A Progress: Or, One Foot in Front of the Other

A problem for Tino Sehgal as much as it was a problem for Plato is that performed conversation is still performance as much as it’s conversation. It’s one thing to perceive the stark whiteness and vertiginous openness of the Guggenheim as an ideal contemporary representation of the Athenian “agora,” and another to allow “the art of conversation” to take place unimpeded.

Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim

When we walk into the denuded Guggenheim, finally wiggling past Lloyd Wright’s low-ceilinged, dark and deliberately claustrophobia-inducing entrance foyer, it takes us a few seconds to adjust to all the open space spiraling upwards and outwards around us. There’s a couple, good-looking college kids or twenty-somethings, hetero, going at it on the floor of the atrium, near the fountain. The crowd gives them wide berth. They writhe sinuously, mouth to mouth, kissing or pretending to kiss, rising onto their knees, palms flat on the other’s backs. Their hands slide down with exaggerated slowness until the palms rest flat on the floor, the first sign that there’s something artificial at work here, either in the lovers’ determined tantric exhibitionism, or the non-lovers, non-erotic erotics. Yet, as they slide once more into each other, until the black-haired girl is lying across the red-haired kid’s lap, and he doesn’t so much grab as guide her ass, with the palm again, deliberately flattened against the curve of thigh and cheek, until her legs curl into him, and her shirt rides up to reveal a naked back he will never touch, although it is the touch we are all waiting for, as, instead, she reaches up to cup his face in both hands and pull him down into a kiss, soundless this whole time, it is difficult to know how much of this is, in fact, performance, staging, whatever you want to call it, and what feelings or other unintentional stirrings we’re also witness to.

“I hope they like each other,” someone says behind me.

“They’ll like each other by the end,” says another.

“They’d better, or there won’t be a repeat.” says the first.

We get away from the commenters and walk around the couple, whose kiss now seems to aspire to Rodinesque duration as well as composition, towards the great white ramp, heading up. All walking in the Guggenheim is walking around. Before we mount, I steal another look at the lovers to see if they still have their clothes on. At the top of the first level, an elfin-looking child who we later realize reminds us of Haley Joel Osmont in AI, as much for his voice as for his perfectly unwasted motion, runs up to us and introduces himself cheerfully.

“I’m Finn.”

We introduce ourselves and shake hands. He looks a little surprised, as though our names should be irrelevant, and stumbles for a beat.

“This is a work by Tino Sehgal,” he says, “Will you follow me?”

“With pleasure.”

He runs up some steps into an empty, clam-shaped gallery recessed from the ramp. He takes up a position ahead of us, leaning against one of the arch’s bases.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asks.

“Sure.”

“What is Progress?”

And so it begins, our progress through progress, up each stage of the long ramp.

“It’s the 64 billion dollar question.” I say, smiling and wondering where my mind dredges up the clichés used on me by older generations. Has anyone my age or younger even seen the “64 Thousand dollar question?” It’s 12.30 on Sunday morning and I’m hung over and a little sleepy, not in a mood to ponder the imponderables with a middle-schooler.

“There’s no wrong answer,” Finn says, cheerily, looking up at me with beatific blue eyes as I mull over my response a little too long for his liking.

“Well, some people say progress is only the progress of technology. Like going to the moon is progress.” It seems easier to start there, with something I can’t possibly believe. He seems almost satisfied with this, but begins darting up the ramp, sprite-like, eager to get somewhere, and we follow him up.

“Progress is when we’re able to look back at the ruins of our own efforts,” my companion says, as we reach the bend and columns marking the empty museum’s next level. A young woman or older girl, in jeans, t-shirt and vest, comes out from somewhere and meets us on the ramp. “This is Abby,” Finn says, to us, then, to her, as if imparting a lesson: “I’ve learned that progress is technology, or transportation, or…regarding the failures of others…”

“Um, reaching a point where you regard your own efforts as ruins.”

“Right!” Finn glides away behind the column, offstage, and Abby takes a firm, contentious tone.

