Nuria Roca Tino Seghal

Tino Sehgal: Art and Memory beyond Inanimate Materiality


What kind of artworks are commonly exhibited inside the walls of a museum? What does the inclusion -and, by extension, conservation- of a certain type of art tell us about institutional understandings of art and memory? What are the attitudes and behaviours generally expected by visitors engaging with art in the context of a museum?

Driven by these questions, I will analyse the main characteristics of the artworks by Tino Sehgal (London, 1976), an artist that operates in the context of the museum introducing “living sculptures” that transform with the visitor’s actions. I will also argue that the subversive potentialities of this artistic practice lie in the fact that it successfully inserts a different kind of product inside the walls of the museum, inviting us to reflect on the basic conventions at play in this model of the art institution.

In his strategy of occupying museum space and adopting its mechanisms, Sehgal appropriates the conventional visual-art exhibition framework to destabilize fundamental assumptions concerning the understanding of art as an inanimate object, the traditionally passive role attributed to the audience, and the preeminent place that the visual and written documentation hold in the museum’s processes of conservation. In this sense, his work is not only critical with these assumptions but also propositional, since he articulates an alternative way of doing art in the context of the museum.

Mechanisms at play in Sehgal’s situations

Let’s start by getting familiar with the essential characteristics of Sehgal’s work. Some authors define his artistic practice as a dance, underlying its choreographic dimension and also emphasizing Sehgal’s dance background: “the important point is that much of this [his practice, ed.] passes through bodies moving in an exhibition space. Sehgal choreographs a dance in the museum, with the museum”.[1]

However, the artist distinguishes his artwork from dance, also rejecting its categorisation under the labels of performance or theatre. In this vein, he explains that these artistic practices consist of one person or a group of people presenting a piece to an audience -generally implying a passive and distant role of the viewers- in a precisely delimited, and previously announced time, with clear start and end. In contrast, unlike more of live-art based works, his pieces operate in “the temporality of the visual-art exhibition […] it’s always there, like any other artwork. You can walk in, you are included. My work does not start and finish”.[2] He consciously decides to conceive them as structurally repeatable and to exhibit them all-day during the whole period that his work is on view, operating within the ordinary continuity of the museum’s exhibitions. In short, his pieces are exhibit “as if they are objects”[3] and this effort to copy the “object-like quality”[4] serves particular ideological purposes precisely related to rethinking the privileged place that objects generally occupy in art institutions.

Sehgal defines his pieces as “constructed situations” or “living sculptures”,[5] but through which processes and actions do these situations unfold? Like a machine,[6] Sehgal’s situations operate animated by a set of mechanisms or techniques, which can include movements, silences, songs, questions, or conversations. The interpreters -as Sehgal prefers to call them- employ this set of resources or instructions[7] during the encounter with the visitors in the connotated environment of the museum without any material support, except for all the present bodies and the physical space.

It is, however, important to emphasize that the machine doesn’t always function in the same way: “neither interpreters nor visitors can predict how the situation will evolve”.[8] The element of unpredictability, thus, plays a fundamental role, because during the ongoing collective encounters people can actively intervene. Even though it is true that they are constrained by several factors, such as the role of the interpreters or the social norms, the visitors’ actions can significantly change the dynamics of the entire piece and shape it in a particular manner. In this way, the distinction between art object and audience becomes blurred, because the visitors are directly involved as an essential element of the endless transforming pieces, and even becoming the piece itself.

An ideological ban on documentation

Another key element characteristic of Tino Sehgal’s approach is the artist’s resistance to the production of documentation of his pieces. Sehgal stands for the erasure of any trace of his artistic practice: he doesn’t allow recordings, photographs, flyers at the door, signs in the wall, press releases, or catalogues. Even the process of acquisition of the pieces is arranged orally with a handshake and the presence of a notary, without a contract between the art institution and the artist. In the words of art historian Claire Bishop: “he obsessively constructs a polished, impregnable closed system -protected by curators, gallerists, and press officers- in which the work evades documentation at all stages”.[9][10]

In which ways must this obsession be understood? Sehgal says: “it [his work, ed.] exists as a situation, and therefore, substituting it with some material object like a photo or a video doesn’t seem like an adequate documentation”.[11] Opposed to what some critics have argued, he points out that writing about his work does not betray his ethics, because he aims to generate reflection. This also illustrates how individuals subjectively engage with his practice. The main reason for the artist, then, has to do with the nature of the pieces because the situations are characterised by a never-ending transformation, producing dispersed and subjective experiences. For this reason, capturing them in a document pretentiously objective and eternal substantially alters fundamental aspects of their nature.

