Blog — 27 Aug 2015 — Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes

The Stedelijk Museum regularly invites guestbloggers to share their experiences and thoughts. In this blog Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, professor in art history at the University of Amsterdam, compares Tino Sehgal’s constructed situations to novels of Joyce and Beuys.

Tino Sehgal’s likes and dislikes have been written about quite extensively. Today I will focus on one of the things he says he is not so interested in, novels,[1] – and also a little on what he told me he was very taken by during our thus far one and only conversation. That exchange – at a recent party – was surprising: Sehgal is at pains to avoid the tag performance art for what he does. Speaking of Joseph Beuys then, the subject of my PhD, may have been foolhardy. However, I managed to say that “my” Beuys is the one who did not arrive with a large sculpture in Northern Ireland, but came at one of the most difficult times of the “Troubles” (in 1974) to make friends. He did bring drawings to have a starting point for the museum to host him and for people to attend what would become a 3 ½ hour public lecture and discussion. As the most enduring of his contributions, however, he identified artists who were working in important ways in that context, kept his friendships with them alive, invited them to contribute to a migration workshop at documenta 6, 1977, even asked them along to his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and eventually paid the initial rent for their performance and exhibition space. What emerged, the Art and Research Exchange, can be viewed as a branch of the Free International University for Interdisciplinary Research, which Beuys set up around that time. This legacy of artists’ self-organised initiatives in an environment that still has no commercial contemporary art galleries is alive in Northern Ireland today. Sehgal was excited to hear all this: “The first time that Beuys appeals to me”, he said.

Indeed, the centrality and longevity of impact of (strategically constructed) ephemeral human exchange in the art context was not so easy in Beuys’ time to isolate as art. There are many other aspects of Beuys’ practice that are far less subtle – and he did speak and act in rather authoritarian ways when he was in the heart of power (e.g. when speaking at the Tate Gallery in London),[2] but his approach to a fragile, beleaguered and downright dangerous situation for artists, as he found it in Belfast, demanded different approaches, and Beuys rose to that challenge. I found it curious to work in that context when Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics book was discussed in the early 2000s. In it, Beuys is mentioned once and very little space is given to strong historical precedent. Contrary to what Bourriaud wrote, a relational focus wasn’t new in the 1990’s and he also didn’t account for the subtleties of the kind of practice that emerged following Beuys’ engagement in Northern Ireland.[3] Today, largely probably owing to how Tino Sehgal has employed and privileged encounters in art, we may see differently the human investment that Beuys made in that situation – and recognise it as a central part of his expanded concept of art.[4]

Rather than finding a new / old art history for Sehgal and therefore recoup him for performance art, I would like to go outside – or stay outside – of the art field proper (Sehgal studied choreography and economics) and make something else that was close to Beuys’ heart function as an approach to Sehgal’s practice. That something is the work of James Joyce. Joseph Beuys underwent a depressive crisis in the mid 1950s and claimed then in his CV and in the last multiple he made before his death that reading Joyce had had the effect of a “dynamic medicine for me”.[5] Joyce (beside megalithic sites and Heinrich Boell’s Irish Diary) was a motivation for Beuys to go to Ireland and invest in friendships there. Joyce’s work itself is about small kindnesses in everyday life.

Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, contains 18 episodes in 18 different styles, all set on one city, Dublin, and on one day, 16 June 1904. The most intricate, and the most difficult to write, according to the author,[6] was Oxen of the Sun. Here the two male protagonists meet in Holles Street Maternity Hospital, where Minna Purefoy gives birth to a baby. The episode is narrated as the birth of the English language from literal translations of Latinate poetry via Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton etc. to early 20th century Dublin slang. One could say that this episode of Ulysses, the towering literary accomplishment of Modernism, is a “museum” of literature and therefore belongs into the museum. Beuys responded to the contraction of time (and stretching of time in other chapters of Ulysses) with durational performance. In fact many artists have thought that Joyce’s work contained much that could be used in contemporary art practice, and I have brought such work together in an exhibition and book under the heading of Joyce in Art.[7] But that is not the point here.

