'This Variation' now re-enacted in 2019 at Stedelijk Museum. Our review of the Sehgal's performance during his year long retrospective at the museum in 2015.
Again, it’s almost impossible to photograph Sehgal’s constructed situation ‘This Variation’ (2012), which takes place in the same dark space as ‘Kiss II’. I say, almost, as there is a brief moment in this sonic work when the light switches on.
A museum staff member leads visitors into the room and places them in a jungle of odd sounds. They are surrounded by people making hissing sounds with their voices, whilst others produce sounds of a drummer hitting his bass drum or hi-hat. This form of vocal percussion is called beat boxing and is very popular in the hip-hop genre. The American musician, Rahzel, is considered to be the benchmark for beat boxing. He is able to sing while simultaneously beat boxing. This is exhilarating when listening to his track ‘If Your Mother Only Knew’, where he performs the beat and the chorus at the same time.‘This Variation’ creates a sense of happiness, elation and communion in the room.
The sounds of the beat boxers wonderfully weave through the room like a swarm of starlings, taking wave formations in the sky. When a person, in one corner of the room, ends his sequence of imitating the sound of a Linn drum, the person in the other corner of the room, starts to make a “tsss t-t-tsss” sound, imitating a hi-hat cymbal. For the spectator the work feels like a 360 experience. Once my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I can see some of the performers leaning against the wall, some are sitting on their knees and some are lying on the ground.
The group alternates between beat boxing, conversing and singing. A young man talks about coming to Amsterdam for this performance and wanting to continue his Yoga classes, so he shares his experience of finding a temporary Yoga studio in the city. A woman starts to talk about feeling guilty about sneaking out of the public toilets and not paying the toilet lady. She then asks if other people have similar feelings.The performers in ‘This Variation’ emanate an air of good vibrations.
Part of the singing takes place when the lights turn on during an acapella version of ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys. I count fifteen performers and they literally emanate an air of good vibrations. With sheer joy they sing the song with a smile on their face. A sense of happiness, elation and communion is filling the room. Almost a hippie type atmosphere associated with close harmony groups of the time such as The Beach Boys and The Mamas and The Papas. The atmosphere created by the group is infectious and I lost track of time. Completely energised, with a smile on my face I left the room two hours later.
‘This Variation’ is followed by ‘Yet Untitled’ (2013), which also works with the human voice. It takes place in a lit room where two young girls are sitting on the floor. One of them is making rhythmic sounds such as “dunk ouch, dunk ouch” or “ai jai jai jai jai”. I associate these sounds with chants by Native Americans, voice experiments by the avant-garde synth-pop group Art of Noise, or the ‘haka’, a dance ritual performed by the New Zealand rugby team before the beginning of a match. The other girl has her eyes closed and moves her body rhythmically to the sounds that the girl is making. It seems as if she in a trance, like a snake under the spell of a snake charmer.The pop songs ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY, and Destiny’s Child’s ‘Say My Name’ are incorporated in ‘Yet Untitled’
A young man joins the two girls and one of them steps out. The girl who was producing the sounds is now being enraptured by the sounds the man is making. The young girl who swapped with the man takes a break and stands next to me against the wall. Whispering, I ask her about the music and she tells me that some of the singing is derived from the hit ‘Gangnam Style’ by the South Korean Rapper PSY, and ‘Say My Name’ by Destiny’s Child. The choreography is partly studied and partly improvised.
I wonder if programming ‘Yet Untitled’ after ‘This Variation’ does the piece justice. It is inevitable that one would make comparisons between these voice driven works. ‘Yet Untitled’ now comes across as a derivative of ‘This Variation’ and is overcast by its shadow. Perhaps if there was a few months gap, like there was between the opera singer in ‘This Is Propaganda’ and ‘This Variation’, it would have a fairer chance to being judged on its own merits.
However, in terms of audience engagement, I find it difficult to engage with the piece. It doesn’t feel as inclusive as Sehgal’s other works, where he incorporates the spectator in some way. (Which doesn’t imply that he should always incorporate the spectator, however, he has built up an expectancy level). The honourable intentions of the performers is beyond doubt and it must be a meditative experience for them. Having said that, I feel like an interloper witnessing ‘their party’. They didn’t give me excitations.
Written by Thierry Somers