Slowing Down Time: Tino Sehgal’s exhibit in Athens

“… a qualified life, a particular way of life… Aristotle can certainly speak of a zoē aristē kai aidios, a more noble and eternal life (Metaphysics, 1072b, 28), but only insofar as he means to underline the significant truth that even God is a living being…”                                                                              Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer

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Tino Sehgal does not take airplanes apparently; he is ecologically aware, and more than sensitive about preserving the environment among other things; he is also keen on the possibilities of people falling in love during his pieces. Love like traveling on cargo ships will give life another perspective. Slow it down long enough to keep in the space of the beloved, the space of his or her scent for example. And like a beloved’s touch and conversation, such moments could change you and your own orientations to space and time. Sehgal’s “This Progress” is taking place in the Roman Agora in Athens through October. Four generations will walk a visitor to the site on a path symbolic of that age group’s timeline, beginning with a child that asks the visitor entering the Agora if he or she would like to follow as he or she opens the conversation about what progress might mean. This is a piece that was also done in New York in 2010 at the Guggenheim. What’s different is that Tino, and Asad Raza (who set up and directed the piece in Athens), chose the open-air agora of antiquity for the work.

One of us wants to know what to do if a visitor gets impatient, what to say if we are asked about where or how to follow. Tino says these are the interesting moments, something is happening when the visitor is disoriented by how to act, suddenly left to his or her own intuition with a complete stranger; we are too often pre-scripted in our roles with each other. Asad adds at another point, that these “interjections” are opportunities for saying things we might not say to anyone else, to test the dialectic in which neither person is in a predefined interaction. He’s right, too, that there are increasingly fewer spaces in our 21st century world for the spontaneity of an exchange with a stranger that might startle us into fresh thinking.

I was in the third age group of adults, before the older adult finished the walk with the visitor, and our role was to interrupt the conversation the visitor was having with the teenager; some out-of-the-blue kind of statement had to have some relation to the overheard conversation (but w/out referring to any of the key words…); – what was I going to say to the overheard word “… water”; or “… difficulty traveling”; I said, “I find my personality changes depending on the language I’m speaking.” The visitor happened to be a British schoolteacher now working in Egypt. She said she felt so much more “flirty” when she spoke in French.

I had to pick up a box of books from Greek customs a week or so ago and had been shocked by the amount I was supposed to pay; the customs fee seemed exorbitant. I explained this to the very tired looking man who chain smoked as I spoke to him. He listened and checked on what looked like a frequently thumbed bunch of curled pages, and then smiled rather shyly and repeated that he understood. Obviously I wasn’t the first person to be talking to him like this. I then went to several different people for several different stamps. But I realized too it wasn’t just about getting the signatures, there was conversation, if brief, with each person. “Books,” one of the women said, “you see, because it’s something good for us the customs man lowered the fee.” I smiled. It was a nice thought. The entire time I was going through the routine of getting the books each person was advising me how to manage it so I would pay less. I finally paid next to nothing though I spent a good part of my morning there. I would have spent the whole day there if I’d had to, but the strange thing was I left feeling as if I hadn’t wasted my time. People really didn’t have to help out if they didn’t want to; and when we started a conversation there was always a connection. It was the sort of thing I discovered during my couple of days as a participant in Tino Sehgal’s project. The ambition of his “constructed situations” is to allow for discoveries.

To take time out of the mechanized moment, walk in the midst of the ruin – which we were literally doing without any mention of the agora itself – to stumble on some of the pleasures of our exchanges with each other, means we slow down enough to engage with the conversations we’re having. There’s also the chance of falling in love.

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About akalfopoulou

Author of two poetry collections, and most recently, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living.
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