public displays of affection

December 14, 2010

during a visit to the museum of contemporary art in chicago in 2007, nico and i were shocked to stumble upon a couple rolling around in slow motion on the ground on the second floor, a crowd gathered around them staring with raised eyebrows. it was tino sehgal’s, kiss, a precisely choreographed dance with a pair reenacting famous kisses of art history in slow motion on the gallery floor. that first shock, curiosity, intrigue that i felt is a singular moment in my life that changed my art experience forever.

tino’s work challenges our notions of what art and traditional art spaces can be. by using humans as “interpreters,” he creates situations in the gallery space that blur the lines between performance and reality. he pulls from his background in economics and dance to create these situations that play off our daily rituals, fears, and values. in a very basic sense, his work is objectless- nothing material is produced or used in any of his works- there are no pamphlets, catalogs and no wall text at his exhibitions. photographic and written documentation is strictly prohibited. any transactions between collectors or museums are made verbally via a notary and “installation” requires tino’s presence or that of a tino-trained expert. the interpreters are given verbal directions on how to move or speak, but ultimately it is the interaction between you and the interpreters that becomes the art itself.

when nico enrolled at the california college of the arts (cca) a few years ago, he started working at wattis institute for the arts, the contemporary art gallery on the san francisco campus. he was chosen to be an interpreter of one of tino’s works, this is propaganda, and spent the next two years working with the artist, interpreting several pieces, and even working on tino’s solo show at the guggenheim early this year. in september, nico was tapped again to interpret a piece that tino had never shown before, guards kissing.

when the wattis opened the position up to non-cca couples, we became the second couple to be trained by the wattis’ deputy director and resident tino-expert, claire fitzsimmons. at our first rehearsal, we assumed the role of the visitor, entered the gallery, and encountered a couple, the guy sitting on his partner’s lap, making out quite passionately in a chair in the corner. as we approached, they broke away just enough to recite the artist’s name, the title and date (2002!), and continued to kiss with a sensuality that made our palms sweat. we switched places and nico and i assumed the role of the guards, with claire offering us constructive criticism on our form and technique. we never received any written instructions, only an oral description of the task via claire and video meetings with tino over skype. we had to be less informative and natural, casual yet still intriguing. after so many years together, we didn’t imagine kissing to be quite this complicated!

after a few short rehearsals, nico and i debuted the piece at the opening of the huckleberry finn show in september. as i would imagine many performers experience, there was somewhat of a separation between mind and body on that first night. we were physically in the room, surrounded by art lovers, artists, collectors, professors, and the like, but mentally we were connected and somewhere else. in order to create an effective dialogue between ourselves and our audience, we had to maintain a certain awareness of our surroundings, yet stay enmeshed in our actions enough to exude intimacy. it was draining and we were nervous but at the end of the night, our first “performance,” we had so many compliments and i hate to say we stole the show, but…….

over the next few months the responses we had were about as varied as the types of kissing we experimented with. we heard, “get a room!”; “well, that’s a good way to pass the time!”; and “i’d like to be doing that!” some people would come in, see us, and turn on their heels back to the elevator, awkwardly assuming they’d intruded on a private moment. others would acknowledge our presence and then spend a grueling 45 minutes exploring the rest of the gallery, while our kisses faded to pecks and glazed-eye nuzzling. shockingly, some would ignore us altogether!!! but the best responses were the appreciative thank yous and quiet, grateful smiles and nods of tino fans ticking another work off their “must-see” list.

the entire experience was quite emotional, meditative, frustrating, therapeutic, and educational. our relationship was at a raw moment of reconnection when we first started and we had several arguments that ended with, ” i guess we can’t do the tino.” but we couldn’t just bail on something we were so involved in, that we believed in. so we put disagreements and busy schedules aside to “perform,” working in four-hour shifts, twice a week for several months. but for us in the end, it was more than just kissing or making out or snuggling in front of strangers in a gallery. it was a conversation between us and the visitor. it challenged our levels of comfort in a “sacred” space, our ideas of what’s appropriate, what should and shouldn’t happen and where and why and why not. we explored our own personal reactions to sex, public displays of affection, and our own history and partnership with complete strangers with something so simple as a kiss.

what’s also so exciting about tino’s work are the reverberations outside of the art world. a reality with fewer objects and more interactions and conversations is one that is ever . but for every person who hated the piece, was offended, or asked, “where is the art?!” there were plenty more who left feeling the same inspiration and curiosity that i felt that day at the mca. and all it took was a couple in the corner making out.

all images via the met: Curtain Design for “Kiss Me Again,’ George White’s Scandals, New York, 1928 by Erté; Street Scene: Couple Kissing on Building Steps, New York City, 1970s photo by Leon Levinstein; The Kiss, 1911 by Egon Schiele; Two Women in Love, 1937 by John Gutmann; The Kiss, 18th century (ca. 1745) porcelain sculpture by Meissen Manufactory


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