He was hardly the first adolescent to make that judgment—such youngsters are the stuff the Peace Corps is made of. But Sehgal, who was curious about politics and art at an early age despite what he calls “a very uncultural family background,” decided to focus his energy on the twin, seemingly unrelated, studies of political economics and dance. “I felt like our generation has a real issue: There’s all this material, these things which we might not really need, which may even be harmful, but we don’t know what else to do because we have to make them to generate an income,” he says. “This seemed to be quintessentially an economic question, and to be the big question of our generation, so I wanted to study it. And dance was a way to have an activity which was not involved with materials but which produced something and generated an income.“
In his 20s, after completing his economics studies at Humboldt University in Germany, Sehgal danced in the companies of French experimental choreographers Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy. He was a choreographer himself, but he yearned to cross over into the art world—where, he felt, the political ideas behind his work would be considered with more gravitas. “I wanted to do dance with the same seriousness as art was done and acknowledged,” Sehgal explains, “not with the entertainment factor that is always connected to theater and film.”
His first piece, Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), draws heavily on his choreography background: It features a single dancer writhing on the floor and incorporating poses from videos by artists Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman. In Kiss (2002) a couple continuously enacts a sequence of specific kisses from famous works of art.
“There’s a sustainability to Tino’s work,” says Spector, who is under strict orders not to reveal which of Sehgal’s pieces will be shown at the Guggenheim; Sehgal wants to retain the element of surprise. “The only thing that’s expended is human energy; it’s this idea of how to make art without any visible trace, without any residue. The themes and concepts in his work change from piece to piece, but this is something that’s fundamental to all of it.”
More recently, Sehgal’s works have grown increasingly interactive. In This is exchange (2002) visitors are offered a few dollars to converse with a player about the market economy. “People were like, ‘Okay, I don’t know why this is happening in a museum, but it’s interesting,’” says Sehgal. “One often forgets that even if art is a very successful field in contemporary culture, there are still a lot of people alienated by it. Even if people don’t fully understand where my work is coming from, at least there’s somebody who looks kind of sane standing in front of you and politely engaging with you. People react.”