The Clam Digger
I’ve always wondered what it would be like being a museum guard. Haven’t you? I see them sometimes quietly sitting with a book in a corner, being paid to read. Granted, the readers are usually those in the really quiet places in France though, remote castles or monuments with few visitors. No reading immediately needed, however, I was asked this week to fill in a spot at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
“It’s not called Performance Art,” A. the museum officer entirely clad in black informed me, “This is called a Situation.” Next to her the administrator for the project nodded enthusiastically, blue eyes gleaming under her red eyebrows.
I was in a Situation. I looked at Eartha, the singer on duty before me. She showed me the way. The museum had moved a statue so that the singers in the Situation had an important spot in the square room among the paintings and statues of Willem de Kooning. We were taking part of the immaterial art project by Tino Sehgal. We were the display. I walked with Eartha following the wall, looking at the wall exactly like her as she showed me the choreography to the piece and taught me the song. “This is propaganda. You know. You know.” She sang, low and easy.
I was fitted for a grey suit, just like the guards. Taking over from Eartha I stood in my corner waiting for museum visitors to enter the room. In anticipation of victims I took in Willem de Kooning’s statue of the Clam Digger, the feet heavy with clumps of sand. My feet mirrored his, my trouser legs rolled up around my ankles. “I am only 5 feet tall,” I warned the museum curator over the phone. She mentioned that she was going to take the trousers up before I came again. The exhibition is until the end of March and engages five situations.
“Is that guy asking if I’d take part in a survey part of this?” An American in a pair of khaki survival trousers barked at me. “He offered me three Euros if I’d do it.” The man was shorter than me, I looked down at his red nose. “I believe so,” I replied. I had the impression that he thought that he might be wasting his time taking part in a survey, but I could tell he was weighing the three Euro bait in his mind. Was it a bargain?
“At this point,” Eartha said, “You have to show your profile and then turn and look at the people.” Sometimes I’d turn around and see no-one left in the room with me besides the Clam Digger. I wondered whether I then had to state my title as an art exhibit, excuse me, Situation.
Having been asked by a person who had bravely decided to stand next to me, I was explaining to the man that, unlike the immobile Clam Digger, this was a Situation. “Like the S on your lapel.” He said wittily. That’s right, I was wearing a big white S pinned to my jacket. We are permitted to talk to guests if they initiate the conversation.
A small middle aged woman wearing a bonnet with a pompom on it stood in the center of the room. The color of her stockings matched her pompom. She watched me. I watched her. We watched each other. “Would you sing it again?” She requested finally.
“Certainly.” I circled around again and sang the tune. I had spent the morning on a horse, riding around in circles and then spent, to my astonishment, the afternoon in the Stedelijk Museum walking around in circles as a work of art.
“2002.” I stated as I finished the show for the lady with the pompom. I like that part, the “2002” part. Kind of like a dot at the end of a sentence. Everyone looks impressed, or they try to look impressed when I say “2002” as if the date makes it all pull together. The mention of a date makes everyone reflect. The singing doesn’t always make visitors react, it’s when I announce the title of the Situation that they look, often quite startled, at me, that is if they weren’t looking already, instead busy figuring out what they were doing themselves in the space, whispering, shuffling and shifting weight from one foot to the other.
A bustling museum guide informed her group that the Situation was for sale. Her back to me as she explained the Situation, I was faced with a group of 15 people examining me in my corner. Mute, I blinked in my most friendly manner after the sentence left her lips.
“He won the Golden Lion,” the administrator told me of Tino Sehgal, “His work was also to be seen in the Guggenheim. All over the world.” I looked him up on Google, and watched a video about the modern conundrum of curating immaterial art.
“Thank you.” The woman with the pompom said to me, after I’d performed at her request. She turned and left the room. I was alone with the Clam Digger. I reached into my pocket and took out a piece of licorice.
Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point
Sunday at noon the place was getting busy. Two women came up to me while I was waiting to ascertain a prime moment to restart my act and startle the museum guests, “We are looking for the Tino Sehgal piece,” they said. “We’ve seen the dancer and talked to the economy people. Where is the other one?”
“It is here,” I replied.
“Yes, but where?” they asked looking hopelessly around them.
Standing between them I immediately began to sing at them. I did my little number. “This is propaganda. You know, you know,” I intoned.
While I’ve already informed you that the Clam Digger is hanging out with me at my Situation in the Willem de Kooning room at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, I omitted to mention that another sculpture from the artist, Large Torso, is seated across from me.
