I think that Tino Sehgal would be happy with the opening of this article, in that it doesn’t open with a picture of his work. Sehgal doesn’t want his work to be photographed as he wants his work to exist ephemerally. He wants the viewer to experience it and document it in his memory.
The prohibition of visitors taking pictures of the art works in museums has been subject to debate. There are arguments for and against it.
In his book ‘The Art of Travel’, the author Alain de Botton examines mankind’s quest “to possess beauty”. When we encounter beauty or a unique event, we feel an irresistible need to photograph or film it.
However, the Nineteenth-century English art critic, John Ruskin, had his reservations when the photo camera was introduced. Ruskin was an enthusiastic advocate of drawing, which taught us to observe and to internalise beauty. De Botton writes that Ruskin was worried that people didn’t use photography as a supplement to conscious observation of something, but they considered it as an alternative. Consequently, less attention was paid to the actual beauty encountered.
Two centuries later, everybody has cameras on their phones. People are obsessed with capturing beauty or a special occasion they encounter, which instantly has to posted on their social media accounts. I can follow Ruskin and Sehgal’s train of thought, or reasoning, for not taking pictures in museums, as it can distract from our engagement with the art.
An argument in favour of allowing photography in museums can be that a picture is worth a thousand words. Explaining to your friends what you encountered in a museum comes across with showing them a photograph. That is also the case with reviews. Even though the knowledgeable art critics of The New Yorker can aptly and imaginatively describe an art work in their reviews, I still would like to see affirmation of the work they discuss. Often I read the reviews in the print edition, with an iPad within arm’s reach to Google the art works.
To photograph Sehgal’s May event at the Stedelijk Museum is somewhat challenging as it takes place in a dark room. Upon entering the room, you are completely disorientated. Six rectangular cracks of light in the ceiling give you a sense of direction and an indication of the size of the room. The rod cells in the retina have to work in overdrive to adapt to the low light environment. After a few minutes, your eyes adapt and the silhouettes of other visitors in the room can be detected. They are standing in a circle formation where something is happening. They are looking at a man and a woman moving on the floor, slowly. You can hear their bodies rubbing the soft carpet and the cracking of their limbs. They gradually change positions, from hugging to spooning and lying on top of each other.
When the man slowly distances himself from the woman sliding backwards on his bottom and feet, the woman approaches him, as a predator would, on her hands and knees. The couple are not happily somersaulting over the carpet. The whole sequence is carefully choreographed.
On first sight the skin of the performers seems to be powdered white, like a Geisha, but it slowly appears that they are completely naked. Then the woman with curly hair, looking like Isabella Rossellini in ‘Blue Velvet’ starts to mention the title of the artwork: she, with a Spanish accent: ‘Tino Sehgal’, he: ‘Kiss’, she: ‘2002’.
As a living sculpture, this adult version of Kiss works better than last month’s Kiss. As the performers are naked they are a living embodiment of Rodin’s classical sculpture ‘Kiss’ and as erotically charged as Koons’s series of images with Ciccolina. Last month’s Kiss was extremely tender, but feels more like a film kiss compared with this passionate French kiss where you hear the exchange of saliva.
Although the public are not participants but merely observers it inspires affection. Visitors hold each other’s hands when they enter the room and some couples exchange a sweet kiss whilst watching the couple on the floor.
And perhaps ‘Kiss’ might inspire a picture; a selfie of a devoted couple kissing each other in Het Vondelpark or Het Museumplein after their museum visit.
Written by Thierry Somers