You Talkin’ to Me? Some thoughts on Tino Seghal at Tate Modern

I’ve been thinking a lot about this new ‘artwork’ in the Turbine Hall.

The Associations, by Tino Seghal, Tate Modern

It disturbs me, this idea of strangers in my face, invading my space – what Adrian Searle, in his admiring review, calls “unasked for intimacies”, and Claire Bishop, also in The Guardian and less admiringly, sees as part of the neo-liberal agenda: ‘no choice at all’ masquerading as ‘freedom to choose’.
Forced participation.
I have, by inclination, some sympathy with the latter view.

Then this:
On a very busy Tuesday evening, a middle-aged man committed suicide by throwing himself from the sixth floor of Tate Modern, right in front of the main entrance.
Note the top Twitter comment: ” outrageous performance (my emphasis)”.
Difficult not to view it as ‘performance’; why then, why there, of all places?
For the witnesses to this appalling act, it must indeed have been an ‘unasked for intimacy’, this imposing on others, strangers, of a profound, personal, distress.
Of course, there were images; there always are.

I’m asking myself, how is this act different from what was concurrently passing as ‘art’ in the Turbine Hall, if not only in degree?
Private drama as public spectacle.
I’m reminded of when some ‘artist’ -can’t remember her/his name – caused a shitstorm by declaring the attack on the Twin Towers the ‘greatest artwork of the century’.
It’s not enough any more to be a quiet observer, we have to be/be made active participants, continually involved in everything, even if it’s just by taking the ‘I was there’ photo and posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

Is this a good thing?
It’s all very well, talking about ‘breaking down boundaries’, ‘democratic, participatory art’, and so forth; what I’m increasingly seeing this sort of thing as is pressure, pressure to be ‘in the loop’, to ‘belong’, to ‘get it’; pressure to endorse an unmediated, insidious, ultimately exploitative form of ‘artistic’ confessionalism where all, indiscriminately, is played out in the public domain.

“We’re in the middle of things. It is marvellous”. ~ Adrian Searle

Is it?
I feel like running a mile from this Tate show and everything it appears to stand for and do. (That probably says a great deal about me; something like ‘sociopath’.)
Besides, Mr Sehgal and all your minimum-pay ‘assistants’, the way I’m seeing it, if indeed this is ‘art’, on a bright, sunshine-y evening in London Town, you were comprehensively, and tragically, trumped.


(I apologise if this piece is less cogent than it should be. As I say, I have been thinking about this ‘artwork’, and very much still am. All thoughts, contributions, objections gratefully received.)

29 July: Another (very positive) review by Laura Cumming. It’s starting to look like I’m just a joyless misanthrope…

The old fella just made an interesting point re the Sheffield ‘migrant’ in LC’s review: perhaps southerners are so entranced by the ‘show’ because, as a rule, the folks Down South do not speak to strangers. Address a stranger on the Tube and she/he will think you certifiably insane. So there’s a novelty value.
Here Up North such intercourse is totally acceptable, but within limits: “Looks like rain again…” is fine; anything more personal and you’re a ‘nosy bugger’.
As a northern ex-Londoner, I’m caught between the two…

“Performance Obscura”: Athi-Patra Ruga, artist

I often bemoan the fatuousness of ‘western’ contemporary art: the money-grabbing, witless monster that is the Hirst/Gagosian axis of evil; the whining solipsism of would-be abstractionists and expressionists; the inane banality of so much ‘concept’.
You hear it all the time on social media: ‘Art changes the world’.
Does it?
Does yours?
We live in ‘interesting times’, yet so few artists seem to me willing to engage with them, take them on.

So coming across Athi-Patra Ruga via Twitter on was refreshing and re-affirming: radical; democratic; challenging; affective; he’s all these things.
But above all, he’s brave.

The following is a review of his performance, The Future White Women of Azania (The Prequel), at The National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa; beautifully written by Charl Blignaut, appearing in City Press, Johannesburg, July 6.
(I would have just reblogged Skattie, but if there’s a way to do it I ain’t yet figured it out. I’m thick like that.)

“Testing the limits of liberty

At 10 o’clock this morning an extraordinary creature emerges on the street in Grahamstown. She wears pink tights and red shoes with impossibly high heels. She has on a dramatic frock of balloons covering her head and body.

With shaky steps and an ominous squeaking sound of rubber-on-rubber, she feels her way down the road. Onlookers frown, puzzled. “This is art?” asks a man with disdain. Then, spontaneously, a balloon bursts, bleeding red paint into the road – and the man jumps backwards, alarmed. Hearts are racing.

The monster woman is South African performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga, well-known for his radically fashioned, highly conceptual characters that materialise in public as society’s worst nightmares.

The creature’s route was to be tracked by the camera obscura in the Observatory Museum by fellow-artist Mikhael Subotzky.
Eight privileged spectators would watch the performance from there. I decided, however, to stick with Ruga. A gasp goes up as he stumbles from a kerb and is almost taken out by a taxi. He soldiers on.

In the tradition of Steven Cohen, danger, endurance and the threat of arrest are what define the pedigree of this kind of guerilla public intervention.

Into the informal trading spaces the creature struts, finally taking time to stop and wave at the museum’s camera.Young members of the public start to engage.
Children gleefully gather dropped balloons and play with them. Young men cockily film her with their phone cameras. She pulls out binoculars and returns their scrutiny. They back off, laughing.

Theorists like to discuss Ruga’s role as a radical gay monster in terms of “the gaze of the other” and that sort of thing. “Are they talking to me with this art-world-convoluted-blah-blah? It is an exclusionist, elitist language!” he has told me. Similarly, the gallery with its white walls is, to him, a Western capitalist structure.

African art happens in the street. It is Ruga’s gallery.

He has been known to wear a black bodysuit covered in charcoal and then run inside and throw himself at gallery walls, leaving a stain behind as art.

Into the township the mythic scapegoat labours with staggering elegance, street music versioning a score. As bursting balloons infect the dusty street next to an infected river, tears start to roll down his cheeks.

Raised in an Eastern Cape township and severely bullied for being gay, I am guessing that the tears are of emotion as he reclaims his dignity and his public space – as much as they are about his physical pain.
Back in town, he approaches the angel statue on High Street – “a memorial to the brave men of Albany who died for the empire during the Anglo Boer War”.

Rubbing himself against it, he bursts his final balloons, revealing his peroxide blonde hair and bodysuit and spraying the statue with colour.
People stare. Cars stop. Is this person allowed to do these things?
Patra’s answer would be that he is questioning the democracy of public space.
If he may not be here, then what about lesbians and drag queens, street children, migrant labourers and African immigrants?

The single most heart-stoppingly meaningful and dangerous piece of work at the festival this year, Performance Obscura succeeded on many levels. The most powerful, for me, was its testing of the limits of our hard-won liberty.”

Wonderful stuff.
More, please.


All photographs courtesy of skattiewhatareyouwearing and Athi-Patra Ruga.
Thanks to Belinda Blignaut for sharing.

More on Athi-Patra here: