I knew little of Tino Sehgal before walking into This Progress at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The visit was unplanned, so I had not sought out his work, and I was unaware that his twelve month residency provided a fresh experience each time the calendar changed.
Walking up the medicinal white staircase towards a closed door, I thought I may be heading in the wrong direction. Then a girl around twelve years old approached me. She told me behind the door was an exhibition by Tino Sehgal, and that she would like to take me inside. It felt a little unnerving. I usually attend exhibitions alone so that I am not led into conversation that distracts me from the natural thought process that emerges. For a minute I wondered if it was an optional choice. It wasn’t and as the door opened it revealed an empty room. Before it had a chance to close behind me, and I could take in the large wooden floor and white ceilings, the girl asked me a question. ‘What is progress to you?’ I was a little lost. My first answer after a little silence, was ‘a movement forward’. She then questioned me again. ‘So it’s a physical thing to you, and not mental? Or is it both?’
The conversation continues as we complete a lap of the gallery, but as we reach a door at the far side, a woman in her early 20’s appears and introduces herself. Before I can acknowledge her the previous girl has left. The second encounter is far more personal, and the questions around progress are aimed directly at my personal life. It’s uncomfortable, but the things I begin to think about are important, and they are most certainly things I usually try not to think about. This bringing to the surface of my own doubts and insecurities actually turns into a positive as I begin to actually notice things that have been a force for good. It is rare we focus on things that make us happy, or that we are proud of. As humans our nature is to dwell on the things that didn’t go well.
Before I can really begin to analyse how I am thinking I am entering a new room, and with it a new conversational partner. This time a woman in her thirties. She has a great deal of energy, but diverts the conversation onto the economy and the environment. The topics stay political, and in a way it seems like a rehearsed speech more than the others. However she does seek out my opinions and I feel motivated to debate her. It becomes energising.
As we enter the final room, the energy suddenly disappears. She literally runs through a hidden entrance and I am met by a gentleman called Burt. He is in his 80’s and tells me how he was born in Amsterdam in 1937, but his life did not begin until nearly ten years later after the end of the second world war. He tells me about his businesses, about how he his now retired, and as well talk, we leave the exhibition space and enter the galleries corridors. A change occurs. We begin to talk like old friends. Discussing changing landscapes of the cities we live in. How glass and steel has replaced ornately carved brickwork, and how hubs of community have been removed to accommodate business and tourists. Our conversation seems to last forever. Then Burt turns to me, puts out his hand, and says ‘Good luck Oliver, it was nice to talk with you.’ And he is gone.