It may seem like a usual day in the busy Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, a few people heading up to the exit, after a satisfying day appreciating the exhibitions and collections on offer. Not a big deal, there’s plenty of room for all of us.
But then you realise that the ‘punters’ are walking with intent, in unison. In fact, at times, their striding becomes a wall of running and you’re unsure if they’ve even seen you in their path, or if they might just try and pass right through you…but of course they know you’re there…who else would they interact with?
Tino Seghal’s These Associations is the first live performance as part of Tate Modern’s Unilever Series of artworks specifically commissioned for the Turbine Hall. I first came across the work of Sehgal in 2005 at the Venice Biennale, when I accidentally found myself in the middle of This is So Contemporary. At the time, I had NO IDEA what was coming, and it has been an experience that has remained with me ever since, so I was more than excited to visit this new work ‘in person’ in London a couple of weeks ago.
This time the stage was different; I knew of Sehgal’s work, and indeed had briefly read something about this work when it first opened. Would it still have the same impact on me without the ‘surprise’? Should I pretend not to know? Will I be too shy to interact if I know I’m going to have to? Luckily, I was visiting with an artist friend of mine, so with the safety and boldness of our duo, we strode to a mid-point in the hall (from where the photo was taken, no less) and pretended to ‘chat’ while we waited to be interacted with(!). In fact, our pretend chat turned into an actual conversation, and then just as we’d almost forgotten while we were there, an amiable man made our twosome a threesome and started telling us a story about something that had happened in his life.
So we listened, we smiled, we were open with expectation. He started out a bit nervous as he recounted his tale about a friend who had gone into labour while ‘chatting’ over the internet with him. I couldn’t help but begin to analyse (politely, to myself); was this a true story? was it one he was told to tell? did he have different stories for different demographics of people? (I mean, two thirty-something ladies – ‘babies’ has to be topical whether you have them, want them, can’t or don’t, right?) But I kept my inquisitive self to myself and stayed in the open-spirit that art should be contemplated, given and received.
It was an interesting story. Digital communication and human drama combined – right up my alleyway. In fact, I had a lot to share on the subject – I have been a birthing partner for a friend, and I am well-versed in digital communication over distances. So after briefly wondering whether we were ‘supposed to’ just listen, and when I felt our new friend’s story was coming to an end I offered my own tale up for exchange…and so we communicated. What was really great, was that I hadn’t known that my other friend had also been a birthing partner for someone and there was this lovely moment in realising that this stranger had enabled us to learn something new about each other.
In chatting, our friend became more relaxed. As you would do, when meeting someone new turns out to be ‘okay’ and you can begin enjoy the conversation.
Okay, so it’s just a conversation at this point, but you need to know is what else is happening. The others in Sehgal’s group have mostly continued walking (and running) up and down the turbine hall. Only a few of them had broken off to strike up conversations with people. And each time they pass us they are drawn, like magnets to our hub. In a group they circle us, at first not so close, not so densely-packed a group, not so fast moving…but as we talk, this is exactly what happens. They ebb and flow around us and each time the come back it intensifies ’til at times you feel like you’re in the middle of a vortex. You are cut off from the rest of the Turbine Hall and its other inhabitants by the human swarm. At this point, I feel the genius of Sehgal. I feel the privilege of experiencing the work, not just reading about it.
And then as easily as it started, it’s over. The man disengages, quickly and easily and he is back with the pack.
My friend and I are silent, and we start to move off. I’m processing and I don’t want to get caught up in another conversation until I can work out how I feel about this one.
Overall, I feel lifted. I am reminded how interesting people are, and how nice it is to have new conversations with new people. And I am smiling. Again. As I did once before, last time I got Sehgal’ed.