When we go to museums it is quite often that we find intimacy depicted on canvases, or mythological love stories carved in marble. They speak to us of ancient times, they make us feel somehow closer to people that came before us. Even if these ancient lovers look at us from other ages and cultures, we can still identify with them, they lived through similar stories to our own. But what if in quietness and darkness of a room those marble figures were to come alive? What if they were moving, singing, dancing, sharing their thoughts, feelings and personal stories with us?
I encountered Tino Sehgal’s work for the first time at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where a 365 days long exhibition was featuring different ‘situations’ from the artist’s work. ‘Situation’ is the word that Tino choses to describe his work that is ongoing, not static, and one requiring real people and no objects in order to exist, like a sister from a family of performances and plays. Strolling around the museum I entered a dark room. Quite an unexpected experience for a museum! Feeling rather disoriented without seeing a thing I went out again and asked a museum worker if the room was closed. He assured that it is working and that I should give it some time once inside. I went in again and waited for what might happen. Slowly from the darkness of the room two silhouettes started to emerge, moving gently on the floor in a long sensual embrace. It was this encounter with my imaginary Psyche and Cupid, when they stopped being a sculpture and became living humans, that fascinated me back in Amsterdam. After a short talk about it with a young lady working at the museum I wrote down the artist's name determined to research his life and work once back in Berlin. What a surprise it was to come home a few weeks later and get an invitation from a friend who was performing at the exhibition of Tino Sehgal’s work at Martin Gropius Bau. This time I went already knowing what to expect, or so I thought. My intellectually emotional encounter with the “Kiss, 2002” in Amsterdam supported a shift in my understanding of what a museum experience can be, how it can become a playful space for human perception, an experimental lab beyond a conventional routine of what a museum traditionally looks like, and I was sure something similar was about to occur in Berlin.
There were again no art objects involved. Navigating a sequence of situations this time was a journey through several rooms. Every room of the itinerary was filled with humans. They were singing, dancing, talking, kissing, discussing, and even though they were busy enacting their scenes they were also engaging with us, the spectators. Not letting us hide in the audience where we can often feel so comfortably numb, they were asking us questions, singing to our ear, or breathing next to ask, depending on a situation. My favourite was the dark room. The mysterious space that we are often scared of. Once we really agree to enter the dark room something magical starts to happen. The “shoulds” slowly fade away. We are no longer concerned with how we look or should behave in public. Nobody sees us anyway. Finally, we can just be and focus on the experience. At first I joined people entering the room slowly and carefully, feeling as disoriented as anyone who cannot rely on their eyesight any longer. We discovered that there are other people around us in the darkness. We sensed their presence and their attention, containing the room and whoever enters into it. We heard them singing and moving in different rhythms and frequencies. We allowed their voices, movements, and quiet breaths to soften us, we allowed ourselves to be touched and enchanted. They shared stories with us, honest and personal. They shared their questions. Questions of our habits of relating to each other, habits of conversations, of inherited ways to engage with the fellow humans that involve games of power. Questions that concern ownership of our bodies, believes, voices and intentions in life. Questions about where do we draw the line between the requirements of built systems and our personal common sense, and how we get lost in all the “shoulds”, “musts” and “appropriates”. Many questions, shaking up and waking up the modern person, as a spectator, as a partner, as a lover, as a consumer, as a worker, as a friend. A real question implies many possible answers, so that the choices stay ours - what do we want to look deeper into, in which direction do we want to travel.
Traveling from room to room, surrounded by dancing people, singing people, performing people and people absorbed into alluring conversations, you feel like being at a good friend’s party. Curious about what else could there be hiding behind the next door, you feel invited to follow them and be part of this celebration of life. Quite amazing for a museum experience to be that engaging. And this is the moment when you think “but...wait a minute, it is a museum after all... Am I then just a spectator, a consumer of this whole thing? There is me, there are other visitors, and there are “them”, people who get paid to entertain us..? Is it then just a performance? Was all these honest conversation, singing and dancing together than just a spectacle?” Mind is trying its best to remind you of the way things are supposed to be at a museum, of what is appropriate, of the fact that you are here only to watch, that these people are not your friends, you actually do not know them at all... While the whole atmosphere as if talks about the contrary, as if it was made to feel that those borders of separation between me and the strangers around were non-existent. These conversations with the mind however did not stop me from experiencing some beautiful moments of letting go, where some important learning happens and I’m sure I haven’t finished learning from it yet. Something about the art that has spirit, about human connection, and about a gradual clarity of what is real for me and what does not belong to me, when thrown into life situations.
Image courtesy Musée du Louvre / Raphaël Chipault