Another explanation that Sehgal provides for the ban on documentation is his interest in “the simultaneity of production and deproduction”.[12] While some critics have underlined only the deconstructive or immaterial dimension of Sehgal’s practice, he states that his artworks are not immaterial, since he is, in fact, creating something. What is at stake is the idea of producing in a way that goes beyond the object. In this vein, his mode of production is not based on objects but on human bodies in interaction, that is, in actions (gestures, sounds, etc.) which are in continuous transformation. This different kind of production has direct consequences in its opposite process: the deproduction. Contrary to the case of material objects, the disappearance of these actions is an aspect inherent to them: “immediately as a note ends or a movement stops, it is gone; it deproduces itself”.[13] Sehgal’s persistence in producing differently is linked to ideological concerns against the hegemonic and ethically problematic Western celebration of the material object. In Sehgal’s view, this celebration is an ideology that is also behind traditional museological approaches.

The logic and potentialities of working within the institution

Why does Sehgal present his artworks as objects in an institution like the museum if he is, in fact, trying to destabilize the celebration of objects? Because the artist precisely plays with the tension produced by practicing his dissident mode of production -with very specific conditions- and, at the same time, presenting it within the museum walls in a conventional atmosphere. The contrast underlies the hegemonic ideology at play while opening space for understanding art as a subjective, and collectively-shaped situation that exists beyond the inanimate materiality. The key question Sehgal asks to himself is: “Can I go to this place where the celebration of this model [the material production of an object, ed.] has installed itself in Western society, the museum, and celebrate something else?”[14]

Several museums have already exhibited Sehgal’s works. During 2015, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam presented the first retrospective of his work and this year, from 3 February until 3 March, his piece This Variation was again on view in this institution. But, how do museums, whose practices strongly rely on processes of collecting and conservation, manage to adapt to Sehgal’s conditions? And, more significantly, in which ways can this adaptation lead to new understandings of memory and to a reconceptualization of the archive in the context of the museum?

In relation to these questions, Vivian van Saaze, director of the Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage (MACCH), undertook an empirical research into the strategies of acquiring and conservation of Sehgal’s work adopted by several European and North-American museums from 2008 to 2012. Museums, which are commonly understood as collecting institutions, heavily depend on the production of visual and written documentation of artworks as a form of “materialised memory”[15] which is usually collected in an archive. In contrast, Sehgal’s work relies on another conception of memory, which can be called “living memory”[16] which relies not on documentation, but on oral and bodily forms of memory, dispersed on the individual’s subjective experiences and narratives. The will to include Sehgal’s artwork forces the institutions to reflect on their limited idea of memory while finding alternative ways of working that fully respect the artist’s approach and, at the same time, ensure the preservation of the artwork through the nourishing of what we could call a living archive.

Photo by Samuel Zeller

Dealing with a dispersed and collective memory

Facing the absence of a material archive based on written and visual documentation, the museological experiences concerning the conservation of Sehgal’s pieces are evidence of a collective effort to reconstruct the piece. With a preservation aim, the institution tries to involve the different actors that took a role in constructing the first situation, such as the artist himself, his producers, the original interpreters, and, of course, the museum staff. This means that if there are more people that learn how to enact the artwork, the piece is more likely to survive: “memory of the work becomes dispersed, and is no longer contained or controlled by the museum […] museums acquiring his works are challenged to encourage and foster distributed memory as a means of circumventing memory loss.”[17] In other words, the museum can no longer work in isolation but needs to build a strong community around the piece in the attempt to keep its memory alive, actively assuming a range of responsibilities such as keeping in touch with the interpreters, periodically rehearsing, re-performing the piece or organizing meetings.

Considering this collective mobilization, a doubt arises: who is the owner of the piece? Although the institution has officially the authorised right to install it, it could be argued that the piece is no longer an object clearly ubicated inside the walls of the museum. Conversely, the art piece is disseminated among different individuals, mainly the interpreters, who hold embodied knowledge about it: “knowledge of how to perform his pieces is intended to travel from person to person, from body to body in the form of narratives, movements, and through rehearsals.”[18] This dispersion, together with the absence of material documentation, radically challenges the nature of the institutional processes of conservation. The question becomes: do these artwork’s characteristics represent a threat for the existence of an archive and, by implication, the museum itself? Or can they open space for an alternative institutional understanding of what an archive is?