“Progress is failure? really?”

”Progress is the recognition of failure.” My companion says. She’s from a former Communist country and has a taste, born of experience, for such dialectical paradoxes.

Things discussed as Abby takes us up the next two rotations of the ramp: the poet Yeats’s theory of history as cyclical repetitions, a systole and diastole of interwoven order and disorder, represented by two cones, nested within each other, which he calls gyres, the resemblance of the Guggenheim to a gyre, whether you need a sense of an ending to have progress, or whether, like the Aztecs, a belief in one’s own civilizational doom brings about the inevitable sooner rather than later, whether the American idea of progress without end is sustainable.

I’ve had this conversation before, at other times, spontaneously, or in classrooms. Suffice to say that the question interests me but I haven’t made up my mind about it. I’m not about to start walking backwards, pretending to be Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” although I’m tempted. I realize we’re bound to go around in circles here, even if the circles are concentric and mounting towards some end point. Progress is time, which does not go backward, at least for individual human lives. I want to talk about the museum stripped of its paintings, its sculptures, turned into the performance space we now are part of.

Abby hands us off to another woman, with the maturer phrase “we were talking about…” Dressed in sleek business suit, sensible flats but adorned with a glittering silver necklace, she takes up our musings on the museum’s nakedness. “You know,” she says, “when the colonists came to America and they saw these naked Indians, they thought they couldn’t possibly be human beings because they didn’t have clothes…”

“So is a naked museum still a museum? Is that where we’re going?” I think, without saying anything aloud, it seems pointless to say too much aloud, for I’ve also just realized what’s going on here: we’re progressing through the ages of man, or woman! Our guides keep getting older. Maybe I say this or something like this, because our guide or interlocutor is now talking about the problem of representing time in art and in space.

I look over the side, momentarily distracted, in the eye of the vortex, the couple are still visible, still at their unending foreplay, still dressed, always, always shall they kiss, at least in this space. There are some kinds of progress, but the living Grecian urn is just as much a progress of substitution as an “advancement.”

Nearing the top now, with only a twist and a half to go, we are met by a vigorous, silvery-haired woman with tortoise-shell reading glasses and a warm, knowing smile. Again we introduce ourselves, but she actually takes this in and asks what we do. This conversation feels more like something one might have at an actual party, and this woman tells us her “real” occupation and then tells us she’s not supposed to tell us that. It’s the first of many “asides” she’ll make, as she also engages my companion in a discussion of architecture and the possibility of making a giant skateboarding ramp of the Guggenheim. We climb towards the visible and promised end, our steps slow and heavy as the movement of the couple below as though we want to stretch out the time. We contrive ways to pause her, to get her to tell us stories about other people she’s talked to on the way. I linger at the edge, peering down into the vertiginous abyss, watching other groups make their literal “progress” along the ramp, feeling like some character inside a medieval painting of heaven or hell, or part of a democratic “mass ornament” that is simultaneously an “individualist” ornament, which still allows individuals to become distinct, even as, from above, we see them all “individualizing” in similar ways. We watch a woman in a wheelchair pushing herself up the ramp with powerful strokes of her muscled arms meeting her adult guide, a woman we’ll later learn is Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, taking her regular shift just like the rest.

“Have there been any catastrophic incidents?” I ask, “anyone standing in the way of progress?”

“Not so far,” our latest and last Virgil says, “the walking seems to keep people pretty focused and in a good mood. But I really shouldn’t be telling you this. I’ll get a reprimand,” she grins wickedly, the merry transgressor. It’s hard to know at this point whether this, too, isn’t part of the performance, that we’ve progressed to the “meta” level, the conversation about conversation, the moment when the illusion begins to crack and reveal itself as an illusion, as performance, Prospero laying down his staff, or if this has been the inexorable but personal path of our own “enlightenment,” our progress. At the top, there’s a sadness in letting go, in saying goodbye, as when you’ve been through a particularly good session with a psychoanalyst and you realize that you cannot keep this person talking to you for hours, that there’s a routine, a system, that you will see her disappear down the firestairs “staff only” exit and reemerge, a few tiers down, at her station, ready to lead another group up the path.

