Over the years, the Unilever Series at Tate Modern has taken many forms. Light, sound, film, slides, an enormous crack in the floor, an alarming black void, we’ve seen it all.
Yet the new piece by Tino Sehgal, “These Associations,” is a novelty. His medium is people, and his aim is to create social situations. It is, if you’re a traditionally British sort of person, rather embarrassing.
The 36-year-old Anglo-German artist has trained crowds of volunteers who occupy the vast spaces of the Turbine Hall. But as they’re dressed normally, it’s hard at first to pick them out. The clue is that they behave unlike the rest of the London museum’s visitors, more like members of a club or cult.
When I first arrived in the Turbine Hall they weren’t in evidence. Then I spotted them sprinting down from the other end of the vast space. At other times, they milled around in one area, muttered, chanted and wove in and out of the crowds, as if playing some unfamiliar game.
At intervals, one will come up to an ordinary visitor and begin an involved narrative. These stories are apparently genuine memories of some person or memory that made an impression on them, elicited by the artist through open-ended questions.
While wandering around, I heard about one young woman’s grandmother who had felt safe in a certain part of her house during World War II. Another woman told me about an acquaintance who had only one eye but managed fine, which impressed her.
On both occasions, when they finished, the storyteller smiled enigmatically and went off to join colleagues running around, chanting, etc.
In other words, “These Associations” is like being at a baffling party where everyone else seems to know each other and total strangers keep telling you intimate things about themselves, a propos of nothing.
Enjoyable? As an effort to put performance art in a mainstream art museum, I preferred Martin Creed’s piece at Tate Britain in 2008, which involved sprinters racing through the center of the gallery. That was more visual, because it was much clearer what was going on. This is confusing, which admittedly may be the point: It seems it’s all about belonging, or not belonging, to a social group.
It wasn’t terribly clear either what was happening next door in the newly opened Tanks, the first phase of Tate Modern’s current 215 million pound ($338 million) expansion project.
Once an area of oil storage in the power station from which Tate Modern was created, the Tanks -- as remodeled by the architects Herzog & de Meuron -- have an ambience that’s both grand and grim. The mood is somewhere between the interior of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and an underground car park.
The Tanks are intended for performance art, and are holding a 15-week festival (through Oct. 28).
When I dropped in, the largest space was hosting an open rehearsal for a piece by the Japanese artist Ei Arakawa. This was as desultory as any theatrical rehearsal; several people were doing something with a large piece of cloth while images were displayed on a screen.
There’s a basic problem with performances in art galleries: They usually take place at a set time, in front of an audience. That’s why they’re so tricky to present in museums, which have evolved to display visible objects, not transitory actions. I wasn’t convinced that Tate has solved that conundrum.
“These Associations” is at Tate Modern, London, through Oct. 28. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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