Tino Sehgal’s pièce de résistance as a dancer was Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century, 1999, where he performed naked and in chronological succession the birth and history of modern dance. Jens Hoffman, the curator and his friend, told him that this work amounted to a museum of dance and hence belonged into the museum context – or so goes the anecdote of this founding moment of Sehgal’s turn to visual art.

The museum (if one can generalise) has certainly changed a great deal since the times of chronological arrangements of artworks, the pearls on a string. What it can today give to Sehgal’s practice is the availability of attentive people, open to encounter, individuals that move and perform themselves.[8] That earliest piece that motivated the move into art, however, did not as yet need such an audience. It’s a traditional, stage-bound dance piece that nevertheless opened up possibilities that are in nuce present in Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century.

If Sehgal went where he would find arrangements of viewers, interpreters as he calls them, Joyce built his audience around his interpreters, as Oxen of the Sun in particular can show: the literary historical references are so dense, the prose is so accomplished that it is a need and a pleasure to be the interpreter, the exegete, the person who appreciates the in-jokes. Joyce’s dictum that he put so many enigmas into his work, because he wished to keep the professors busy for centuries and that this was the only way of ensuing his immortality implies the academic context. That is true for Ulysses.

However, in Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, Joyce could no longer take for granted an educated, linguistically rooted audience. The work abounds with references to popular culture and uses around 40 languages. It is a work made for the context of emigration, where a World War – and a looming second one – had already torn readers out of standard education and was moving individuals around space, apart and together, willing to contribute their experiences and idiosyncratic knowledge, while longing for others to share the rewarding experience of an always partial construction of meaning: always trying to understand and always simultaneously reminding one another or the impossibility of fixed meaning. The Finnegans Wake reading group was born – and it lives e.g. in art, in the work of Dora Garcia, whose practice is rather close to Sehgal’s in her focus on human encounters. She is less museum-bound, however, and the ambiguities between art and life are even more developed.

Garcia has filmed the Zurich Joyce Foundation’s Finnegans Wake reading group – and extended a Joycean reading into the gallery, where Lacan’s lectures on Joyce are read by one performer, while one or more others perform gestures from modern dance.[9] She has thus understood that Finnegans Wake is also a choreographic work. Even apart from bringing people together in an addictive, communal reading and interpreting experience (the language has to be read aloud), the body plays a leading role (as it had in Ulysses in fact, as the “epic of the body”). Joyce’s daughter Lucia was a modern dancer. Carol Loeb-Shloss has investigated the debt of the father to the passion of his gifted but disturbed, multi-lingual, migrant daughter.[10]

Joyce and Sehgal share the move from traditional dance audience and academic interpretation respectively to unpredictable diversity of perspectives and knowledge: a privileging and valuing of people coming together, one by one or in relatively small groups.

Joyce’s intervening in his readers’ lives did not just begin with Finnegans Wake reading groups, however. His earliest literary invention was the epiphany: a snippet of a conversation or gesture picked up in everyday life, collected and made useable in the more constructed situation of his prose, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego in that book, does not practice a particular art form, but he has developed a habit of looking differently at the world, consciously and reflectively moving in it, growing (as the language matures with him) as the book progresses, and provoking unusual conversations with those he encounters.

Sehgal was, we are told in the literature,[11] a skateboarder, who traversed the city and looked at it, used it differently. The museum is one such place in a city where using all that is around one (space, visitors, administration, prices, books) is encouraged to be used in ways that take nothing for granted. And as a writer, Joyce did not pretend that he was creating a different world: he was intervening in the existing one, using the specificities of the city of Dublin, brand names and – disturbingly – people’s characters and stories to turn what he wrote into just another thing that the life of Dublin (as a microcosm) has experienced. That is how these always incompletely narrated occurrences (open for our own puzzling together and further expansion) became urban myths. This is how the need for reading in situ and “re-enactment” arose: to celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday became an institution, where Ulysses acquires new life, is continuously performed, but also changes beyond recognition.

