French Artist-Activist Thinks Tino Sehgal Piece Creates a Sticky Situation

French Artist-Activist Thinks Tino Sehgal Piece Creates a Sticky Situation

When MoMA acquired Tino Sehgal's "The Kiss" in 2008 — a performance work in which actors recreate iconic kisses from throughout history — director Glenn Lowry called it "one of the most elaborate and difficult acquisitions we've ever made." A dozen people, including museum personnel and attorneys, had to be convened to memorize the artist's instructions, which he did not want consigned to paper. Now the purchase of Sehgal's "This Situation" is causing a different sort of problem for the Pompidou Center. French video artist Fred Forest is questioning the unusual terms of the acquisition and warning that it may not comply with French law.

In the work in question, "This Situation," six actors hold a conversation containing quotations from important, yet unidentified, thinkers. Anytime a visitor enters the room, each actor announces "Welcome to This Situation." The 34-year-old British-German artist verbally communicated the details of the performance — which cannot be recorded, filmed, or photographed — in a meeting with Pompidou Center director Alfred Pacquement, a museum curator, a representative of the Marian Goodman Gallery, and an attorney.

In an open letter posted on his website, Fred Forest asks Pompidou Center president Alain Seban to reveal the purchase price of the work and also questions whether the lack of a receipt or a certificate of authenticity violates a 1978 French law requiring transparent accounting of state funds. He sees the undertaking as an "artistic-financial adventure" that could promote "market speculation and manipulation with the implicit backing" of the Pompidou Center. At the same time, Forest points out — in a sort of aesthetic Catch-22 — that the existence of a receipt could make the supposedly immaterial performance "a serious intellectual fraud" that would lose "all symbolic legitimacy and, consequently, all market value."

Responding to Forest's challenge, Pompidou director Paquement told Le Monde that the artist agreed to waive his requirement for cash-only purchases and that the museum received an email receipt for its purchase from the Marian Goodman gallery, adding that that the directions that Sehgal gave for the performance will be kept on file at the museum. Forest replied on his website that Pacquement and Le Monde "know each other well" and accused the museum director of "playing the market." He also charges public institutions of "complicity" with the private market, which he says dominates "timid" and "lazy" curators.

For fifteen years, Forest has been on a quest to force the Pompidou Center to be more transparent about its acquisitions, demanding that the institution reveal the prices of all works it acquired since 1985 in the interests of public accountability. While he won an initial legal victory, the State Council (analogous to the U.S. Supreme Court in administrative and government cases) rejected his lawsuit in 1997, ruling that the privileged prices that museums are granted should remain secret in order to prevent market destabilization.