Selling What You Can’t Document
His work could be called performance art. It looks and feels like performance art when you see it, and it certainly isn’t a painting or sculpture. It is necessary to have live performers whenever his work is shown. He is the first artist in the performance art world to make significant sums of money from his work; in fact, he is the only one of the performance artists to make money from his work. There were many other quite famous performance artists who were jealous of his success and frustrated by it, because they never found a way to market their own work.
The key to what Tino Sehgal did was to address the issue of collecting his art directly, because your art cannot be in the marketplace if it is not collected. Let’s take this situation apart for a moment, because as poetic as some of Sehgal’s work is, how the system of the art world consumes it is very important.
The people who buy art for personal collections and for investment are not only wealthy, but they speak the language of business all the time. Since they probably accumulated their wealth through hedge funds, private banking, stocks, etc., they are very familiar with the language of money, and in fact, it is their passion. So when a dealer and an artist explain to a potential wealthy collector that upon buying the work, there is no written set of instructions, no written receipt, no catalogue, and no pictures, it begs the very interesting question of “Then how do I buy it and show it in my home?” At that point, they are already engaged. Brilliant! They have never heard of a sale like this before, and they want to know more. What they end up finding out is that the artist tells them verbally what to do, and they have to stage the performance themselves with actors in their home. Because this is such an unusual way to buy work, it generates interest in people who collect and are fascinated by the language of money themselves. Museums can buy and loan the work; it can also be resold, and that is what makes it part of the market. It is also what makes it unlike anything a collector has heard about before.
Sol LeWitt also had a process similar to this. He would sell instructions to make a drawing or mural on a wall. The collector bought the instructions and could have Sol LeWitt’s team of painters execute the drawing on the wall of their choice. The artwork could also be moved by erasing or destroying the wall mural and making it again in another place. Furthermore, LeWitt’s work could be loaned to museums in the same manner. Tino Sehgal is taking a page from LeWitt’s book here by making a sale in a manner that is itself not only creative but very savvy, because the collector is engaged largely in a conversation about how the work itself is purchased, and that is an interesting conversation for collectors. Also, the public and the art world became amazed that he rose so quickly to such heights but also that he was selling his work, which to most people seemed like performance art, and previously no one had sold work in that genre for so much or in such a fashion. As of the writing of this book, in January 2011, Tino Sehgal has not sold any of his art at auctions, but he has sold work to museums and collectors.
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