Sehgal’s work is conceived to be continuously performed, whenever exhibited, and it has been considered to have the quality of urban myths. Lauren Collins writes:

Sehgal’s pieces are the rare public events that can yield unscripted possibilities. This makes them seem new, even in comparison with earlier performance art, whose creators tended to perform it themselves, insuring fidelity to their vision. Sehgal’s pieces are like urban legends. They can change, become embellished, acquire patina.[12]

Like attending a Joyce reading group, Sehgal’s works can ideally resemble an encounter of friends: here, a hiatus in the relationship eventually does not matter so much, as one can always take it up on again at the next meeting – and every encounter will be different from the last: the framework stands, but the interpretations vary. This is what Diana Taylor[13] calls a repertoire and not an archive. A repertoire of human situations: I don’t think Joyce would have complained to have Ulysses described as such.

It is clear then that the difference cannot be that Joyce wrote everything down and Sehgal is against scripts. Joyce’s embodied knowledge of his home city made it possible for him to write Ulysses in the first place. The focus lies on what we do with the concepts that are presented to us. In that sense, it is important to stress that with both Joyce and Sehgal form is content. The Oxen of the Sun episode pioneered such a clear identification of the two and through the multiplicity of styles in Ulysses and in that episode already states that there are many different formulations possible of this underlying principle. As far as Finnegans Wake is concerned, Samuel Beckett formulated concisely: “Here form is content, content is form … [Joyce’s] writing is not about something; it is that something itself”.[14]

Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century shares these same qualities already – and is expanded into the museum setting in Sehgal’s work for the Guggenheim Museum, New York, This Progress, 2012, where a child greets the visitor and asks about his or her views on progress. An inventory (or better again repertory) of life is created when older and older interlocutors continue the conversation the higher one reaches in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral building – like in A Portrait of the Artist. That same building Joseph Beuys had incidentally in 1979 used in a similarly autobiographical arrangement of works (complete with clandestine inclusions of works by his Northern Irish friends).[15] One does, indeed, feel time pass as one progresses up the spiral, however, a teleological or aim-focused, linear history is not what was meant by either artist. Beuys had already, earlier in the 1970s shown an autobiographical work, a kind of catalogue raisonné under the title Arena. Glass frames, mostly with photographs of works, were arranged around a room in a circle. The Guggenheim spiral then is also not a straight line and one has to return: it suggests repetition with a difference.

Sehgal’s current Amsterdam project of a retrospective exhibition, changing month-by-month and presenting sometimes more than one work, does not need to proceed chronologically. The two central chronological works in Sehgal’s oeuvre, Twenty Minutes and This Progress, in fact build a frame around such an endeavour that let it appear as a working out of that frame: different situations, “constructed situations” Sehgal would say in reference to Guy Debord, i.e. elements of peoples’ lives such as music and rhythm (This Variation, documenta 13, 2012) or popular academic discussions about the economy (This Situation, 2007). The retrospective thus has the capacity to bring together what in my tentative analogy between Joyce’s and Sehgal’s practices one would call the multi-stylistic diversity of approaches of Ulysses. May one loosely align the Sirens episode and This Variation? Aeolus and This Situation, or another work where newspaper headlines are read? It is work that encompasses the world and partakes in it.

One striking quality of Sehgal’s works, however, is the focus on the present. There is the danger, of course, in being all too contemporary to the exclusion of slower human encounters. This Is So Contemporary, 2005, then, I’m inclined to view as an ironic intervention, a critique of the fetishization of the latest thing in art and elsewhere. I think it cannot but be so, as repetitions with a difference and slower movements, more careful, meaningful encounters otherwise prevail. But there can also of course be contradictions when a diversity of situations is distilled out of the course of people’s lives – as I am attempting to show for both the episodes in Ulysses and Sehgal’s individual works.

The Kiss e.g. was shown in an empty gallery room in April and is now present in the dark in May. The moment of intimacy in the notional scheme here proposed makes me think of the Penelope episode in Ulysses, which censors in many countries found pornographic at the time. It has an important, the decisive place in that book, as human intimacy, thoughts about one another and past encounters are part of our lives. Whether this belongs into the daylight or the dark, Ulysses as the daybook or Finnegans Wake as the one of the night, the museum or the live shows a few hundred meters up the road is not a matter to be decided in a general way, but depends on situations. A retrospective such as Sehgal’s in Amsterdam and a work as diverse as Ulysses may encompass all.

