Collecting Forever? On Acquiring a Tino Sehgal
by Marie Fraser
In 2012, during my tenure as chief curator at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), I initiated the acquisition of a work by the artist Tino Sehgal that brought about a discussion within the museum itself on the issue of the permanence of the collection.1 For the museum, founded on preservation and inalienability, what are the implications of acquiring a living artwork whose radical immateriality resists its own conservation? Sehgal’s work problematizes the idea of permanence, and in that sense, it undermines the modern and Western conception of the museum: to preserve the past in order to build the future.
This Situation (2007) is a “constructed situation,” as Sehgal calls most of his works, and it brings together six intellectuals to engage in a philosophical discussion. It is composed of a hundred or more quotations from philosophy, sociology, economics and history, merged into a choreography of gestures, some of which can be identified with art historical icons or themes. The action plays out in a continuous loop. The six bodies move into the space and interact among themselves and the audience in the same space. They are absorbed in their interaction, and from time to time they address the audience directly, asking: “… and you, what do you think?”, “…et vous qu’en pensez-vous?” The piece is presented as an exhibition in itself, not as a performance or an event. The duration corresponds to the museum’s opening hours. It takes place in a typical white cube space, the most “neutral” possible. Following Sehgal’s instructions, nothing in the museum announces the exhibition: no text, no label, no mediation, no publicity. The idea is to enter the room without knowing what awaits us, what is ahead of us. This Situation is entirely spoken. It is a living artwork. In terms of collection, because of its essential oral form, the work can only continue to exist over time through its own presentation. The act of collecting thus participates in the radical immateriality of the work by expanding it into the historical question of permanence.
Since the ’60s, contemporary art has defied the art museum’s dedication to the collection and preservation of artworks according to a well-established aesthetic and historical narrative. Curators, accordingly, have been preoccupied with developing new ways to exhibit artworks that trouble the notion of the object and that challenge the museum’s rules and practices. Only a few, however, have tried to enact this critical approach inside the collection itself. In her 2014 book Radical Museology, Claire Bishop articulates this lack of curatorial interest to work with the historical collection, in favour of temporary exhibitions: “for many curators, the historical weight of a permanent collection is an albatross that inhibits the novelty so essential to drawing in new audiences, since the incessant turnover of temporary exhibitions is deemed more exciting … than finding yet another way to show the canon.”2 But during the last decades, as she observes, the difficult socio-economic context in European countries has forced some museums to return to their own collections out of necessity and, in that process, “museums with historical collections have become the most fruitful testing ground for a non-presentist, multi-temporal contemporaneity.”3 Her analysis focuses on three museums, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MUSM) in Ljubljana, that have explored new ways to exhibit—and consequently to reinterpret—their own historical collections within this model of temporality. In this context, Bishop recognizes the importance of the collection: “without a permanent collection, it is hard for a museum to stake any meaningful claim to an engagement with the past—but also … with the future,”4 but she does not address its ongoing constitution.
Bishop’s argument considers the permanent collection as an entity that already exists, as a resource that can be reinterpreted through its display in the form of temporary thematic exhibitions. Her analysis does not address the problem of the continuity of its development. What is it based on? How do we reconcile, for example, the principle of permanence with a critical multi-temporality approach? To look at the collection from the inside is what interests me, to question and to reconsider its specific temporality: the concept of permanence in itself. The curatorial reinvestment in the collection is important to me as it also raises questions that impact its dominant historical role. How does the collection establish a continuity between the past, the present and the future? Almost nothing exists in the critical fields of art history or museum or curatorial studies about how to approach continuity other than those methods based on the notion of the stability of the collection and sustainability of the works of art that compose it. Its permanence is always taken for granted. More so, the modern concept of the museum itself is based on this association between the permanence of the collection and the sustainability of the artworks within it. This concept is now becoming the challenge to overcome.
Acquiring a “constructed situation” by Sehgal activates a tension within this association. It’s like collecting the uncollectable, creating a compelling paradox: its presence within the collection ensures its continuity through time, but because of the particular nature of the work, its open-ended oral form, the museum has no control over it and we cannot fathom the shape of that continuity. The elusive quality of the work problematizes the permanence of the collection, while questioning the status and the value of the collected object. Could a collection be forever?
