Sehgal’s work relates to Agamben’s concept of gesture in a sense through it’s retreat form material form. Sehgal’s strategy of no documentation ensures that the materiality of the pieces remains in abeyance (although this action in itself becomes an important discussion point). By taking this approach to residue, the works emphasise the temporary nature of their acts, which in themselves incorporate gestures in the commonly understood sense of the term. For Agamben gesture requires that “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported” (Agamben, 1992, p. 56) which would seem to be a good description of the experience of a Sehgal piece.
The pieces themselves are often described as being somewhat alienating, ostensibly welcoming the audience into their systems of play but ultimately they only confirm the difference and separation between those taking part in the piece. Again, Agamben suggests that the gesture lives individually, not really creating connection but highlighting the fact that communication—rather than taking place—is purely a matter of the existence of communication:
The gesture is . . . communication of a communicability. It has precisely nothing to say because what it shows is the being-in-language of human beings as pure mediality. (Agamben, 1992, p. 58)
Any affect is, as it were, purely internal to the person experiencing it, not something that the piece transfers:
“However compelling it may be for an Other, gesture never exists only for him; indeed, only insofar as it also exists for itself can it be compelling for the Other.” (Kommerell, quote in Agamben, 1991, p. 78)
Claire Bishop calls on Agamben’s claims for a gestural politics—seen as the purest form of politics—as coterminent with the activities in Sehgal’s sculptures. Gesture—in general, or the gestures taking place in Sehgal’s works—and it’s remnant in memory—as the requirement for existence of these works—puts the responsibility onto both the audience and the institution for the transmission and evocation—the life—of the works in the future.
But for Sehgal, the site of the piece is still absolutely critical. He has said for instance: “my work belongs in a museum.” (Sehgal, quoted in Frenzhel, 2005) This is not however in the sense of site specificity, whereby the piece works in particular geographic location and no other, but in a more general sense of the institutional function taking place around the piece, represented by the piece itself and the audience. Rather than being a repository of material objects, the museum is, for Sehgal, a place where one may influence discourse in the future perfect tense: “This will have been the past.” (Bishop, 2005)
. . . continuous involvement of the present with the past in creating further presents instead of an orientation towards eternity, and simultaneity of production and deproduction instead of economics of growth. (Sehgal, 2002, quoted in Bishop, 2005)
I think Bishop’s connection of Agamben with Sehgal works well. She draws attention to the theatrical nature of the works, in the sense that although they exist at all times when the gallery is open (rather than at specific ‘performance’ times) they address each viewer with a “specific and intensely subjective encounter, a fact that is reflected in the writing on his work to date (for the most part descriptive anecdotes . . .) and in the work’s ability to generate orally disseminated narratives.” (Bishop, 2005) Thinking of the gesture in relation to writing would mean that the writing would continue the mediality of the work, would become an extension into the world of the work itself.
Overall, the refusal of documentation can be seen as a method of control over the reception of the artwork, enforcing a situation whereby the only way to experience the artwork is to physically attend a presentation and the only way to pass it on is verbally or textually, outside the regime of the gallery or museum. But what does this mean when reviewers or the ‘public’ are the only ones to write about the pieces and their writings become the only available documentation? There must be an important difference between documentation provided or allowed by the artist and that generated by the visitor.
In a similar point to the one made by Moisdon above, Bishop also suggests that the writing could be seen as denying the pieces: “the weakest link in this conceptual fortress would seem to be the critic who commits the work to paper.” (Bishop, 2005) but this would be to misunderstand the action of the pieces. The writings are potential or imminent to the work—another product of the “motor” that the work represents—in that they “stand for and encircle the objective of [Sehgal’s] practice” (Bishop, 2005).