“I like museums. They communicate with the past,” says a surprisingly composed adolescent girl in an empty white room at Frieze New York. “What a beautiful idea, communicating with the past,” she adds, as her gaze moves about the room, making steady eye contact with a particular crowd member before moving on to the next. She is one of a rotating cast (I counted at least four) who make up artist Tino Sehgal’s much anticipated performance piece “Ann Lee,” presented at the fair by first-time exhibitor Marian Goodman Gallery.
Ann Lee, as each performer introduces herself, is a Japanese manga character brought to life, who makes doll-like hand gestures and speaks in wondrous measured tones about having been set “free,” meeting humans for the first time, and becoming a three-dimensional, rather than a two-dimensional character. Her monologue is punctuated with direct questions to particular audience members, such as when she asks: “Do you know Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno?,” the two contemporary artists who in fact bought the copyright to the character in 1999 and used it as an avatar for a work. Since then, the character has passed from artist to artist, each of whom illuminate the character in their own style. Sehgal’s first incarnation of Ann Lee as a live human was in a well-received performance at the Manchester International Festival in 2011.
Ann Lee addresses this phenomenon when she tells the audience she used to be with Huyghe and Parreno, but that they have gotten “busy.” “Lately I’ve been trying to hang out with Tino Sehgal, but he, too, has also become busy,” she explains, as her speech becomes more halting, and she slowly moves her hands up and down as though she is weighing the matter. It is fascinating and often amusing to watch the crowd’s reaction to these precocious and waifish young performers, who never break character and whose monologue varies only slightly. While some observers responded promptly, others seemed unsure whether a response was actually necessary or expected, and others just smiled and nodded approvingly. Each Ann Lee singled out at least one audience member and asked permission to pose a question: “Would you rather be too busy or not busy enough?” (Most respondents chose the former). “Why’s that?,” continued Ann Lee, before pondering that answer and proceeding with no further comment.
Each performance ends with one last question “What is the relation between sign and melancholia?” One smiling respondent admitted that the question stumped him before politely turning the question on Ann Lee herself.
“I don’t know,” the young girl answered, a response that was not difficult to believe, though she didn’t appear to show the slightest sign of insecurity or break in character. Asked again what she thought the difference might be, she repeated “I don’t know.” Then she calmly pivoted and moved toward the exit of the booth, saying softly: “OK, take care.”
— Eileen Kinsella
(Photo by Thierry Bal, via.)