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Sally and Amy want to know what I am doing. I explain that I am making notes, writing about the exhibition. Then they run off to rejoin the throng of fellow eight-year-olds tearing noisily around the downstairs gallery of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.
The children make up a living installation, a work of performance art by Tino Sehgal, the acclaimed Berlin-based artist whose medium, if it can be called that, is social interaction. Entitled either This Success or, alternatively, This Failure, it is the final instalment in his trilogy of ICA exhibitions. Eagerly, the children offered their own opinion: “We think that it’s a success,” they had announced, before Sally, feeling that further explication was required, leant over and whispered conspiratorially into my ear, “We’re a pair of penguins.”
The idea behind the current show is simple: every day, for five weeks, scores of children will use the gallery space as a playground. There are only two rules. “We’re not allowed to shout or scream,” explains Joel – although, as his sheepish grin attests, that instruction tends to get ignored. “And we’re not allowed to use any objects.” Rather, the children are challenged – this is how the notion of success or failure applies – to eschew toys and props, and create their own means of play.
As a social experiment, it is slightly facile. What children essentially do, after all, is improvise play together, learning techniques of societal behaviour: leapfrog, imaginary battles, clapping games, chasing games. One girl who has a crush on a schoolmate catches him repeatedly. It is all very cute, obviously – that is the mileage you get from kids. But it is also genuinely fascinating. Some of the children seem equally fascinated by the grown-ups, and shyly curious about the novel social situation they find themselves in.
Although galleries and museums habitually use the concept of “interactivity” as a promotional buzzword, this is the real deal – when I mention “British bulldog”, Sally and her friends insist I teach them how to play.
Such inherent unpredict-ability marks a shift in Sehgal’s practice. Previous works were planned out and choreographed – Sehgal studied choreography, as well as political economy, before turning to art – relying on set scripts and hired performers from singers to academics. His first ICA show, in 2005, featured a lone figure writhing on the gallery floor. For the second exhibition, last year, viewers were given a tour of the building by guides of ascending ages – from school child to octogenarian – delivering brief, conversational lectures about notions of progress and civilisation.
The common theme linking all Sehgal’s works is that of placing emphasis on social encounters, as a creative statement, instead of material objects. This evokes the radical art of the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly Douglas Huebler’s conceptualist dictum: “The world is already full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.”
For these artists, the so-called “dematerialisation of the art object” formed part of an anti-commercial ideology, a way of avoiding commodification by the art market. Sehgal, on the other hand, embraces the market, seeing commercial exchange as just another level of social interaction, and selling his work in the form of deeds that transfer performance rights.
Frequently, Sehgal even verbally signs and dates his performances, guaranteeing their authorship and provenance. At the recent Berlin Biennial, an entwined couple interrupted their elaborate embrace to announce, every half hour, “The Kiss. Tino Sehgal. 2006.” And during Sehgal’s exhibition at the German pavilion for the 2005 Venice Biennial, the gallery attendants chanted at visitors “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary” before they burst into song.
But beneath such funny and disarming moments lies a sense of unease, of something being out of place. His installations seem to pull away from the context of art; as actual, immediate, social encounters, they spill over to the real world.
The children instinctively appreciate the consequences of such an ontological shift. When I ask Joel how it feels to be part of a living artwork, he says, “It’s brilliant.” Then, as his friends drag him around the floor by his feet, he adds, “We get to have a day off school!”
‘This Success/This Failure’ by Tino Sehgal is at the ICA, London SW1, until March 4. Tel 20 7930 3647