Exhibitions United Kingdom

Tragic event overshadows Tate Modern opening

Tino Sehgal's storytelling takes centre stage in vast Turbine Hall

Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

Snorkeling off the Italian island of Elba; a mother’s tears as her son departs for university; the trauma behind erasing a tattoo: these are some of the tales told by participants in Tino Sehgal’s commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. These Associations, (until 28 October), the first “live” work in the vast space, consists solely of encounters between around 70 storytellers and visitors to the gallery.

Sehgal’s team strike up disconcerting, affecting conversations with visitors, interspersing these intimacies with manic movements choreographed by the Berlin-based artist; the storytellers start running in a frenzied circular fashion in pursuit of an invisible quarry, play tag and chant: “Even in the technological age.”

Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, says that Sehgal has transformed the museum into a "biopolitical and anarchic experience”. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery and director of its international projects, calls it a complete work of art: “It’s a masterpiece; [Sehgal] brings all the elements of his previous works together in one piece, combining choreography conversations and music. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk.”

But not everyone is impressed. The critic Alastair Sooke wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he experienced: “A whiff of artifice about their stories, which feel polished and rehearsed. Sehgal does not hit the spontaneous social interaction that he strives for.” The participants are not actors although they are paid, working four-hour shifts.

Sehgal sells his work, or “constructed situations”, by means of verbal transactions in the presence of a lawyer with no written contract. Instructions on how to re-enact his works are delivered by word-of-mouth, with collectors under strict orders never to photograph or video the works, a prohibition that he extends to museums.

The opening of These Associations on the evening of 24 July was overshadowed by the death of a man who fell from an external balcony of Tate Modern late that afternoon.

Sehgal is the 13th artist commissioned by the Tate for the Unilever series. According to the news agency Bloomberg, Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods conglomerate, has yet to decide if it will continue sponsoring the annual commission; the series was renewed in 2008 for a five-year period. The Turbine Hall is due to temporarily close next year to enable construction to go ahead of the gallery's Herzog and de Meuron-designed extension.

UPDATE: According to The Times, the man who died after falling 100ft from a balcony at Tate Modern last week has been identified as Michael Foreman, a 48-year-old banking manager for HSBC.

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