André Lepecki, curator and researcher on dance studies and performance arts, reflects on the nature of the archive, and he conceptualises the idea of the body as an archive, explaining the potentiality and logic behind this understanding. Far from the idea of the archive as a static and objective reality, Lepecki suggests that the body is “the privileged archiving site”[19] as the body’s characteristics present fundamental similarities with the nature of the archive. The archive, like the body, is based on a performative dimension: it performs, acting in our present time to reproduce and give legitimacy to certain histories and not others. In other words, an archive is always partial. In connection with this partiality, another element that unites both the body and the archive is its constitutive memory failures. A third aspect that Lepecki suggests is the element of the ongoing transformation: the archive, like the body, is not a static and fixed entity but keeps transforming. That is why the problems of subjectivity and transformation in relation to the embodied or living archive can be considered as false problems, because in some way any type of archive -no matter the form it takes- is always, and by definition, subjective and in transformation.

Reimagining the situations through an intersectional feminist lens

As I have underlined in this article, Sehgal’s choice of placing the pieces in the legitimating context of museums in harmony with the institution’s conventions respond to the ideological statements the artist is making. The conceptualization of art as a situation beyond the object focuses not on the product in itself but on the experience that is being collectively generated. However, from an intersectional feminist perspective, it is relevant to raise some issues about the accessibility, and the violence of the economic, educational, and physical barriers that exclude people from these art institutions. In this sense, a question urges to my mind: who is actually in the privileged position of engaging with -almost becoming themselves- these situations?

Working around this urgent problem of exclusions, Sehgal’s work remains crucial for critically reimagining museological approaches. Highlighting the situational dimension of engaging with art, his approach opens space to rethink how this encounter takes place and how it can become a more inclusive -even subversive (dismantling hegemonic ideas and power relations)- encounter. Moreover, the value he gives to embodied knowledge can also be understood in a feminist way because, strongly rejecting a pretentious objectivity, he places at the centre the lived experiences and different subjectivities of individuals. This move reminds Donna Haraway’s claim for situatedness in the production of feminist knowledge:

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.[20]

Suggesting that our own specific location, positionality, and situatedness always shape our experience of his pieces and the artworks themselves, Sehgal’s doesn’t try to erase this fact, but he converts it a fundamental aspect of his artistic practice.

Núria Roca Farré is currently (2018-2019) a student of the one-year master in Gender Studies at Utrecht University (NL). She has done her internship at Museum of Equality and Difference (MOED). Her research interests focus on the intersection of art and activism in relation to bodies and (urban) space.


Bishop, Claire. “No pictures, please.” Artforum 43, 9 (2005): 215-217.

Haraway, Donna. “Perspective, situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-599.

Lepecki, André. “The body as archive: Will to re-enact and the afterlives of dances.” Dance Research Journal 42, no. 2 (2010): 28-48.

Pape, Toni, Noémie Solomon, and Alanna Thain. “Welcome to this situation: Tino Sehgal’s impersonal ethic.” Dance Research Journal 46, no. 3 (2014): 89-100.

Sehgal, Tino, interview by Tim Griffin. “Tino Sehgal: An interview.” Artforum 43, 9 (2005): 218-219.

van Saaze, Vivian. “In the absence of documentation. Remembering Tino Sehgal’s constructed situations.” Revista de História da Arte, no. 4 (2015): 55-63.

Cover image: © Museum of Equality and Difference

[1] Pape, Solomon and Thain, 90.

[2] Sehgal, 218.

[3] Van Saaze, 3.

[4] Von Hantelmann quoted in Van Saaze, 3.

[5] Van Saaze, 3.

[6] Pape, Solomon and Thain, 91.

[7] Bishop, 215.

[8] Pape, Solomon and Thain, 91.

[9] Bishop, 216.

[10] This system is, of course, not wholly efficient and some visitors have managed to produce unofficial documentation of his work, as an internet search show.

[11] Sehgal, 218.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Sehgal, 219.

[15] Van Saaze, 2.

[16] Van Saaze, 4.

[17] Van Saaze, 5.

[18] Van Saaze, 3.

[19] Lepecki, 34.

[20] Haraway, 589.