“You know! You know!” a visitor imitated me using the words that I’d just sung, and marched towards me in my corner to talk to me.
“I thought you were saying Juno,” the lanky man said in Dutch looking down at me. He’d just been to the Rijksmuseum and had taken in Rembrandt’s Juno, the voluptuous, long haired, low-bodice garbed lady with fawn eyes and a dimple. I could tell he was still blossoming under the effect of Juno.
“It’s not sexy.” The curator said to me while she was checking the fit of my guard’s suit. No, it was not.
“It was fantastic.” The man related to me. “Juno!” He exclaimed and strode away as if on a chariot rolling through the clouds.
“2002.” I announced at the end of my stchtick. A serious man was inspecting the painting in the corner. At the words, “2002,” he laughed and turned to me amused, “Nice piece of work.” I thanked him politely.
“This is propaganda….” I launched at a visitor earlier that morning, the only other person in the room. She stuck her fingers in her ears and glared at me.
From my spot I can see one of the paintings of Robert Ryman in the other room. 1980’s stucco, I was thinking, it looked like stucco slapped about by a DIYer who had drunk a little too much beer at a help a friend out in a new house occasion slash party. It also looked like the print of the fabric for puffy skirts when I was a teenager. White, with speckles. Not alluring and most unimaginative. Not even a hot pink sweater would perk that outfit up. It hung very neighborly, inoffensive and tedious, suggesting renovations were due but stated that we’d still like to believe the look was fashionable.
A guide walked his group into the room and waited for me to turn around in a melodious circle. “2002.” I announced at the end. The guide drew a breath, “Now, here we have Willem de Kooning’s Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point.” He said clutching his black clip board to his chest. I had been looking at that item too. “If you walk back you can see the perspective in it.” I had done that too. “The artist would do this, taking a great step back to see what was happening before progressing.” I had done that too, that day on that spot. I could see the point of the exercise. As a work of art, I too needed a bathroom break.
Louse Point, interesting name. “Is there a reason why you are in this room?” Probably yes, but I had yet to get the promised email with all the info. Back home I looked up the artist. “The landscape is in the woman and the woman is in the landscape.” A quote from de Kooning.
A man watched my act and then slowly looked me up and down. He left. I put my hand in my jacket pocket and took out a piece of dried apricot.
Morning: The Springs
“Maybe,” the visitor said to me, “He doesn’t exist.” I’d just explained the concept of the immaterial art of Tino Sehgal and the piece, referred to as a Situation, I’d just executed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I liked the idea, that Tino Sehgal himself actually may be just a fleeting moment in time: he is not, he was not, yet being not being. “How do you know he’s real?” The man asked me smiling. “I don’t.” I said honestly.
The youth stood in the room, not looking at me but at the painting. “This is propaganda.” I stated the title of the situation piece after singing it to my sole listener, staring intently at a painting. “This is nice.” He replied, looking straight ahead nodding his head at the painting.
One, two, three, four, five pieces make up the art in the room. Two sculptures and three paintings. The lady with the red pocket camera aimed, one, two, three, four, five…and six. She took a photo of me in uniform in my corner, the last piece of art in the room. Maybe she was being polite, but I don’t think so.
“Out for a week and a half,” said my Tino Sehgal colleague taking care of the “This is good” Situation. After a four hour shift on one of the first days, his leg had protested. “On crutches. I was lucky. Some other guy cracked something in his neck doing the routine, and has been gone for three weeks.” Felled by immaterial art, or the works of art themselves struggling through the repetitive motions. However you want to think about it. I’m beginning to have a fantasy that we are in some sort of film, something along the lines of “Toys.”
“Were you in Venice?” This question has come my way several times as if I might have been transported around to various museums like a painting on tour. Rotating I could tell they could buy art, the couple with the clothes. Clothes that said: we buy art. Dapper, chic, well heeled. They circled around the Clam Digger sculpture, they looked at a de Kooning painting. I performed my Situation for them. They paid me no mind. “1977!” they exclaimed in East Coast American, “One year after ours!” They moved back to the Clam Digger. “It’s shorter,” she said to him, “than ours.” He replied his nose quite close to the bronze image, “That’s because I raised ours up.” They were in love with themselves, ready to buy their art all over again. Imagine, travelling the world over to see the pieces of art that, more or less, already belong to you. They swished in and out of the room more than once, but I refrained from singing to them every time they entered the room. They might get annoyed by the living soundtrack, a one track mind set on propaganda.
