German artist Tino Sehgal’s art is based in unexpected and offbeat live encounters – not directed performance pieces as such, but rather fashioned experiences he calls ‘constructed situations’. Kaldor Public Art Projects brought a Sehgal piece to Sydney last year as a part of 13 Rooms, and for its 29th project the Art Gallery of New South Wales is currently presenting Sehgal’s 2005 Venice Biennale piece, This is So Contemporary. Sehgal allows no recordings, written or otherwise, of his work. They are not tangible in any way – they exist only in the eye of the beholder or for those who experience them.

As museum visitors pass by the great stone columns of the State Gallery and into the foyer, a set of three gallery attendants, in regular black uniform, spring to life. They encircle one unsuspecting guest, dancing and shouting the title of the work: “This is so contemporary!” Pure shock, slimy awkwardness, fits of embarrassed laughter or bewilderment – reactions vary, and this is the point. “This is So Contemporary is one of my favourite works,” says Kaldor Public Art Projects director John Kaldor. “It’s joyous and spontaneous, involving and engaging the audience directly.”

The piece operates brilliantly in its simplicity and its play on the functioning of surprise – but there is depth in the awkwardness and humour. The solemnly quiet museum, often flooded with measured but empty musings such as, This is so contemporary, becomes less serious in the irony, Sehgal’s art becomes playful and reflective all at once.

This is So Contemporary is on view at the Art Gallery of NSW until February 23.

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