So what does gesture tell us about Tino Sehgal’s work and what value does it have?
Sehgal’s pieces seem a good fit for Agamben’s gestic politics – they deliberately eschew a product or remnant of any kind, and implicate the audience in a perpetual game of the confusion of roles with the other participants of the piece. The pieces themselves do not live outside of memory and make the audience physically aware of their role within the institutional context of the gallery or museum and within the piece itself.
Returning to the original source of this reference to Agamben’s theory of gesture—Claire Bishop’s article in Artforum—she claims that ‘gesture’ is what is produced in these pieces, as opposed to the ‘deproduction’ of materiality (Bishop, 2005). However, I am not certain if understanding gesture in the realm of production/deproduction is correct, and I’d point to an understanding of the role of gesture as outside of any progress-oriented activity – something which production/deproduction still seems to cling to. To speak of gesture as a ‘production’ seems to deny its action to prevent production, leaving the audience and interpreter in a state of being-together in the formation of the work of art as forever being but not becoming.
My final question regarding gesture is: can it be seen as a positive or ‘worthwhile’ thing (by which I mean an act that is worth doing in the first place).
In itself the concept of positive or negative seems to have no place when discussing gesture, in the same way that production/deproduction suggests some kind of progress towards a good or bad state. Agamben sees the act of the pure gesture as the ultimate act of human beings allowing their actions to transcend any reading based on means and ends. He says that, in this state:
Consigned to their supreme gesture, works live on, like creatures bathed in the light of the Last Day, surviving the ruin of their formal garment and their conceptual meaning. (Agamben, 1991, p. 80)
As the supreme gesture of the pieces, we may see this activity as a process of actualising of those involved in the piece – not least the artist himself. Tino Sehgal actualises himself through the pieces at the same time as the interpreters, audience, reviewers, etc. As Aristotle says: “existence is to everyone an object of choice and love, and we exist through activity (because we exist by living and acting); and the maker of the work exists, in a sense, through his activity.” (Aristotle, 1976, 1168a6–9) Gesture can be seen to fulfil this requirement of existence.