This Variation: an Experience Tailored for the Mind

Tino Sehgal’s 2012 performance art masterpiece, This Variation, is being re-enacted at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from February 4 until March 3, 2019. This elaborate ‘constructed situation’, as Sehgal refers to his performance artworks, is among the most intricate and gripping works from his oeuvre. Consisting of a combination of experienced and new Sehgal interpreters, This Variation has surprised his audience since its first demonstration, and this particular emanation is no exception.

As Stedelijk museum curator Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen expressed, “a Sehgal work is always something special to have in the exhibition rooms. This Variation in particular is special, as it is one of the largest works by Sehgal acquired by a museum and covers many aspects of his oeuvre: singing, dancing, conversation.” The Stedelijk last acquired a ‘constructed situation’ by Sehgal in 2015 for A Year at the Stedelijk: Tino Sehgal, where several of the artist’s works were exhibited throughout the year. Thus it does not come as a surprise that the museum curators were elated about yet another Sehgal work.

Set in an almost completely darkened room at the back end of the Stedelijk Museum, student Roene and her classmate Jorah described how “at first, when we walked in, we held each other’s hands, scared, like what’s gonna happen?… First, it’s super dark but then your eyes kind of adjust to the space.” Unable to discern the interpreters, Roene recounted how she “felt really watched because someone was standing in right front of me and just looking at me… I felt he was looking at me but I couldn’t see his eyes [which] was kind of a weird feeling.” So, with your sense of sight compromised, you’re left to rely mainly on your instinct and sense of sound. Your only option, then, is to be led by the interpreters’ voices, which go from chants to a cappella-like songs, critical discussions and choreographies, resulting in a highly immersive experience (although some interpreters did guide a few visitors).

Rather than creating physical objects, Sehgal opts for artworks that consist of human voices, language, movement and interactions, resulting in a very personal and unique experience. Roene referred to This Variation as a very “different experience,” which was “kind of a weird feeling” but also described it as very engaging with feelings of “community, but also [feelings of] separation between a community… because [at times] you felt separated from the rest [but also] like we’re all in this together.”

As the rhythmic sounds and choreographies surround you, you sometimes feel like a spectator and at other times an actor in this ‘constructed situation’. Both Roene and Jorah agreed that “at times you’re just the viewer but when they [the interpreters] sit next to you and watch you, you feel like part of it [the performance]” but that “it’s weird because then you feel like you’re totally not part of the experience” when the interpreters revert to their constructed situation.

Tino Sehgal wants his viewers to have an “unmediated, purely personal experience”, as Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen proclaimed, which is why Sehgal has not made any specific comments regarding the message ‘This Variation’ wants to transmit.

What’s more, all of Sehgal’s artworks are ephemeral and thus only documented and remembered in the viewer’s memory. Van Nieuwenhuyzen revealed how “the ownership of the piece has been transferred in a completely oral session with the artist, his gallerist and staff of the museum present.” So, “the piece is set up anew by Sehgal and his collaborators every time we [the museum] want to show it. We [the museum] are not in the possession of any choreographic notations, recordings, videos, photos or other documents on the execution of the piece. The set up is done completely in person by Sehgal and his collaborators at the museum.”

‘This Variation’ can be visited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until March 3, 2019.

Post Author: Elodie Behravan-Koupaei

  • Avenue Reporter - Winter 2019