A Year at the Stedelijk: Tino Sehgal is coming to an end. The Stedelijk and many of our visitors will certainly miss the unexpected live situations in the galleries. How does Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, who curated the project jointly with Beatrix Ruf, remember this incredible and frequently discussed year? Marie-José Raven poses five questions.
1. How do you look back on the year-long retrospective of Tino Sehgal at the Stedelijk?
For me, A Year at The Stedelijk: Tino Sehgal was the realization of a long-cherished wish to organize a larger-scale work with Sehgal at the Stedelijk. I’ve been talking over ideas with him since 2003, and we also worked together several times at the Stedelijk and Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. In 2005, we acquired his first visual artwork for our collection, Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000).
I suggested the possibility of working together on a number of occasions, and regularly looked him up in Berlin. But when the museum reopening was rescheduled several times, our plans were more or less put on hold. In 2014, we almost managed to make it happen when a “gap” appeared in the programming of our lower-level space. I suggested inviting Sehgal. In the spring, he came to Amsterdam to see our huge, 1100 m2 space. He quickly came up with the idea of presenting a continuously changing set of works in an architecture of mobile walls, designed by an artist friend. But, at the time, financial pressures meant we couldn’t proceed with the idea. When Beatrix Ruf was appointed in the summer of that same year and heard about the plan, she was excited and immediately went about changing it—redefining it as a retrospective in 2015, unfurling over an entire year, and taking place in the galleries displaying our collection. No one had dared to mount such a survey of Sehgal’s work before, despite that he is gradually becoming a mid-career artist. It was a brilliant idea. Sehgal loved the new plan, and we were able to acquire funding for the project within three months, thanks to a variety of sponsors and funds, and a super-dedicated Stedelijk team.
Of course, the advantage was that we had a year to develop the project. Normally, an exhibition is on view for three months, and you need to have everything ready beforehand. The only hard and fast date was January—that’s when the project would begin, starting with the aforementioned work in the museum’s collection. After this, it was a work in progress that we knocked into shape over the next few months, working closely with the artist. Because the exhibition lasted so long, for me it was one of the most unique projects I’ve been involved with as curator.
You can see that dance, too, is popular in the museum. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of crossovers, with dance entering the museum within a performance context. And, of course, the Stedelijk has maintained a tradition in this since the 1970s. I’ve always been interested in these shifts and transitions between artistic disciplines. In the inaugural exhibition of the new Stedelijk, Beyond Imagination (2012), with presentations of artists living in Amsterdam, we showcased a few examples. Tino Sehgal holds a special place, because he is one of the few who has thought out the implications, to the very last detail, of his move—as dancer and choreographer—into the museum. He blended the principles of dance and conceptual art, creating an immaterial art form that is uniquely his own. His work exists only at the moment when the visitor enters the gallery space, and is compelled to engage with one of his “situations.” Then it happens. When you leave the space, it’s gone. It is a wholly unique and individual experience at a very specific moment. This year, we witnessed the fact that, for a great many visitors, it was an experience they won’t easily forget.
Audience at performance of Kiss by Tino Sehgal. Photo Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen
2. Is there one work in particular that you look back on?
One of the greatest pleasures of this past year was to walk through the galleries every day and experience how members of the public react to the “situations’.” It was always different. Some simply continue walking, but thankfully many people stop and get involved. It’s then that you see the work unfold before your eyes—in the tension between your presence and that of the other visitors in the space. One work that particularly affected me was This variation, in June. I had seen it in Kassel during dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012, but there it was presented in a kind of barn—seeing it was like going to a theater performance. In the Stedelijk, in the context of one of our collection presentations where you don’t expect the work, and surrounded by the crisp, stylized architecture of the museum building, the work was far more profound. In a dark space where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, the way the air moved around you as the dancers swept by, the sounds that seemed to hail from an unfathomable depth, as if you were sleepwalking, and then—again—the swirling crowd of people as the group of interpreters threw themselves into a sleek, ecstatic choreography. I found it a deeply meaningful art experience.
3. How did visitors react?
Over the months, we developed a loyal group of visitors. People who came to the museum especially on the first day of the month, when the works changed. These visitors gave us the most involved feedback. At one point, they even put in requests for particular pieces: “Will Instead of… be performed again, and when can I see This variation again?” That was incredibly moving, but it was just as amazing to walk through the galleries and observe the reactions of unsuspecting visitors. In April, as a kind of “embedded curating,” I donned a security guard’s uniform and worked a couple of shifts of This is so contemporary, experiencing for myself just how subtle the interaction is between interpreter and audience. If you go too far, people recoil a little, but if you know how to strike the right note, something incredible happens. Now that the project is coming to an end, many visitors have told us they’ll miss Tino’s work. So, as a special treat, we’ve got a surprise in store during the last few days of the year: a sneak preview of a new work that will only be on view for a couple of hours.
Martijn as guard during This is so contemporary in April
4. Over the past year of the project, was there anything that took you by surprise?
I was surprised to learn so much about Tino’s work during the auditions and rehearsals. Hundreds of people auditioned all year long, and during the workshops and rehearsals a great deal of information was shared about the specific works we presented this year. I found it a unique privilege to be present throughout all of that. That’s how, as a team, we gained a massive amount of knowledge about Tino’s oeuvre, because he was always there in person, and clarified all kinds of aspects of the work. This year, the Stedelijk practically became a mini-knowledge center with regard to Tino’s work. I hadn’t expected the interpreters to grow so much with the works—everyone felt a bit sad when the end of the month approached and each work concluded.
But, best of all is the way the Stedelijk’s office staff took the project to heart. Tino sometimes likens his relationship with institutions to the film Groundhog Day. The movie’s main character gets stuck in a time loop and relives the same day over and over. Tino says he has a similar experience when introducing his work to a new institution. He always has to deal with the same fairly rigid institutional patterns. People don’t understand why he does what he does, and he has to explain it all, again and again, with infinite patience. At the Stedelijk, we’re used to a lot. But an artist who turns everything on its head, whose work can’t be photographed, who doesn’t want his exhibition advertised, who has bogus security guards parading through the building, puts strippers in the galleries, gives visitors their money back, makes last-minute decisions, and places the highest demands on everything and everyone—well, that’s tough at times, even in Amsterdam. But the amazing thing is that, at the end of the year, you really saw that changes had happened. People didn’t bat an eye when Tino came and went, or when hordes of colleagues suddenly appeared in the canteen at lunchtime, or all kinds of things happened in the galleries and offices. In the end, everyone told their parents to come and see This variation, and walked through the corridors singing, ”This is so contemporary.”
I think Tino showed people that art could be something other than an object sitting on the floor or hanging on a wall. Because the project lasted so long, everyone was able to get used to his work. They grew accustomed to it, and now I hear them saying they’re going to miss it.
5. Why is this kind of exhibition so befitting to the Stedelijk?
Experimentation and working closely with artists is truly written into the Stedelijk’s DNA. And that’s the direction Beatrix Ruf is taking, too. When we first embarked on this year-long project, none of us knew exactly how it would end. It takes guts to start an entire year without a clear plan, unsure where you’ll end up. But that’s exactly the mindset you need in order to grow artistically.
Besides that, the Stedelijk has a long history when it comes to performance and live arts. Not just in the theatrical setting of the auditorium, but in the gallery spaces as well. Think about Marina Abramović and Ulay, Joan Jonas, Aernout Mik, and Job Koelewijn, or more recently, Jennifer Tee and Sara van der Heide. Now that the museum is reopened and reinvigorated, it’s great to go back and look at our history, and even draw conclusions for the future. The project with Tino Sehgal is a catalyst in this process. It sensitized the organization and the artistic staff to what can be achieved with live art in the museum’s spaces. In that sense, it’s a fantastic foundation for future projects, whether by other artists, or again by Sehgal. We now know so much about his work, it would be foolish not to follow it up somehow.