Sehgal brings the discussion about art and life in the museum room.
“I must admit, much of it goes over my head”, answers a female audience member when one of Sehgal’s interpreters asks her what she thinks of the subject being discussed.
For his September performance Sehgal installed a debate club in an empty room of the museum. Six performers are positioned near the walls where they are standing, sitting or lying on the floor discussing a range of topics with each other. It reminded me of a tableau of a group of ancient Greek philosophers discussing the human condition or the universe whilst nibbling on some grapes.
The discussion starts by one of the interpreters throwing a quote by somebody (whose name isn’t mentioned) into the group. For instance, “In 1984 somebody said, The idea of morality as obedience to a code of rules is now disappearing, has already disappeared. To this absence of morality corresponds, must correspond the search for an aesthetics of existence.” (I googled it and it is an actual quote by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault).
A ponderable subject where some interpreters were able to express their opinions very eloquently and some hinted to being verbose and pretentious. Some were able to project very well which was necessary as the acoustics of the room were poor. When a new audience member entered the room, they stopped the discussion, stood up, and made a 360-degrees turn and said “Oooohhhh, Welcome to this situation”. Then they changed positions in the room and continued the discussion or started a new one.
Many museums have built large auditoriums where they can host presentations, artist talks, lectures and panel discussions. Usually, the artist talks are well attended. It would seem that the art world can’t escape celebrity culture. Some artists, Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami are adored by the public and have become celebrities – whether they like it or not. (The stage interviews I attended of Sehgal at the Stedelijk, recently, and four years ago, at the Tate Modern were also sold out).
However, the discussion about art (and life) should above all take place in the museum rooms. Museums should be a place where one can expand one’s knowledge base, be open to new ideas and thoughts or provide some food for thought. During the museum’s opening hours, you can listen to a group of people sharing their opinions and exchanging thoughts on the ecosystem, egotism, altruism, morality, ethics or global warming.
The one thing I can say is that “Welcome to this situation”, isn’t an inclusive experience for the public. Although the interpreters do ask them for their opinion, I observed that it was quite difficult for the public to engage with the topics being discussed because of the intellectual level of the discussions. Sometimes, it even put them on the spot when their opinion was asked and they couldn’t contribute some thought to the discussion. Or they felt inclined to contribute, however, their answers were quite incoherent.
When they were having a discussion about masterpieces and my opinion was asked “if you need other people for it to recognise it”, I was able to provide some thought as I happen to write about the arts. However, to be honest, I must admit that most of what they were discussing was going over my head too.
Written by Thierry Somers
Image: The School of Athens by Raphael