What if…?

What if I had not read an article, a couple of reviews and some promo about Tino Sehgal’s Guggenheim exhibition? What if I hadn’t spent a short time, in the winter of 2008, with a more modest Sehgal situation staged inside the Marian Goodman Gallery?

What if I didn’t know that a little kid would greet me near the bottom of the Guggenheim’s ramp, introduce Sehgal’s conceptual–but curiously theatrical–interactive piece, This Progress, and sweetly query if it would be okay to ask me a question?

What if I didn’t already know that question would be “What is progress?” and hadn’t carefully planned my response?

[“Who’s asking?” I would say. “Progress can be defined by who benefits as well as who suffers, whose ox is being gored?” Or words to that effect. I live in the East Village and had the evils of gentrification on my mind.]

What if…?

But I get ahead of myself.

Arriving at the museum on a cold, windy Wednesday afternoon, I was chagrined to discover it bustling with visitors. The prospect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling ramps stripped of all visual art–like the sun-bleached ribcage of a flayed body–had sounded like a rare, not-to-be-missed experience.

I imagined myself with perhaps just a few others, viewing Sehgal’s rotunda floor show–Kiss, a gorgeous, part-naturalistic/part-dancey duet–before climbing the ramps, guided by a series of people with whom I’d converse about progress. Holland Cotter, reviewing for The New York Times, had found value in this, and since I find great value in Holland Cotter on a regular basis, I felt fairly confident.

I eyed Kiss for a while. But the sight–and sound!–of people strewn along the ramps, from bottom to top, knocked me back on my heels. I parked my outerwear with the coatchecker, made a preliminary pit stop since New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz had noted that he’d spent three note-scribbling hours with This Progress–and then headed for the base of the ramp.

I started up alone, keeping watch for the approach of an earnest kidling. Now and again, I gazed back at Kiss where the languid duet of lovers had now turned into a perfectly-synced double-duet. Then I saw him–or them, a small knot of little boys. I thought, at first, they were part of a school group. But no. There he was–my first guide. Peeling away from his mates, he sidled up to me and introduced himself and told me the name of Sehgal’s work.

Then, the polite question: “What is progress?”

I launched into my prepared answer–and my prepared child-friendly clarification of my prepared answer. I rattled on about how neighborhoods change, not always for the better. We’d lost our wonderful shoe repair guy, any number of favorite restaurants. He led me along, saying just enough to show that he got what I was talking about before a friendly young man came up to us. I’d say he was probably in his twenties, but I’m as bad at guessing ages as I am at retaining names, especially since, unlike Saltz, I was too distracted–though self-conscious, too–to even glance at the notebook and pen clutched in my left hand.

Guide #1 told Guide #2 what we’d been talking about–well, a child’s Cliff Notes version of it, good enough–and left us to continue the climb. Guide #2 and I clicked right away–especially when we realized a Lower East Side/East Village connection. Our conversation was filled with geographical, historical and artistic keystones.

Same with Guide #3–older by perhaps a couple of decades–who greeted us at some point along the way. Having kept up eye contact with the cheerful #2 for quite a bit, I had no idea what level we’d reached.

#3 seemed to know exactly what we’d been discussing. (Was there an open cellphone or walkie talkie connection involved?) He picked up the gentrification issue right away, and pretty soon, he was all “Tompkins Square Park” and “Giuliani.” With him, I felt more emboldened to probe: “So, you live in Brooklyn now–like a lot of my friends and colleagues in the arts. What do you do?”

We embarked on a pleasant chat, even though climbing and spiraling while keeping a fairly steady eye on my interlocutor/guide made me feel dizzy. But the sudden approach of Guide #4–an amiable, elderly gent–must have distracted me long enough for #3 to vanish. I was stunned–and a bit disappointed.

“Hey,” I said to #4. “I’ve lost my friend!” Funny how real that felt, how I had totally fallen into Sehgal’s artificial, art-ificial, art-official situation.

What is progress? Disappearance of the familiar, of what you value most and hold dear.

The realization of a sudden loss–or was it just dizzyiness from the climb?–left me breathless for a moment.

Happily, Guide #4 was understanding–and charming. He let me sputter. Then, with warmth, he told a story about a creek he used to visit when he was a child in Indiana. In recent years, he returned there, only to find the land developed, the creek covered over. I felt sorrow for him and told him so.

We spoke a bit longer before he indicated that This Progress had ended, shook my hand and left me on a level with Paris and the Avant-garde: Modern Masters from the Guggenheim Collection. I sat in that gallery long enough to make a few notes but realized I had absolutely no interest in looking around.

Walking back down the ramps, I glanced at people as they climbed alone or with an actual friend; others obviously with This Progress guides. I was curious about the conversations.

At ground level, I retrieved my winter gear and dressed while catching up with Kiss–a little, intimate dance filled with delicious little intimacies set against the stark, towering glory of Wright’s rotunda–a still-beating heart at the center of that sun-bleached ribcage.

On the way out, I was forced to exit by carefully winding my way through the narrow gift shop, and that tapped into my emerging unease. It felt wrong, somehow. I realized that I was not only still out of sorts from the swift, spiral climb but also by a growing sense that I’d been hemmed in not only by the environment but also by the very nature of the conversations.

Surely there are other ways to approach this notion of progress, but I–it was my doing–had set course in a particularly negative, if familiar and comfortable, direction. In the midst of it all, I’d realized that, but had felt unable to break in with other valid ideas of what progress could be.

I had established the entrance to a tube–a spiraling tube–through which my succession of guides and I had
faithfully climbed, cut off from other possibilities.

It felt wrong, somehow. And it felt like a significant lesson.

This Progress, then, is more than a walk, with conversations, as a piece of ephemeral, conceptual art. It is, potentially, a work of tranformation. For me, that qualifies Sehgal’s achievement as the highest art.


Eva Yaa Asantewaa blogs at InfiniteBody.