It's a funny thing, preparing to interview Tino Sehgal. The 33-year-old German, currently a phenomenon in art circles, makes what he likes to call “constructed situations.” These include pieces such as This is propaganda (2002), in which people dressed as museum guards chant, “This is propaganda/you know/you know,” and This is new (2003), which requires a museum employee to call out headlines from the day’s newspaper. For This situation, his first New York show, at the Marian Goodman gallery in 2007, hired players started a conversation by calling out one of 100 prechosen philosophical maxims—for instance, “In 1670, somebody said: ‘True eloquence has no use for eloquence.’” They interrupted themselves to announce to new visitors, “Welcome to This situation”; to periodically demand of a viewer, “What do you think?”; or to intermittently strike poses from famous works of art.
If it seems Sehgal’s intent is to catch his audience off guard, the carefully considered rules he has devised for disseminating his work have had the art world atwitter. Namely, he prohibits any photos, videos or other visual documentation of his pieces. In order to sell his idea and the right to enact it, he engages merely in a verbal contract with the buyer in the presence of a notary.
Arranging an interview with the artist proves no less logistically complex, with its own set of rules. Sehgal insists on traveling from Europe to America by ship (he dislikes airplanes), and during the long trip across the Atlantic he goes phone- and e-mail-silent. He agrees to be photographed for W only on the condition that his interviewer also appear in the frame. People who have worked with him warn of his prickliness; he’s known to bristle when his pieces are called performances or are compared to theater. (His situations, he likes to point out, shun many conventions of theater, including a strong separation between the audience and the players, and the necessity for specific starting and ending points; his pieces exist from a museum’s opening time to its closing, regardless of visitors, just like most other art.) Nancy Spector, chief curator of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where two of Sehgal’s pieces will be shown in the rotunda next January through March, repeatedly emphasizes that Sehgal is “sensitive” to his work being described in certain terms.
In person, however, Sehgal turns out to be exceedingly gregarious—so much so, in fact, that he feels compelled to acknowledge it several times (“I love talking, as you can probably realize!”). He even looks accessible, in rumpled jeans, his black hair mussed. He has a boyish face, with kind eyes and an easy smile. He is eager to speak plainly about his work and why he favors creating experiences, not objects. “It started when I was 11 or 12,” says Sehgal, who lives in Berlin with his girlfriend and their two-year-old son. “Kids are very sensitive to the value system of their parents, and I just felt my parents were attaching too much importance, too much meaning, to things. My father had to flee from what is today Pakistan when he was a child, and he became a manager at IBM, and any item of consumption he would acquire was a direct measurement of his success in life. But that same equation wasn’t going to work for me—I was quite clear about that in my early teens.”