It was just a regular day of museum visiting at the Beyeler Fondation in Basel, Switzerland. That is, until it wasn’t.
Danielle and I had just finished discussing some works in an exhibition featuring Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography, emerging from the show feeling very serious, very intellectual.
We trotted into the next room on our artsy fartsy high horses. In the following moments, we were knocked clean off our noble steeds. THUD THUD. Dumbfounded.
The space is large, white, mostly empty. There is a big square mirror propped against the right wall. It doesn’t hang but simply rests on the floor. On the left side of the room I recognize the polished gold surface that belongs to my favorite sculpture, Bird in Space by Brancusi. Right smack dab in the center of the room on the floor, sandwiched between the mirror and sculpture, lay a man and a woman kissing.
We don’t really know what to think.
The kiss is long and slow. I don’t embarrassedly look away like I normally do when I see these sorts of kisses between couples in public.
The man and woman appear to be in their late twenties or thirties. Both have tied back their brown hair in loose buns, some flyaway wisps of hair escape the elastic constraints. They both wear plain pants and shirts.
They move in a perfectly controlled slow motion, methodically shifting between positions of spooning, cradling, hugging, different forms of embrace. All the while they maintain an unbroken eye contact.
I, not usually a great admirer of excessive PDA (public display of affection), was completely mesmerized.
What made this so special? After all, we see people kiss and embrace all the time. Heck, and you sure see a lot more if you’ve been watching Game of Thrones. But these two fully clothed, regular people seared an image in my head, probably forever.
It was done tenderly and with such sincerity. Didn’t feel phony, didn’t present as a set-up. Those two could have been visitors just like everyone else and suddenly plopped down in the center of the gallery and there they were.
What we were seeing was a presentation, Kiss (2002), created by Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal on display at the Fondation Beyeler during a limited time. Sehgal does not call his works “performance” or the participants “performers” because that might suggest viewers don’t play a role in his works, which they defintively do. Instead he calls them “constructed situations” and “interpreters.” His oral instructions and rules are interpreted by male and female artists who can usually sing, dance, and choreograph. The situations he creates are “immaterial and fleeting, the thing that truly matters being the viewer’s experiencing of the situation.” Sehgal gives an insightful talk on his inspiration, thoughts and motivations for creating Kiss which I link here.
Once Danielle and I were finished dusting ourselves off from our metaphorical fall and processed the situation as an art piece, we calmed down. We wearily re-mounted our high horses and started to analyze and discuss.
This act breached the boundary between performance and “real life.” Where does one make an exact distinction between the two anyway? The blurred line freaked me out a bit.
What a funky paradox. It feels private and intimate, yet other visitors and I were watching them do their thing safely from within the sanctions of a museum. Besides, this was not real…. right? It was a feeling of internal conflict I had never experienced before.
Danielle and I began to observe the other visitors filing cautiously into the room.
A teenage brother and sister blundered in. His gaze fell upon the interpreters, the color rushed to the tips of his ears and he twitched a sheepish smile. The siblings retreated to a corner of the room and with body language oozing of insecurity continued to watch in spurts of furtive side-glances.
A young woman and her hunky beau strode in holding hands. As they registered the situation, they broke apart and perhaps unknowingly distanced themselves. She was very intent on watching the piece while he stood behind her and stole a glance at his watch. Heaved a sigh.
Another couple -much older this time- hobbled in. They watched the embrace side by side for some time before pulling each other in close. A secret smile spread across her face and her eyes flickered in a way that gave away her nostalgia.
A father and his pre-teen daughter shuffled through the doorway, talking. She was facing him and saying something when he first discreetly spied the interpreters and made the decision to keep a fluid walking pace. She didn’t look around the room as they crossed, her eyes fixated on him the whole time. They disappeared in the other doorway.
Funny how a performance can unveil so much about its audience. Some were embarrassed, some drew together while others spread apart. Everyone kept an invisible radius of distance from the couple, and no one stayed long. I didn’t meet the interpreters, but I did meet the visitors in a sense.
It can be refreshing to not know what to make of an artwork at times, to be humbled by it, to have to work to comprehend.
Thank you, Sehgal, for the challenge. I hope I stumble on another equally as curious “situation” again one day.