Sunday, March 05, 2006

What is progress?

It’s good to see that the reinvigorated ICA is once again able to generate angry articles in the national press. A couple of weeks ago Victoria Coren in the Observer wrote a lengthy attack on Tino Seghal’s project that did all the usual ‘emperor’s new clothes’ stuff and then fantastically concluded with a plea for the Arts Council to cut off their funding. Who’d have thought that a fun and fairly innocuous dematerialised one-to-one theatrical installation could have caused so much trouble? It wasn’t like this last year, when Seghal’s first ICA exhibition (part one of a three part annual commission) seemed to go down well all round. Tate Britain took the plunge and gamely bought a piece called “this is propaganda”, a process that required a verbal contract in the presence of witnesses, rather than the more normal paperwork (very unlike them to do this – they must have been offered a good deal).
The current project starts when you buy an admission ticket, and you are greeted by a cute-as-a-button young kid who engages you in conversation as he leads you into the first gallery. After a few preliminaries he stops and says, “can I ask you a question? What is progress?”. It’s unexpected and totally disarming, and I for one found myself quite touched as I tried to formulate a serious answer for this innocent kid. You talk about this for a bit as you are led down a corridor and introduced to a teenager who picks up the thread of conversation. And on it goes, relying heavily on the performers’ personalities and skills as well as demanding a lot of generosity from the audience. Upstairs you meet an adult who takes you through the top rooms at the ICA, some dingy staircases and on to the final section, a pensioner, who walks you back to the entrance, talking all the way. On the way round, the uniqueness of your personal version of the piece is countered by the fact that you keep passing other visitors deep in conversation with their own guides, reminding you that the whole thing is a carefully choreographed experience.
In spite of the fact that the exhibition relies so heavily on its actors for content (they told me more personal information than I wanted to know, quite frankly), the use of the passages, stairs and backrooms of the building as a stage and the simple conceit of the maturing guides gave a structure to the thing that worked. It was touching to experience the changes in personality from youth to old age so plainly laid out. I found it a memorable experience all round.
Tino Seghal has quickly established himself as a pretty unique artist with his ultra-dematerialised stance, partly through the clever positioning of his work away from the more normal live art/experimental theatre venues where it wouldn’t seem quite so radical. But already the artworld is beginning to suffer spoken word fatigue, and if next year’s show is to succeed like I think this one does, he needs to concentrate as much on the processes of interactivity and content of his pieces as their formal structures.


Blogger Steve said...

Sounds excellent, but I wish I could go without having read your description of it. I expect the ongoing surprise was a big part of the experience.

It is good to read about an art piece with such a direct and plain emotional impact, and not a wink in sight.

11:23 am  
Anonymous canvas art said...

Great read thank you.

3:25 pm  

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