Then there’s This Variation (2012), familiar to those who visited Documenta 13. In a dark room that’s initially disorienting, a large group delivers complex a cappella songs, choreographed dances, and philosophical semi-scripted dialogues about the world’s sorry state, mental health, underpaid labor, and more. It sometimes feels like Heidegger meets Oprah, but it’s transfixing. Amid the boisterous breakbeats and braininess, visitors are forced into the action, which results in a mashup of comfort and discomfort, light and dark. I was initially horrified when a female interpreter held me against the wall while sweetly singing of embraces; then I relaxed and almost wanted to embrace her myself. Works like this engender an acute awareness of one’s humanity, weaknesses, and strengths, as well as the limits and rules of one’s socialization.
It’s all classic Sehgal, but what’s deliciously new and disarming is the cumulative effect of multiple Sehgal pieces running concurrently together. Suddenly the spaces between the works are perceptible, and this interstitiality seems to become a piece in itself. (Sehgal has said that the exhibition is “five and a half” situations, and I’m guessing this might be his extra half.) Interpreters occasionally leave their posts, briefly drop character, stroll alongside museumgoers, then disappear behind a darkened glass door, only to reappear later. When Ann Lee’s avatar-child disappears behind the door, another appears with an adult supervisor. The day I was there, Sehgal himself emerged, walked around, and scanned the scene. This exhibition opens a crack on the operations, revealing more clearly that the artist’s “immaterial” works aren’t immaterial at all. The material is people; their flesh and blood, thoughts, and ups and downs.