acting up

The Art of the Spontaneous Encounter

TinoSehgal_Gruppe_1 Ausstellung Tino Sehgal, Interpreten, Juni 2015 © Mathias Völzke
Celebrating in song and movement.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German British artist Tino Sehgal is once again pushing at the boundaries of what it means to go see a piece of art.

  • Facts


    • Tino Sehgal won the prestigious Golden Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
    • His work echoes that of German artist Joseph Beuys.
    • His exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin runs until August 8.
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This is art as an experience. In the atrium of the Martin Gropius Bau, one of Berlin’s loveliest galleries, singers line the wall, sending a-cappella music up to the domed glass ceiling and around the walls.

Other singers come in, breaking up the harmony of the original singers. Now there are fast changes of pitch, screams and jarring notes. They leave, and the sound once again is calm.

This is the latest work by Tino Sehgal, the British-German artist who won the prestigious Golden Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and is now directing his first major solo exhibition in Berlin.

Mr. Sehgal uses human bodies and their mostly slow-motion movements, their voices and changing positions to create “intangible” works that appeal to both emotion and intellect in a piece that will be on show until August 8.

The spirit of Germany’s Joseph Beuys, who widely explored the link between movement and art, can be detected in the room. In Mr. Sehgal’s exhibition, characters recite philosophical tenets and draw visitors into the discussion. This work is all about exchange, interaction and induction.

The visitor is integrated into the work while also being made aware of the the virtuality of the act of art.

He also makes use of darkness, the way he did in his last exhibition at the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. In Berlin, different sounds and voices also wash around the visitors as they advance uneasily until they gradually gain their sight.

Mr. Sehgal called his work “Situations.” He directs the actors, dancers, and singers in a perpetual motion.

Mr. Sehgal continually emphasizes that it makes him happy when people participate, especially when they sing along or dance along and supplement the rehearsed choreography.

Mr. Sehgal said at the press conference before the opening of the exhibition that the work sprung from the question: “What can one make in a society defined by capital goods, without producing something? What can one make instead of an object?”

He does use visual art within the live sculptures, but they are not the focus of the piece. Instead, they are just movable pieces of scenery in an overall narrative.

At times, Mr. Sehgal seeks to energize the visitors to the exhibit through ambush. At the Biennale in Venice in 2005, singers performed a song which had the lyrics “This is so contemporary,” repeated over and over.  At the Biennale in Lyon in 2007, an actor dressed as a guard walked among the exhibits, performed a full striptease then announced the name of the work he had just performed.

In the 2014 exhibit “Vertigo of Reality” (“Schwindel der Wirklichkeit”) at the Academy of Arts in Berlin, Mr. Sehgal had someone asking visitors for their definition of a market economy. Those who gave an accurate description received a refund of their entrance fee. At the preliminary viewing of the current show in Berlin, critics were asked about their job prospects.

Mr. Sehgal wants people to participate, singing and dancing alongside his performers. In the Martin Gropius Bau he shows perfectly how to use the architecture of a building to draw people in at another level.


TinoSehgal_Voelzke_1x1 © Mathias Völzke
Mr. Sehgal at Martin Gropius Bau. Source: Mathias Voelzke



The work disappears when the exhibit is over. It will be staged again in one or two other places in the world. But for those who have seen it at a certain place, it only continues to exist in their memories. Mr. Sehgal has refused to put his art, which has been represented by the New York gallery dealer Marian Goodman since 2007, into a museum. He doesn’t want videos made of his work, even though YouTube is full of unauthorized footage. In Berlin there is no catalogue or posters of the work.

The ephemeral and transitory nature of Mr. Sehgal’s work is part of what makes it so valuable and fresh. Whatever he creates soon dissipates and has to be made anew.


Christian Herchenröder covers art for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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