Later, lingering at the top, we run into a friend who’s involved in the show. She reports one of the guests saying to her, “So you too will abandon me,” whether in half-facetious flirtation or genuine reproach, we’ll never know. As much as Tino Sehgal has managed to stage a classically harmonious meditation on the various senses of progress, his work also produces situations like these, for as much as it is a work of highly “conceptual art,” it is also theater and so comes under the psychological conventions of theater.

It’s unclear, in fact, whether the performance succeeds more as theater than as intellectual discussion. The accidental questions and observations that came to mind as we walked through mattered as much the enframing “theme” of enlightenment, or progress. “The blocking is great!” I thought, when Finn hopped up onto the impromptu proscenium, while also wondering how I talk to children, teens, equal grownups, and older adults. What would have happened if a few of the grownups were not as well-dressed as the others? What if some actually looked like homeless people? What if some had disturbing scars? What do all those French tourists make of it? Do they recognize the gallery of New Yorker types each of these ages also represent: the precocious child, the “know-it-all” teen, the busy, successful career woman, the witty and wise elders of the tribe? This catalog of “urbane” types is unchanged since Plato first began to blur the distinctions between theater, philosophy, and art, dialogue and dialectic.

A problem for Tino Sehgal as much as it was a problem for Plato is that performed conversation is still performance as much as it’s conversation. It’s one thing to perceive the stark whiteness and vertiginous openness of the Guggenheim as an ideal contemporary representation of the Athenian “agora,” and another to allow “the art of conversation” to take place unimpeded. Socrates and friends had the world all before them, at least until the master’s trial and death. The outcome of the historical Socrates’s actual dialogues were uncertain, but Plato’s readers are always being driven, guided, taken in hand, “You are quite right, Socrates!” A too-close simulation of the real thing, as with the aestheticized foreplay between the “living sculptures” in the atrium, tends to haunt us with a sense of the gap between real and representation, in a way, for instance, that going to theater does not, where the barrier of the stage curiously liberates our emotions as it keeps our self-regarding anxieties at a remove. With the barrier gone, we risk getting bogged down in an existential quagmire wondering whether all sex isn’t “simulated sex” or all conversation isn’t simply a series of “theatrical” gestures meant to showcase something different from the actual words used, solving a problem by means of our own rhetorical power instead of through mutual investigation and open-ended exploration.

Artists over the last three decades, borrowing from theater and even, increasingly, from literature, have plunged eagerly into the deconstruction and disassembling of the barriers between spectator and work, as well as the barriers between “Art” and other Arts. Going to a museum of contemporary art is now a bit like being present at a tacit contest in which “the art world” attempts to do everything but what was once called “art,” in order to assert its continued dominion over all the arts. Sometimes, however, the barriers vengefully reassert themselves, in unexpected ways. What happens when dialogue is framed within a place meant to house the finished works of the past and an 18 dollar admission fee? The historical pessimist does not see this as an unequivocal liberation of the museum. Rather, it appears as the museumification of a form of life once engaged in outside the museum—one more disturbing sign of a decline of that form. The fascination exerted by Tino Sehgal’s piece shares something with the interest in glacier tourism and the growing rage for exhibitions of books as “objects” to be observed rather than read. On certain days, at certain hours, one’s guide through the last stage of progress might even be the author of a recent book on the history of conversation. And yet, Sehgal’s fidelity to certain classical harmonies, a real German tradition of engagement, enlightenment, and Romantic dialogue, even amidst the most extreme avant-gardism, shows that old forms of art and ways of life sometimes retreat into museums to grow again in the minds of those who’ve witnessed it. One day, we may all have world enough and time for an ongoing inter-generational conversation about the meaning of progress. For now, you can get a good simulation of one, but only for six more days.

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