Is it too late to weigh in with a post mortem on the recent doings of that marketing genius Tino Sehgal, who sells nothing concrete and calls it art? His "show" at the Manhattan mothership of Guggenheim Museum system closed March 10, but surely we have not seen the last of him. And at the risk of seeming both humorless and clueless, may I say that the checklist of "work" on view—two people necking at the entrance (Kiss) and a detail of conversationalists attaching themselves to visitors as they ascended Frank Lloyd Wright's grand helix (This Progress)—gives fresh meaning to the Emperor's new clothes. But enough already with the scare quotes. The price of admission was eighteen dollars.
Full disclosure: on my first visit, the freshly anointed, fastidiously trained performance artistes of all ages who realized This Progress in collaboration with random members of the public passed me by. (Silly me! I had started my tour at the top.) Nevertheless, I overheard wisps of conversation on the topic of progress. Only later on, reading up on the show, was I to learn that those very conversations had been the gallery experience. And while Sehgal's handiwork was as elusive as air, museum sources say that he worked intensively with his actors, observing them daily, fine-tuning their performance.
Well, happy are they that hear their detractions, and can put them to mending. Once aware of what I had missed, I returned, started at the bottom, like Dante ascending Mount Purgatory, and was promptly accosted by a bespectacled little Virgil who introduced herself as Charlotte. Ash-blond, with Botticelli curls tumbling to her shoulders and a toothy grin from ear to ear. No, not Virgil, for she soon turned sphinx, posing an existential riddle.
"What is progress?"
"Moving forward," the etymologist in me answered pedantically. "But does that mean better?," Charlotte wanted to know. Are mechanical dishwashers better than people washing dishes by hand? Is a heliocentric world view better than a geocentric one? Better for what?
Charlotte's Socratic interrogatives hung in the air as she handed me off to a teenage bohémienne named Alix, who sized me up through almond eyes, her tilted head snugly wrapped in a flowered-silk scarf. By this time we were on to forms of government, democracy versus tyranny, if memory serves.
Anna, sturdy in black overalls, lugging her infant Alexandra in a pouch, interrupted us mid sentence. It seems she had lately been reading a book about the human carnivore. Why do people eat meat? How has eating meat affected the evolution of human cultures? Had she really read such a book, I wondered out loud, or was she just reciting from a script? No, Anna answered, whatever she said, it was Anna talking. Before we parted, she was visualizing the living animals doomed to grace our tables.
And then came Sally, a graying Twyla Tharp lookalike minus the hard edge, with translucent skin and eyes. It was Sally who put the name to the experience (This Progress). More strikingly, she promised to tell me a love story beginning with a death: the story of her belated coming to terms with her father's suicide two long decades before. For years, she said, the loss had left her numb. But in making a film about him (Unspeakable), she rediscovered the love for him she had so long denied. What about this tale reminded me of being on business in Los Angeles on 9/11? And that before coming home to Manhattan, I had toured the construction site of Walt Disney Concert Hall, spooked by the resemblance of Frank Gehry's bare, twisted girders to the ruins of the Twin Towers?
Thinking back to my little spin up the spiral, what haunts me in retrospect is the memory of a stroll some years ago. The place was Jordan, at a time when war clouds were gathering over nearby Afghanistan, decimating tourism. Thus it was that I had ghost metropolis of Petra virtually to myself.
Ghost metropolis? Contrary to expectations, the environs were very much alive, and it was not long before a nomad girl joined me on my walk me up to a distant summit. Her name, as I recall, was Marya. Young and unschooled as she was, she spoke most of the languages I do (English, French, German, Italian), plus several I do not. What did we speak of? Nothing so well defined as progress, yet we enacted a progress of our own, and I learned a great deal about the new ways of her ancient, newly sedentary people.
On the summit I had chosen, Marya introduced me to a tribesman who insisted on fortifying me with numerous cups of the obligatory apple tea. The hospitality was prelude to a showing of his store of archaeological trinkets, over which we haggled in friendly fashion. Sure-footed goats frolicked nearby, every so often disappearing over the edge to what seemed—quite wrongly—certain death. On the way down, Marya conjured from her sleeve some modest trinkets of her own, evincing in the end something like real despair when I tried to bargain her down.
Not long after we said goodbye, other vendors offered identical keepsakes at prices well below those I had settled for. "Ah, the little crook!" my friend Sahel exclaimed when I returned to Amman. "But what did you spend in all? Twenty dollars? Where else would you get so much theater at that price?"