The focus on the present is attempting diversity while siting us in the here and now. This is particularly noticeable in the seemingly simple, descriptive demonstrative “This”, which many of Sehgal’s titles share: This Progress, This Variation, This Situation, These Associations etc. As our interpreting is at the centre of the work, what I am encountering is only ever my (possibly repeated) situation. In repetition, however, circumstances, co-interpreters etc. change. One literally does not step into the same river twice. In that way, the “This” may just become the point when the spiral turns and we repeat again differently, as – rather similarly – James Joyce used the most inconspicuous word of the English language, the definite article “the” as that point where the end of Finnegans Wake, where the female protagonist, Anna Livia, aka the river Liffey, flows into the sea and where this end joins with the beginning anew, the re-circling and re-cycling:

Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the […] riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.[16]

Joyce and Sehgal seem to share a certain outlook, a belief in the importance of choreographed situations that can (but may not) provide epiphanies for others, insight into important facts about life, key moments in a person’s development etc. Just as Joyce and Constantin Brancusi had shared their dislike of the speed of modern means of transport (fast trains then, aeroplanes now: Sehgal doesn’t fly). There is a certain ego to be noted, as well as a “problem with things”: Joyce’s initial poverty and ambulatory lifestyle didn’t allow for a great many possessions to be amassed, but waiters were tipped – in good times – as if he was royalty.

The writer, who had socialist leanings and stylized himself as an anarchist in the attic in a brief, unhappy period living in Rome, anticipated with Finnegans Wake’s “recycling” theme (structurally, but also in relation to the use of sources) a sentiment that suits Sehgal rather well. Brought up in Böblingen near Stuttgart, he claims as a motivation to follow art not politics witnessing the weaselling of politicians in pursuit of popularity and votes when it came to an infrastructure project.[17] An overblown, vanity investment in public transport was exactly what a few years ago led to surprising and large-scale activist upsurges among the otherwise conservative middle class of Stuttgart and environs. Sehgal, who had moved to that environment as a child, seems to have understood the instability of that supposedly most solid and static of societies, where both building one’s own house and recycling are near-religions. The outsider sees more, and that may even be valid in relation to the visual art world and its institutions.

As museum pieces, many of Sehgal’s works do not strike me as particularly politically activist and the famous oral sales agreements are also not so unprecedented, while they do of course stretch museum processes. They would not stretch the imagination of drug dealers or others working in the black economy. Personally, I was relatively untouched by This Variation at documenta 13 (probably just not the right moment) and thought that the choice to focus on the economy in the contribution to the Turner Prize exhibition in Derry, Northern Ireland, 2013 did not quite take account of local specificities: Northern Ireland has for many decades had a false economy propped up by the London government as payment for past inadequacy and ransom for avoiding future violence.

On the other hand, This Situation, shown in Dublin in 2013, came just right to consider – with the help of the historically situated (dated) quotations spoken by the interpreters – the death of the Celtic tiger and art’s implication in these larger economic cycles. It is also a work that required thinking individuals as interpreters, ideally ones with principles: college graduates and artists. They are those who had invested much in their education to become critically thinking individuals and often found themselves unemployed following the IMF’s rescue of the countries’ banks, to be paid for (of course) by the general population.

The large sums spent on exhibiting Sehga’s works may very well for some be part of the “bigger and better” cultural economy of vanity. When it comes down to it, however, maybe Sehgal is redistributing funds in a way that (in order to be provided) has to play to those who fund, appreciate numbers and adore celebrity. Possibly under false pretences then, those who in art one may call the “right ones” are for once the winners: those who are so uncharacteristically paid to hold philosophical conversations in a gallery. Few places for such overtly “output”-less endeavour remain when the traditional sphere for this – and for Joyce interpretation – the university, is turning itself towards utilitarian economic concerns. We know about those things in Amsterdam.