When I started discussing the acquisition of the “constructed situation” for the collection of the MACM, only a few other museums had explored the unusual process involved in it. There were several major issues at stake. Can the museum take the risk of acquiring an artwork that it may not be able to conserve or even exhibit in the future? How can it deal with the essentially oral nature of the work within its collection of objects? The other curators whom I knew to have acquired a Seghal had started the procedure only after having exhibited the work itself. My intuition was to do the opposite because the work is, for me, inseparable from all the conditions imposed by the artist, at all levels. The exclusively oral nature of the work begins upstream of its actual exhibition by including into its participatory dimension the process of its own acquisition. All the elements of the transaction are verbal: there is no documentation, no written contract as such, no tangible trace, no certificate of authenticity. The transaction transforms everyone involved into an “actor” in the concretion of the work, as it requires a particular and unique protocol. We gathered around a table, several administrators from the museum and the board, the director, part of the curatorial team and an independent lawyer who acted as witness to the procedure. The representative of the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York explained the purpose of the meeting and outlined the five conditions of the acquisition5:
The first condition states that the presentation of the work, the first time, must be prepared and authorized by the artist or his representative.
The second condition is that its presentation must take place during the opening hours of the museum and for a period not less than six weeks.
The third condition is that all the participants—or the “players”—be paid.
The fourth requires that no visual documentation is allowed to be made by the museum, which also commits to ensure against the circulation, as far as possible, of any form of reproduction of the work (this condition also extends to the museum archives, which must contain no material documentation relative to the work).
The fifth condition stipulates that if the museum should wish to alienate the work, it must do so by an exclusively oral transaction authorized by the artist or his representative.
At the end of this enumeration, we all agreed, we shook hands and the transaction was sealed.
I found this experience—the sensation that the work encompasses its own modalities of collecting—profound. For Sehgal, belonging to a collection has a specific meaning. From the perspective of the museum, to welcome this artistic posture is a bold gesture that makes it possible to imagine working with other models of collection. Before its exhibition, the work remains totally abstract, unknown. It is only when the piece is presented that the museum has access to its content. The knowledge of the piece is not something frozen into a materiality that pre-exists its manifestation. This is why it appeared to me so important to exhibit This Situation immediately after its acquisition. All the instructions of the work—the quotations, the gestures and the movement of the bodies in the space—are transmitted orally by the artist or by his representative directly to the participants. There is no scenario. The knowledge passes from one person to another with no rest, in the same way as the eventual relationship between the players and the visitor at the exhibition, like a cascade of orality. A few months after the acquisition, This Situation was presented from March 19 to April 28, 2013, at the museum with another work of Sehgal’s, The Kiss (2002). In order to recruit a sufficient number of intellectuals to activate the piece over the duration of the exhibition, about 30, we launched a call to the four university communities of Montreal. The representative of the artist, Assad Raza, came to the museum to select the players and to initiate them to the process of the piece. During the exhibition, the players exchanged in both French and English indistinctly, in the flow of the local cultural context.
If preserving objects over time, from the past to the future, is essential to the museum, the works of Sehgal necessitate a different mode of existence. Once within the collection, his work does not exist as an object, “detached from its original functions,” to use an expression of Walter Benjamin in his short text “The Collector,”6 but rather as a living process of transmission, by word of mouth, from generation to generation. Elusive as object, only its remembrance can guarantee its continuity. Unlike performance, which is ephemeral by definition, the “constructed situation” can live over time but not as an ownable object or as documentation, but as an open-ended process of oral transmission. The form of the work persists as entirely immaterial. The challenge is not how to keep this knowledge forever but, rather, how to keep it alive: how to learn it, how to memorize it, how to circulate it.
This particular nature of the work and its elusive immateriality participate for me in a larger reflection on the central function of the museum: its collection. The Western model of the museum, inherited from modernity, is based on classification and preservation and, consequently, on the value and sustainability of the object. Curators are now questioning their own traditional role as guardians of this historical meaning and value of art. I see a potential shift in the function of the curator that could change our conception and our use of collected objects and artworks radically. The undertaking of “curating a collection”7 no longer involves only the considerations of how to collect, to select, to study and interpret, and finally to display artworks, but more fundamentally compels considerations of how to care for them.8 Preserving objects forever should no longer be what is at stake; what should, rather, is how to live with them, how to care for them and about them. Landing in a museum collection is viewed traditionally as the ultimate stage in the life of an artwork or an artifact, its final destination. Can we rethink this paradigm? What if instead of thinking about the collection as a fixed and immutable entity and as the ultimate destination of its content, it were conceived in terms of adaptability?
This article was originally published in print without footnotes. C takes full responsibility for this error and apologizes to the writer, as well as those cited in the text.