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WTF is… Relational Aesthetics?

The standard cliché summary of modern (and contemporary) art is that now, anything is art. Jackson Pollock threw paint around. Duchamp strung up a shovel, upended a bike wheel into a stool, put a urinal on a pedestal, and called the resulting three “sculptures” art of the highest order. After so long, we’ve started to run out of things to suddenly deem “art.” But relational aesthetics, or the posing of an artist-constructed social experiences as art making, is the latest step in this process of turning everything into art.

Nicholas Bourriaud's “Relational Aesthetics” (1998) (image from amazon.com)

Art critic, curator, and historian Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term “relational aesthetics” in his 1998 book of the same name. He’s pretty much inseparable from the concept itself, so chances are you’ll see his name attached (or quoted) wherever you see relational aesthetics pop up. In the book, he defines the term as:

A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. (pg. 113)

That is to say that relational aesthetics projects tend to break with the traditional physical and social space of the art gallery and the sequestered artist studio or atelier. Relational aesthetics takes as its subject the entirety of life as it is lived, or the dynamic social environment, rather than attempting mimetic representation of object removed from daily life, as would be the case in a Dutch Baroque still life, for example.

In even simpler terms, the goal of most relational aesthetics art is to create a social circumstance; the viewer experience of the constructed social environment becomes the art. The task of the artist is to become a conduit for this social experience. To that end, artists often create a physical space to be used for a particular (often ephemeral) social event. What is this “social event,” you ask? Well, almost anything could constitute a relational aesthetics event: a communal meal, a discussion … even sitting around.

Rikrit Tiravanija's Thai food at 303 Gallery in 1992 (image from theblindcorner.blogspot.com)

Let’s take a look at an example. The most famous work, and probably the most famous practitioner, is Argentinean-born Thai artist Rikrit Tiravanija’s first untitled solo show at 303 Gallery, New York in 1992. During the length of that exhibition, Tiravanija cooked Thai food for visitors in a kitchen set up within the gallery. The food is the art, but not in the fine cuisine sense: “it is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people,” Tiravanija says. The communal experience of cooking and eating the food becomes the object on display, under the direction of the artist, who acts as a sort of experience “curator,” or maybe “ringmaster” would be a better term.

A recent watershed moment in the canonization of relational aesthetics (which is now widely accepted as a discrete genre of art, if not a movement) was the Guggenheim’s theanyspacewhatever exhibition of 2008-2009, whose hipsteriffic one-word no-caps name should also present a clue as to the genre’s audience. Featuring the work of ten artists whose work partakes in aspects of Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, including Tiravanija, the exhibition space-altering Jorge Pardo, provocateur sculptor Maurizio Cattelan and Philippe Parreno, who created a movie theater-style marquee for the Guggenheim that gave no hint as to the spectacle going on inside. Participating artist Carsten Höller created a hotel inside the Guggenheim that guests could book one night at time. Jerry Saltz stayed in the hotel and wrote about it, documenting his experience with the art-as-experience.

Jerry Saltz at Carsten Höller's hotel at the Guggenheim's “theanyspacewhatever” (click through to view Saltz's article) (image from NYMag.com)

Another well-known name is Tino Sehgal, who doesn’t allow photos of his human-made installations that create unique, often abstract, experiences for the viewer. For the artist’s “This Progress,” also at the Guggenheim, Sehgal trained special docents of all ages to guide visitors up the museum’s ramp, having conversations and discussions with them as they walked. The conversation is the medium and the message; the moment of shared communication is the realization of the artwork.

If this sounds a little sketchy to some readers, you’re not alone. Relational aesthetics is still redolent of the 1990s that it came of age in — the beginnings of internet culture, instant communication, and the instantaneous gain and loss of celebrity, but without the same cynicism we’ve developed today. Relational aesthetics pits the artist as experience curator and, I think, has contributed to the destabilization and popularization of the term. Relational aesthetics also carries the baggage of artist-as-celebrity. Art critic Hal Foster pointed out in the 1990s that with relational aesthetics, “the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star.” (Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, pg. 54-55) I bet Kanye would love it.

The best ongoing work of relational aesthetics art? Well, the Ace Hotel’s uber-cool coffee bar has certainly created a social moment, experience and event where “what happens between people” certainly exceeds the quality of any physical art around the room. Normal hipster coffee shop, or relational aesthetics piece inhabited by mac laptops? Your call.

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