Auf Englisch : The Guggenheimlich Maneuver

It begins with kissing.  And it ends with kissing.  In between is progress. Or what we call progress—for lack of a better word, for lack of a different one.

Leland de la Durantaye

One hot and sunny summer afternoon in 2006, in Berlin, I left my apartment in what had once been a sewing machine factory, descended the steps, passed through an entryway full of beautifully strange art, and went in search of adventure.  I turned left twice and found myself in the Auguststrasse, the street that houses the majority of Berlin’s best known galleries—a little as if Chelsea were pulled taut into a single long line of art.  Because Berlin is cheaper than Chelsea, many of the galleries were small and mysterious, intrepid even, gentler German versions of Maurizio Cattellan’s Wrong Gallery in New York (permanent sign on the door:  “Fuck Off, We’re Closed”).  Separating the galleries were the specialty shops that are one of Berlin’s specialties.  I passed dedicated chocolatiers, artisanal toymakers, a commune, cafés, a field where surprisingly skilled soccer players were practicing, and a beautiful former post office that had miraculously escaped the fire bombing and now housed a guerilla restaurant and bar.

Berlin’s 4th Biennale for Contemporary Art was underway, curated by Cattelan and two other Italians.  It was a big deal, and yet it wasn’t.  It most certainly wasn’t Venice. I lived close enough to it to forget it.  Returning back up the Auguststrasse, I stopped in front of Clärchens Ballhaus.  Like the Post Office, its status was mysterious to me.  It was a restaurant, and yet sometimes it was more than that.  It was large and dilapidated and separated from the street by a ramshackle garden. I walked inside to get something to drink.  I saw no one.  They didn’t seem to be open.  And yet they were open.  I went up the stairs.  I had never gone up the stairs before.  I knew there was a club up there sometimes.  I was curious to see what it looked like.  I got to the second floor, saw an open door, went in. The room was large and empty.  On the floor was a couple.  Making out.  Intensely.  Albeit slowly.  Rolling around, kissing fully, passionately, greedily.  They paid no attention to me.  I did not move. And then the girl rose, slowly, and began to walk towards me.  Like in a dream.  Like in my dreams.  And the boy followed.  Not like in my dreams.  As they passed me by they whispered, in unison, “Tino Seghal.”

 In 1943 Solomon R. Guggenheim invited Frank Lloyd Wright to build a new home for his Museum of Non-Objective Art, then four years old and already containing works by Mondrian, Kandinsky, Picasso, Chagall, Léger, Modigliani and others.  Wright accepted and promptly designed “an inverted Ziggurat.” From then on it was slow going.  It would be impossible to build.  It would be stupid to build.  It had no usable wall space.  It would make everyone unhappy.  Despite all the cries and whispers, the project was approved and building began. 

City officials and local artists united in common cause against it.  Petitions were drafted and signed.  The cantilevering required was too dangerous.  The ramp’s 3% grade would give no level point of reference, the slope of the walls would skew the canvases, the whole thing was weird.  Wright told the city and its artists what they could do with their objections.  He called the rectilinear form of earlier museums “a coffin for the spirit,” and said that when his museum was done it would make the Metropolitan Museum down the street look like “a Protestant barn.”

A mere sixteen years later the museum opened, without either the man who commissioned it or the man who designed it alive to witness the event.  The building was brilliantly white and had a quarter-mile-long continuous ramp rising six stories to a glass dome nearly one hundred feet above (a contemporary reviewer for Time reminded the forgetful reader that such ramps were not new:  “Assyrian King Sargon II wound a 6-ft. ramp around his 143-ft-tall Ziggurat at Khorsabad back in 706 B.C.”).  Philip Johnson promptly called it "Wright's greatest building, New York's greatest building." The New York Daily Mirror suggested that the building “should be put in a museum to show how mad the 20th Century is."

Fifty years later the building had become the most iconic museum space in the world.  To do justice to the architect’s vision, and the revolutionary impulse behind it, the museum’s board began having strange dreams.  They wanted a show, a remarkable, an epochal show, but one that did not obscure the architecture—one that, on the contrary, highlighted it.  And yet the more mesmerizing the show, the more likely its images were to detract attention from the building.  And so one day, during a meeting, a member of the board stood up and said, “Tino Sehgal.”


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