Beuys appeared in a Japanese Whiskey ad in order to be able to afford the large-scale, ecological art project of 7000 Oaks, Kassel 1982-87, and Joyce certainly didn’t protest at having his image adorn The Time Magazine cover. What friendships were sustained, who received help to pursue principled and unpaid art or thinking work we will likely not know. That doesn’t mean, though, that if one can’t count of touch it that it’s all going to be without impact in every case.

If I can claim for Ulysses that it is not a novel, but instead a series of constructed or choreographed situations, I think I’m quite content to let Tino Sehgal continue not liking novels so much, but instead being interested in how Beuys made friends.


[1] Lauren Collins. ‘The Question Artist.’ The New Yorker, Vol. 88, No. 23. New York: The Condé Nast Publications, Aug. 6, 2012. p. 34: ‘One day, [Sehgal] mentioned that he’d like to know more about novels, which he normally is ‘’not that interested in.’’’
[2] See: Barbara Lange. “’Questions? You have questions?’ Die künstlerische Selbstdarstellung von Joseph Beuys im Fat Transformation Piece / Four Blackboards (1972)”. Joseph Beuys Symposium Kranenburg 1995. Inge Lorenz (ed). Basel, Moyland: Wiese Verlag, Förderverein Museum Schloss Moyland 1986, p. 164-171.
[3] See: Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, Victoria Walters (eds). Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics. Series: European Culture and Politics. Münster, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, London: LIT 2011.
[4] For a reflection upon the (changing) definition of performance, see: Agnieszka Gratza. ‘Expanding Performance.’ PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 35, No. 3. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, Sept. 2013. pp. 41-48. Gratza uses Seghal as an example of ‘expanding performance’.
[5] The text of the multiple Joyce with Sled, 1985.
[6] Richard Ellmann. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press 1982, p. 475.
[7] Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes. Joyce in Art: Visual Art Inspired by James Joyce. Foreword: Fritz Senn, envoi: James Elkins, design: Ecke Bonk. The Lilliput Press Dublin 2004. The exhibition of the same title was shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy Dublin June-August 2004. I curated smaller follow-up exhibitions at the Tolstoy Estate, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia (2010), the Museum of Art, Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea (2011) and Dublin’s city space including Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (2012).
[8] Irit Rogoff. “Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture”. Gavin Butt (ed.) After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell 2005, pp. 117-134.
[9] This performance first took place in 2013/14 at Kunsthaus Bregenz; in 2014 also at the Ellen de Bruijne Gallery, Amsterdam. It is a part of Garcia’s project The Sinthome Score, 2013.
[10] Carol Loeb Shloss. Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003.
[11] Collins, Lauren. ‘The Question Artist.’ The New Yorker, Vol. 88, No. 23. New York: The Condé Nast Publications, Aug. 6, 2012. p. 34. Tino Sehgal “became a skateboarder – Airwalks and baggy pants. The landscape began to morph. ‘I think a lot of Tino’s stuff comes from skateboarders looking at railings and concrete, and thinking, How can I use that in a different way?’ Asad Raza, Sehgal’s producer, said.”
[12] Ibid.
[13] Diana Taylor. The Archive and the Repertoire – Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham and London: Duke University Press 2003.
[14] Samuel Beckett. ‘’Dante… Bruno. Vico… Joyce.’’ in Sylvia Beach (ed.) Our Exagmination round his Factification of Work in Progress. London: Faber & Faber, 1929, p.14.
[15] Tony Hill’s contribution  to the symposium “Beuys’ Legacy: Unity in Diversity” Goethe-Institut Dublin, 2006. Convened by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes.
[16] Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber & Faber, 1939, pp. 628, line 3.
[17] Collins, p. 34. “At sixteen, Sehgal spoke in favor of a public-transportation project at a city-council meeting in Stuttgart. ‘I remember seeing the minister of transportation dive and dodge,’ he told Arthur Lubow, of the Times Magazine. ‘All he could do was administer what the public opinion was, or else he would be voted out in the next election.’ Sehgal recalls this moment as an epiphany. He would register his rebuke through culture rather than politics.”