rationale for his procedures. Sehgal himself does not regard himself as a performance artist because he is interested in creating products and according to him, performance artists do not want to sell or reproduce their work. He tries to be “cleaner” than performance and conceptual art in the way that he completely wants to dematerialize the object. To be precise: he blatantly avoids adding any superfluous consumption since he deems society as already overloaded with objects.
For some people, his artwork lends itself to look for meaning in the artwork. Is it a mirror of society? Do we need more human encounters instead of virtual ones? Etc. Etc. For others, it is a truly frustrating WTF moment and think how the fuck can this be art?
Last month, Stories of Almost Everyone opened in the Hammer Museum in LA. It’s about how in recent years, a continued emphasis on an art of ideas has sought to further develop strategies in the service of communicating social, political, and economic histories. However, due to still prevailing mysticism about art, institutions often choose to accompany these artworks with wall texts, explanatory books, group tours, etc. As the Hammer Museum states: “Artists and institutions have adopted the role of speaking on behalf of reticent artifacts and the otherwise inert byproducts of material culture.”
This exhibition displays a broad range of contemporary artworks and artifacts and addresses the idea that the message which is sent across is at best approximate. Aligns the explanation of the artwork with the intention of the artist or the interpretation of the curator? Moreover, they are skeptical of the conditions within the art institutions mediate between the art and the public.
It might not come as a surprise that Sehgal takes part of this group exhibition. I wished I could go to LA to visit this exhibit. Good thing, not every artist prohibits documentation and I can read about it.
Stories of Almost Everyone, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, until May 6, 2018. For more information click here.