Text by Roger Catlin, The Washington Post
For nearly six weeks, "living sculptures" have been serenading visitors to the Sculpture Garden at the Hirshhorn Museum. But after Sunday, the songs will come to an end, and the birds and crickets will be all you can hear.
Since Sept. 1, London-born artist Tino Sehgal's 2006 piece "This You" - the first performance art to become part of the Hirshhorn collection - has been presented by eight women working in four-hour shifts. Their job: To stand at the base of the ramp dividing the Rodins from the Henry Moores and come up with an appropriate verse or two of their choosing that will connect with each approaching visitor. They cap their brief burst of song with the title of the piece, " 'This You,' Tino Sehgal, 2006." Nothing else identifies the work.
It has been unexpectedly rewarding, the women say, for them and for the unwitting recipients of their songs. "When in your life do you come across someone just offering a gift, specifically the gift of song, with no need to give back anything?" says Arielle Goodman, who during the week is a labor organizer at Georgetown University.
"In the beginning it was a little bit awkward for many of us, because we didn't know how people would respond naturally," says Briona Jackson, a classically trained singer-songwriter. "But as I got more comfortable with it, it's just been so therapeutic to make somebody's day."
"That's what I like about the piece - you are pushing people essentially out of their comfort zone," says Jahnel Daliya Slowikowski, who sings in a rock cover band. "I feel the world needs more of that."
And most of the reactions have been positive. "Many people stop and smile or say something complimentary, says D.C. rocker Christiana Vandermale, adding that about 15 percent "really engage with me and give some type of art back to me." So far, that has included a Polaroid picture, reading a poem or singing something back.
Some of the more static sculptures at the Hirshhorn. Image: Cathy Carver, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution
"I've had several people who just are so grateful," says Erin Frisby, who is in three local bands. "They say things like 'With everything going on that's so negative, this is a beautiful piece.' "
Still, being sung to hasn't been everyone's cup of tea, especially when "This You" began. "I got responses like 'I don't want to participate in this,' 'Don't sing to me' or 'Why are you doing this?' " Jackson says. "I've had people come up to me and try to give me money, because they think I'm busking."
"About 30 percent of people freeze up and try to act like nothing is happening, and feel awkward," Vandermale says, "which I think is mostly caused by the surprise and the intimacy of somebody looking at you and singing a song directly to you."
Sadie Leigh says a woman on one of her first shifts told her, "I was looking for you, but it's not what I expected." But the number of those who rush by are "far less than I expected," says Lara Supan. "People stop. People have taken out their earbuds."
Some of the singers have taken a Zen approach to their work. "It's been so great to be able to be in the moment, while I'm standing there," says Jackson, who has given attention to the verdant setting and its butterflies, birds, and squirrels. "It's like being in a meditative state for four hours," says Tattiana Aqeel, who also participated in another performance piece at the Hirshhorn, strumming an electric guitar on a revolving pedestal in Ragnar Kjartansson's "Woman in E" in 2016. That was a much less interactive exhibit, she says, where the instructions were to be an object. "This piece is at the exact opposite. I get to communicate at the deepest level."
That's not to say there haven't been downsides to being a living sculpture, especially one exposed to what Vandermale calls the "wild, wild weather." "I got stung by a bee," she adds. "That was the one moment where I really felt the difference between being a living statue and being a statue of metal."
Even so, all eight women say they'd be happy to return should the museum reactivate the piece.
"I have always wanted to perform at the Hirshhorn, and I didn't think it would be quite like this, being mostly from a dance background," Leigh says. "But if they ever wanted me to do anything ever again, I would do it. It's been extremely positive and wonderful. And even though we're here just one at a time, it does feel like a little community."
Feature Image: Erin Schaff - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution