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MCA Acquires “Kiss” Without Paperwork

[originally published Jan 11, 2010]

image pulled from Google Images

Editors Note: Based on an audio interview of Julie Rodriquez Widholm, conducted by Kathryn Born and adapted and transcribed for the written form by Alyssa Martinez.

Artists are allowed to control the conditions under which their work is purchased. The MCA recently purchased Kiss by Tino Sehgal under the restrictions that  no part of the process was documented in any manner.

Kiss is a sculptural and performance piece in which two dancers move slowly through a prescribed choreography. They kiss and touch, and eventually strike a pose to resembles embracing couples from historical paintings.

For many performative, historic works, the focus becomes the documentation, and the actual art become irrelevant. For example, Richard Long,  who systematically paced and photographed the trodden grass – it is now the photos that have come to represent the work –  the significance of the performative act is largely lost.

Sehgal’s rules are designed to prevent this. When the MCA embarked on the process of acquiring Kiss, they were not allowed to make the decision based on video or other types of documentation of the performance. Per MCA curator, Julie Rodriquez Widholm:

“…Tino Segal Kiss, we just acquired that for the collection. There is no trace. There is nothing. No paperwork. Part of the artist’s instructions, is that it has to be a verbal agreement, and verbal instructions… It has to be a set of instructions verbally passed on through time, so we can’t have anything in writing.”

“Sehgal doesn’t want any documentation because he wants the work to exist as conversations and experiences between people. So that is his very clear intention. And as an institution that values and honors an artist’s intention, that’s what we’ll be doing. And that is extremely challenging.”

As a result, before the piece was actually transferred in New York, before the decision was made, the piece was performed by dancers in front of the MCA collection committee. It was then voted on ad ratified by their board. In essence, it’s a fokeloric version of a contractual agreement. However, there are always some logistic realities – the curator has to document it for purpose of cataloging it, inventory etc., but it is imperative the institution adhere to the guideline set by the artist.

What the MCA owns with The Kiss, the actual “work”, is a series of notes in the file consisting of contacts who are authorized to teach the dancers the choreography of the performance. The actual process of acquiring the work is far more diplomatic, but also truly in the storytelling fashion:

“the whole process of transferring title, if you will, of the work, has to happen in person in New York with the curator, art director, Tino, Marian Goodman Gallery. And it’s just happening like a wire transfer, not like a check.”

“The spirit of it is through the execution,  through the experience of viewing the work itself and not through a paper-trail.  It relies on people to a. honor that, and b. pass it on. Because when he is gone, without the verbal instructions of how this work should be done, the work disappears.”

When the artist dies, the work will die with him.

Sehgal, through his no-documentation process, ensures that the documentation or the objects created as side effect of the performance never become the art. This can be an exciting path for curators. Again, Widholm:

“We’re in a contemporary art museum, so you have to expect the unexpected. I think, for him it’s really challenging the way we do things. It’s so important for him that there are live bodies in the galleries because he wants visitors to have this unexpected experience. I think he’s trying to insert a kind of unknown or just a different way of thinking. A different way of doing things.”

UPDATE: Since I posted this, Ms. Rodriguez-Widholm send me a link to a really outstanding article about Sehgal.  Some quotes:

What is the reason behind the photo prohibition? Those tasked with enforcing it are often tied into knots trying to explain. Sehgal’s project for Massimiliano Gioni’s lyrical “After Nature” at the New Museum in 2008 was one of the best pieces in that show. At the press preview, I innocently snapped a pic of the work, which consisted of a woman, slowly writhing on the floor at the bottom of the museum’s long stairwell. When I used the image to illustrate my review, a New Museum press rep called to request that I take it down, explaining that Tino Sehgal didn’t allow images of his work for ecological reasons, as he didn’t want to add to pollution by having his work printed. When I pointed out that I wrote for an internet publication, she just fell back on asking me to do it out of respect for the artist.

The fact that his background is in economics often comes up in critical debates about Sehgal; he sees commodification as all-pervasive and inevitable, and his medium — performance — expresses his comfort with that fact, not a questioning of it: “The reason I don’t use solid materials or make copies is because I know that the thing-in-itself can be commodified.”

From Artnet.com Photos for Tino, by Ben Davis