How many artists can make an elephant disappear right in front of your eyes—with everything out in the open? As I went through This Progress, one of two performance pieces by Tino Sehgal that transform Frank Lloyd Wright’s emptied-out spiral into a dreamy Socratic-purgatorial journey, the museum literally fell away. I was suspended in some weird nonspace. I felt variously shook up, spaced out, turned on, told off, intimidated, ashamed, thrilled, and shocked. Yes, it’s artsy artifice; yes, it sometimes feels like you’ve stepped into a Monty Python sketch. Doesn’t matter. This show is wondrous-strange, and can produce waves of uncanny self-revelation, surprise, and delight.
Sehgal is 34, the youngest artist ever to be given the Guggenheim’s whole rotunda, and it’s pretty gutsy that he emptied the place out. There are no labels or wall texts, and no photos are allowed. (A true Emersonian, Sehgal seems to be telling us “trust yourself.”) That leaves us with This Progress: An adorable kid greets you at the bottom of the ramp, says, “This is a work by Tino Sehgal,” asks, “What is progress?,” and bids you to follow. Soon, you’re passed off to a teenager who walks and talks with you, who hands you off to an adult, who does the same thing until you’re handed over to an older person who takes you to the top ramp, says, “Good-bye,” and disappears into a stairwell.
It took me three hours to go through This Progress the first time. I’ve been through five times now. If you want, you can see it in five minutes, not say a word, and view it as a sophomoric recapitulation of sixties performance art, or just phony-baloney b.s. I have no doubt that some visitors leave the Guggenheim never knowing they walked through This Progress. (They are less likely to miss Sehgal’s other piece, The Kiss, in which two dancers reenact kisses from art history in super-slow-mo. But it’s not the main attraction, and it’s just okay.)
This Progress is made by Sehgal and his docents—called “interpreters”—but also by you and the architecture. As with other art, you study it, pour yourself into it, see where it takes you. Plenty of art has brought me to tears in the past, and after my first visit, I was horrified to learn I had made This Progress cry. I had been so slow taking notes and asking questions to the perfect little girl who greeted me and started the conversation that, after passing me to the next person, she had broken down in tears. It was a lesson in how vulnerable art can be. It is also the only time in my life I ever wrote a letter of abject apology to a work of art. As I said, wondrous-strange.