Collecting art relies on tangibility, the ability to hold, exhibit, and possess a cultural artefact. Performance and immaterial art is an exception to that rule. Usually documented in the form of visual mementos, a paradigm shift in the way museums and collectors conserve and trade intangible art works raises questions of authorship, ownership, and collecting.
First came his stirring intervention at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and then his appearance at Documenta in Kassel last year. Now he’s the star of this summer’s New York Frieze Art Fair, winner of the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion and a highly touted nominee of the 2013 Turner Prize. His work leaves no physical memento of its existence yet is said to change hands for as much as $150,000. Tino Sehgal’s constructed situations exist only in the space of the gallery and take shape only through the memory of the encounter. Using trained participants, Sehgal’s performances encourage the audience to become active interpreters of intangible experience. The lack of press releases or visual documentation further discourages any afterlife of the work.
Sehgal’s American representative, the Marian Goodman Gallery, presented Ann Lee, the artist’s entry in the New York Frieze Art Fair. Consisting of an 11-year old child attempting to make a passing audience grasp her understanding of the visual transformation of a Manga character, this space and time-specific performance was up for sale. Although not specified by the gallery, one can presume the transaction may be processed in a similar vein to the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s acquisition of Sehgal’s Kiss (2004). Described by museum director Glenn D. Lowry as ‘one of the most elaborate and difficult acquisitions we’ve ever made’, the buyer and Sehgal discussed in the presence of a notary the legal requirements of the exchange, including future reproduction, re-performance, the training and payment of the interpreting participants, and the usual contractual restrictions barring photographs and films of the event. All of which were agreed by oral contract without certificate or paper document. Many of Sehgal’s pieces are likewise saleable only as orally-transmitted instructions that the buyer must memorise for future re-sale or ‘exhibition’. With this audacious transaction it’s easy to question what the collector is buying, the original work or the oral contact – itself a participatory performance.
The world of performance art intersects with countless other media trajectories, reaching its zenith at the moment a performance is enacted and then disappearing, leaving a horde of debris – photographs, designs, artefacts, preparatory work, and other tangible souvenirs. In the early 2000s the manifesto-friendly Director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Nicolas Bourriaud observed that a diverse range of artists could be understood more clearly if contained within the bracket of ‘Relational Aesthetics’. Artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster were said to be more akin to catalysts at the centre of a work, initiating a network of associations, and inventing new connecting lines between social forms.
The formation of many of his theories were inspired by Tiravanija’s 1992 show Untitled (Free) at the 303 Gallery in New York which saw everything moved from the storage room of the gallery into the exhibition space, using the office space to serve free curry and rice to visitors. A purely experiential and congenial experiment with the gallery space, Tiravanija’s work was recently acquired by the MoMA and the environment of the early 1990s 303 Gallery reconstructed. What was once a niche area – the high-end financial and intellectual investment in live performance work – seems to be the next significant collecting and conservation trend.
In 2004 the Tate collection in London acquired its first performance work, Roman Ondak’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003) followed closely by Tino Sehgal’s installation This is propaganda (2002). So why has it taken so long for private collectors to take steps towards collecting the intangible? Simply put, museums have a vast set of resources in place to harness not only the financial demands of the transaction but also the intellectual investment required to make the purchase both possible and sustainable. Sehgal’s work in particular centres on memory; therefore integrating ephemeral sensory perception into conservation strategies requires a close working relationship between the curator of the performance collections and the artists.
Undertaking pioneering research and challenging the traditional assumption that a museum’s object is tangible and fixed, the Tate Modern’s ‘Collecting the Performative’ research network addresses the conceptual and practical challenges of documentation and conservation. Supported by a programme of events at the Tate Modern’s new performance space Tate Tanks, the two-year project seeks to overturn the belief that performance art is uncollectable. Taking shape in the late 1960s and 1970s, performance art began as inherently politicised, in many cases provocative, anti-market, and irreverently dismissive of the museum space. But in a pluralist atmosphere of performance popularity, the time is right to understand the changing notions of performativity within the gallery space to ensure that these works are afforded an afterlife.
Collecting performative works will be beneficial to the next generation of art collectors for two reasons. Firstly, collecting these ephemeral pieces will be primarily a conceptual, ideas-based pursuit, and secondly, it will require a direct link with the artist. In an ethically-stagnant art market, collecting performance art will allow the buyer to come closer to the tactics, ideals, and intentions of the artist, and allow them to act as an essential conduit in a work’s retransmission. There are a number of historical precedents for such a collaborative approach to buying art. In 1959 Yves Klein’s Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility) initiated a ritual transaction between artist and buyer. Documenting the ownership of an intangible space in the form of a cheque, Klein exchanged the slips in an optional ceremony in which the collector would burn the item and Klein would throw half of his gold ingots (the necessary fee) into the River Seine. Perhaps referencing Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility, Klein’s transaction ritual asserts the ceremony of exchange as the true value of art.
Following the success of Marina Abramovic’s recent string of blockbuster exhibitions and her 2012 bio-pic film The Artist is Present, performance art has been thrust into the spotlight of popular acclaim. 2013 will be Tino Sehgal’s year, whose choreographed, social art form stubbornly rejects the art market’s object fetishism and proposes a fresh trajectory outside of the age-old cycle of production and consumption. For once, the reins of the next bucking trend are firmly in the hands of the collector, who will be responsible for discovering how to speak of the exchange, collecting, and conservation of a form without shape, of an experience without an object. It will be left to following generations to interpret what such an intangible history of art felt like
Collecting Couples – Buyers of Performance and Immaterial Art
Marc and Josée Gensollens – These two students of May ’68, now renowned psychiatrists, own Tino Sehgal’s 2002 piece Selling Out which consists of a museum guard slowly removing his clothes. Not displayed in their home, the Gensollens have lent the work to a number of high-profile galleries.
Aaron and Barbara Levine – The couple own a major work by Marina Abramovic, Light/Dark (1977), and also possess performance-based works by Allan Kaprow, Rebecca Horn, Ana Mendieta, and Ragnar Kjartansson.
Michael and Eileen Cohen – The New York couple have a staggeringly diverse body of work which includes performance based, video-documented, and immaterial art, and whose support, like the Levines, continues to sustain and conserve conceptual art.
A landmark legal battle over the documentation of performance art.
Eva Beuys, the widow of the preeminent performance artist Joseph Beuys, and the Museum Schloss Moyland have been engaged in a lengthy legal battle after the museum features a series of photographs taken of the Beuys in the 1960s at a 2009 exhibition. Initially a Düsseldorf court ruled in Eva Beuys’s favour, but recently an appeals court overturned the ruling. Reportedly, the artist authorised the documentation, but not their exhibition. The case has attracted a great deal of interest in light of the growing curatorial and conservation trend in collecting and documenting performance art. Disappointed by the overruling, Eva Beuys mourned: “The artists are now in the hands of these documentarists,”