As I stepped into the Guggenheim’s rotunda last week, I noticed a young man and woman, in the center of the lobby, locked in a passionate kiss. Mildly irritated and slightly embarrassed at such blatant attention seeking, I continued to the next level of the gallery. I had come to see some art.
Unable to resist the temptation to catch another glimpse, I realized my error. The couple had dropped to their knees and were facing each other. As though in a reverie, they began to slowly, amorously embrace. After the man slid to the floor, the pair continued miming the action of love-making. Shifting positions perfectly in synch, they brought their bodies together to form tessellating shapes, often mirroring each other’s movements. Clearly, this was a carefully choreographed routine.
The performance piece, as I soon discovered, is entitled “The Kiss,” created by the European artist Tino Sehgal. Sehgal’s art is comprised almost entirely of such dance-like performances and social encounters. Though based in sculpture, Sehgal’s work creates “staged situations,” interactive experiences that may not at first announce themselves as art. Situating Sehgal’s piece—brought to life only for as long as the dance endured—within the institutional setting of a museum filled with valuable objects emphasized its animate immateriality.
Sehgal’s unique practice responds to an art industry that he sees as a microcosm of economic reality: one burdened by the overproduction of material things. Moreover, for Sehgal, the industry’s obsession with making art from objects threatens to reduce ideas to consumable goods. Sehgal’s approach is similar to that of many Conceptual artists of the sixties and seventies—Yves Klein, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham, Michael Asher, Daniel Buren. The works of such artists featured empty spaces, live performances before cameras and staged interventions in museums. But by deliberately leaving behind certificates of ownership, video-tapes and photographs, many of these Conceptual and post-Minimalist artists were implicated in the object-based market they sought to escape. Sehgal, by contrast, takes no photographs, puts up no labels, leaves no catalogs. His work establishes itself out of action and speech, realizing itself and disappearing before the observer’s eyes without leaving any physical, and therefore marketable, remnant.
Reactions to “The Kiss” were various. One problem, of course, is that the ephemeral quality of an immaterial work, however seductive its performance, can easily fade from view. As live action performed on the ground-floor lobby, Sehgal’s piece could easily become merely a part of the museum’s environment. Sure enough, once the kissers had revealed themselves as performers, much initial curiosity diminished. More accustomed to having their attention claimed by the million-dollar objects on the walls, many observers appeared to brush by the erotic dance, casting back only a glance or two as they walked up the rotunda’s levels.
This potential for Sehgal’s “The Kiss” to be erased by the observer’s casual gaze raised questions of responsibility in the production of art. Sehgal’s work has an unusual open-endedness. As immaterial activity that could blend into the museum’s background, its status as framed tableau is indeterminately defined. But Sehgal’s piece also contains allusions to previous works of art, which the viewer may or may not bring to it. The dancers’ gestures and poses recall, at times humorously, Courbet’s erotic paintings (1860s), Rodin’s sculpture, “The Kiss” (1886), Brancusi’s “Kiss” (1908) and Jeff Koons’ “Made in Heaven,” ceramics and photographs with an explicitly sexual content. If the power of Sehgal’s work to sustain attention and linger in the memory depends on the individual observer, so too does its identification with high art. At moments, Sehgal’s dancers cast surreptitious glances at passers-by. These glances subtly underscored the potential for interaction—the possibility that viewers contribute to realizing the piece, becoming co-producers rather than mere consumers of the work.
More significant, perhaps, was the experience for those viewers who, as I did, lingered to study the dance more closely. My initial curiosity quickly turned into a voyeuristic fascination. Two people were performing an intensely private act in a world famous public space. Stranger still, as the narrative of the dance unfolded, was my feeling of disappointment. Following their passionate kiss, the couple lapsed immediately into artificial routine. Proceeding in a continuous trance-like state, their movements became entirely devoid of the emphases of real action. The pair’s sudden break from warm, intimate embrace to cold pre-meditated choreography turned my sense of involvement into a peculiar estrangement.
The artificiality of “The Kiss” was made more obvious by the repetition of its action. As I stayed to watch, it became apparent that the couple’s amorous entwining was part of a cyclical routine, and one that would be performed in the same spot for the duration of the museum’s opening hours. Moreover, as I ascended the spiraling rotunda, growing more distant from the couple, the less they appeared to my eyes as dancing lovers and became simple artifact. I was reminded of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. In the end, the poet can no longer see the happy lovers depicted on the urn as breathing bodies that “tease us out of thought,” but as “marble men” in a manufactured landscape: a “Cold Pastoral.”
The pay off, it seemed, for paying attention to Sehgal’s work was the realization that the passion of a kiss belonged to a dispassionate display. Though suggesting the possibility for process, the dancing lovers were a permanent fixture. And though intangible as performed action, it was yet an action I had paid an admission fee to see. While containing the promise of evading it, “The Kiss” only reminded us that we are always, already complicit in commerce.
A piece comprised of human dancers, tempting us into thinking we might participate in its world, had seemed finally to exclude us from it. I felt cheated. Frustrated. Still, perhaps this was like the frustration prompted by Keats’ frozen lovers. A similar teasing. A wish for something more. I stepped out of the Guggenheim with a rather bracing disillusion.