The museum staff was also very excited. They had received a protest letter. At last, they had art that was stirring up controversy, whipping pleasure. The woman in particular had vented her ire to me as well. “You are okay,” she said sourly after I’d sung my piece at her, “But I am going to write a complaint! That epileptic fit caused concern! It shouldn’t be allowed. I’ve seen epileptic fits and they don’t look like that at all.” I paused a second to take a breath, “Do you mean to say…” I started but she strode off in her brown corduroy trousers.
“You can see the nose.” A young woman explained to her friend. They were looking at the painting called “Morning: The Springs.” I had finished my little number and they still had their backs to me. A security guard walked through the room. Most of the guards, I’ve noticed, aren’t pale skinned and most of the art displayed is made by pale skinned people. “What does propaganda mean to you?” I asked a visitor who had come up to chat with me. “Vapid,” he concluded the 60’s rebellion still in his eyes, “Your voice is beautiful and gives the whole word an even more vapid connotation. It’s all vapid, such as social media, the mother load of propaganda. It changes, never achieves but mutates, even when couched in idealism and added some aesthetic star dust. The core is never left to be what it was at first.” I thought, “Try to buy that then.”
North Altantic Light
“Today is a little grey,” he remarked to me.
I had just said, “2002,” to him. We were alone in the Willem de Kooning room.
“Is the light different if it is sunny?” The museum visitor wanted to know, standing in the middle of the room looking up at the ceiling. The ceiling was draped with a large piece of muslin. Beyond the muslin I could see the museum windows making up most of the ceiling.
Wearing my museum guard suit, I looked him over. “Are you thinking of renovating?” I wanted to ask. Did he have his own personal museum to administer? I didn’t ask, didn’t pursue the conversation and watched him leave the room.
Circling the Clam Digger, the young man with the red beard was taking it all in very seriously. He stayed for quite a moment, during which many museum guests entered and exited the room. I had been instructed to start making people aware of the Situation by presenting some decibels whenever a visitor arrived. “I’m sorry,” the young man came towards me, his voice raised in irritation, “Could you please shut up?”
“I am part of the Tino Sehgal exhibition,” I said, stating the obvious. He must of heard me, much like a broken record, a living machine, go through the little song and state my title as an art work about thirty times.
“The museum hires you to do this?” he asked staring down at the top of my head.
“Yes.” I replied with a small smile, “But you may of course lodge a complaint with the museum downstairs.”
He looked imperial, as in art lover imperial, “I may just do that,” he snorted the menace and circled the Clam Digger once more. A visitor entered the room, I opened my mouth and the red beard fled the scene.
If he did register ire, it would enthrall the museum. They delighted in complaints against art at the art museum. Makes them feel alive, providing a challenge to the public in new corduroy jackets.
“This Italian lady didn’t believe me,” my colleague said to me, as we did the switch from one shift to the other. “When she learned I sang as part of the museum show, she kept coming in and out of the room.” She sighed, “The last time she did that, I just gave her a look.” She showed me the look, the look said come on now can we grow up?
The audience does like to challenge the performers. One man can right up to me, directly at me as I was waiting, giving me no time to turn and start subtly. I looked him over, he looked me over. He folded his arms across his chest. I slowly drew a breath and began to sing looking straight at him. We looked at each other after I’d finished. He seemed satisfied. “What if I start singing?” He sang the tune back to me, “Is this infringement?”
During the next hour I saw him return every so often hanging around the doorway beyond the room. Some people did that, kept coming back to watch but didn’t enter the room again. Reminds me of my Siamese cat, wanting to participate but not willing to show too much enthusiasm.
“Hey,” I said to the actor who was doing ‘This is Good,” “Will you take my photo with the saw?” I’d been dying to have my photo taken with the saw. The idea was eating me alive.
Reprise: November 2015 Back In Propaganda: Untitled, Pajamas
White cable sweater. Black skinny jeans. Comic hair cut on flat head. More art than the art the young man was examining, Agnes Martin’s “Untitled” was about as exciting as a pair of faded pajamas in comparison. The visitor was seemingly fascinated by the piece and his Rowan Atkinson body language validated his fascination; the overly large cable sweater stuck out at a funny angle over his small hips.
I surveyed the gallery at the Stedelijk Museum. Once the room’s visitors were refreshed, dressed as a guard I could launch once more into singing Tino Seghal’s situation “This is Propaganda.”
“We’ll meet up,” an administrator told me, “And show you the new room.” It sounded challenging but the day I was due back on the gig was a Saturday morning and I had to find room 1.8 all on my own. Last time, in March, I had been surrounded by de Koning’s paintings and now I was set in the 1970’s minimalistic world. I found 1.8 without a problem. It wasn’t like they stuck us in the closet, no, we were told we’d be heard all over the museum because we were now situated near the staircase.
In his bright orange tee-shirt painted “PAPA” by the hands of loving children, signed by all five of them, and a pink breast cancer support baseball cap, I couldn’t have avoided noticing the family validation as the man strolled about 1.8 taking in less visual noise than what he was sporting. “Propaganda,” he said coming over to me. “That word made me notice the word. I like that.”
A half hour later he was back. “I can pace through time thanks to you.” He was determined to tell me in his Scottish accent, “I hear the echo of your voice in every corner on this floor.” Routine that was what it was, like those pale stripes on the wall. He must be a great dad I thought. Supportive feedback on every front.
Back in Propaganda: 17 Sided
The museum guard examined Walter de Maria’s sculpture, a 17 sided polygon on the floor with a jeu de boule ball wedged in between the rims on the groove. He blew into the sculpture scattering small balls of dust.
“It’s over here now.” Noted his mate, another one of the guards, about the position of the ball. I wondered if the curators moved the ball every once in a while to stimulate the staff at the Stedelijk Museum.
My first visitor was an opera director I knew ages ago. Doing my little “This is Propaganda” routine, I sang at his back. He swung around and stared at me. “Persephone!” Well that was a warm moment. “You ought to check out the ‘Selling Out’ when you have a chance.” Suggested an administrator of the Tino Seghal project.
I peeked around the corner and watched a dancer take off nearly all her clothes. She stuck her thumbs into her underwear and announced, “Tino Seghal, Selling Out, 2002.” She left her lacey black underwear on. She then wiggled into the guard’s uniform again, sock by sock.
So, I thought, that’s why people kept standing looking at me, expecting me to do more in my little routine. I felt a little pale by comparison. Back at base I stood in 1.8 and desperately desired to strike a da Vinci in the polygon. “Nude or not nude?” I wondered about the irregularity of body confidence.
A Know It All
I was going to learn a lesson. I could tell it by the way he approached me. Balding, spectacles, black jeans know-it-all. He had been inspecting Barnett Newman’s Cathedra. He’d been staring at it a while, his glasses hanging sideways out of his mouth.
“There used to be a bench here where people could sit.” The museum guides continually complained when they came into the room turning to their groups to explain. “If you stand in front of it for a while, the painting changes.”
I’d done my Tino Seghal propaganda number twice since the man came into the room. Because people want to see the paintings, I refrain from singing the piece too much, butting into their inner dialogue only when necessary.
“She sang it 367 times.” A museum guard complained of a colleague on the Propaganda route. “Every time she sang it she clicked her phone to keep count.” This was a new colleague with a Japanese name. I wondered if those two bits of information were linked to the information gathering obsession. On a four hour shift I’m guessing that I might sing it 120 times on average, depending on whether it’s a busy day or not. We don’t get paid for the number of times we sing the piece.
From what I have read and see, there is always a museum guard on hand nearby who can recognize the face of the perpetrator. Cathedra was slashed by an irate art gazer. “Here,” said a guest waving an arm to his friend, “You can see where the painting was damaged.” People come into the room especially to see the famous work that attracted unwanted media attention. Immediately after the traumatic event the painting was taken from the wall and laid on the ground in a quiet place to recuperate. With such care the museum eventually restored it to good health. In the room devoted to 70’s minimalism the shimmering blue Cathedra does have a magnetic quality, especially compared to the other paintings. The solid grey painting, for instance, or the solid white one with some stripes of color near the edges.
“Propaganda,” the man said smiling down at me, we were alone in the room. “Rotates, moves on and on.”
I considered this. I always think of propaganda as a lump, a fly eating plant, sitting someplace dark and damp like inside a television set waiting for a victim.
“The word comes from propagare, that’s Latin.” He informed me, “One thing begets another.” Do plants inside televisions poop? I wondered.
“Perhaps that applies to humans who see it,” I replied, “Not the propaganda piece itself.”
“No,” he reiterated, “The word means that it compounds upon and multiplies itself.”
“Yes, of course, do take it away then.” We ended our conversation thus on a friendly note. The patrician smiled back at me as he moved into the even less interesting room with orange and green and grey hanging on the walls. “This is propaganda,” I sang as a piece of immaterial art hired for the half day. Was I the embodiment of propaganda or was the art on the wall the embodiment of the propaganda?