Art in the 90s: Relational aesthetics

 Paris  |  9 July 2015  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Nicolas Bourriaud’s recent dismissal from the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (ENSBA) in Paris, France, has caused a worldwide sensation. First of all, because of ENSBA’s long-standing status as the most prestigious art school in France, but especially because of Bourriaud’s exceptional career, during which he has cofounded the Palais de Tokyo (Paris), served as curator at the Tate (London), and has worked as a critic and essayist, for which he is probably the most renowned. After publishing his book Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics) in 1998, Bourriaud has gained international recognition. Today, despite other essays he has written, such as Radicant (2008), for example, he remains strongly associated with the concept of “relational aesthetics”.

As part of its special summer edition, Art Media Agency is offering you a glimpse of the 1990s, focusing on the universe of relational aesthetics, and the direction it might take in the future.

Early 1990s: diversity of form, absence of theory

Esthétique relationnelle appeared in 1998. It is not exactly considered as an essay, but more as a collection of articles written by Nicolas Bourriaud for Documents sur l’Art, a magazine he cofounded in 1992.

Through this collection of articles, Bourriaud wished to shed light on the artistic practices that were at that time considered to be disparate, formless, and unclassifiable, but above all, deprived of theoretical discourse — if not that of the “aesthetics of communication” developed by Mario Costa (in 1983), who was interested in our perception of time, space, and the other in the information era following the performances of Fred Forest.

In the 1990s, critics wondered which speech to adopt in order to sanction the artistic practices that arised during their epoch. They tried to find a way to link Rirkrit Tiravanija — who once organised a dinner at one of her collectors’ house by giving him the necessary ingredients for the preparation of a Thai soup —, with Pierre Huygue — who once exhibited photographs featuring workers just a few metres away from the actual construction site —, or with Maurizio Cattelan — who dressed his gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin in a pink rabbit costume that resembled an oversized penis and testicles, which he named Errotin le vrai lapin (Errotin, the true rabbit).

According to Bourriaud, artistic activity is not an “immutable essence”; its forms develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts. By using the notion of transitivity, Bourriaud explains that art was first a way for human beings to exchange with the gods, slowly becoming —from the Renaissance on — a way for them to interact with the rest of the world, and finally becoming a way for human beings to communicate their perception of the physical world. At a time when inter-human relations are more often “reflected than lived”, and regularly monetized, Bourriaud explains that art allows human beings to communicate with each other. He proposes Relational art, an art movement that invites users to join the process of creation, breaking up the one-wayness of modern “communication highways”.

Bourriaud thus defines relational aesthetics by an “aesthetic theory that can be used to evaluate artworks according to the human relations it features, produces or arises”. More specifically, he defines relational art 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.”

Relational aesthetics, a theory on artistic forms

For Bourriaud, art represents a “state of encounter”. Relational aesthetics surpass simple interactivity and focus on the “experience of the social relation”. More precisely, Bourriaud shows how the sphere of inter-human relations has reconfigured artistic practices and has been the source of various original artistic forms.

For him, Relational aesthetics are more than a theory on art: they are a theory on art forms. Representing much more than style and media unity, and more than an artistic movement, relational aesthetics take as a subject for their artworks “the sphere of inter-human relations”, where the notion of space and time of the exchange becomes crucial, and the relational artwork “ceases to be a space to evolve in, instead becoming a period of time to live”. Rather than representing the production process of an object, the artwork gives rise to an “arena of exchange”.

This definition of Relational art creates a major turn in our conception of art and our vision of artworks produced by artists. In Esthétique Relationnelle, Nicolas Bourriaud acknowledges the idea that contemporary art creates direct relations with the world while the world historically existed before its artistic representations. The artworks are produced from a microscopic approach and focus on the functioning of art and the world of art, aiming towards a macroscopic approach, based on the “external relations generated by the artwork”.

From the 1990s until today: survival and integration

Thus, for Nicolas Bourriaud, “a work can function as a relational device in which there is a degree of randomness. It can be a machine for provoking and managing individual or collective encounters.” This idea has gained ground, and Esthétique Relationnelle, translated into English in 2002, has become a best-seller in the entire art world.

Still, when his book came out, Nicolas Bourriaud became the subject of criticism. Certain reactions came from philosophers who argued that every single aesthetic must be intrinsically and profoundly relational. Since the publication of Nicolas Bourriaud’s essays, the theory of Relational art has remained a much discussed topic.

The work of artist Tino Sehgal, who was awarded a Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, perfectly adopts Bourriaud’s theory, the latter defining Sehgal’s performances as “constructed situations”. For his work This objective of that object (2004), Sehgal surrounds some of his viewers by five people who have their back turned to them, while singing “The objective of this work is to become the object of a discussion”. If the viewer remains silent, the people fall to the ground, but if he answers, they start a conversation with him.

There is no visual record of Sehgal’s performances because he refuses to allow photographs to be taken. This attitude enables the artist to draw the audience’s attention to the inter-human relations that arise from his work, and to the importance of the element of time attached to it. Sehgal’s work thus demonstrates that the essence of an artwork is the process of the constructed situation, rather than its final object.

Marina Abramovic’s blockbuster exhibition at the MoMA in 2010, “The artist is present”, is another example of an artwork that fully follows Bourriaud’s theory. During her retrospective, she sat on a chair for 700 hours, inviting visitors to come and sit in front of her so she could look into their eyes.

More recently, Bourriaud confirmed that his spirit was still present in the Palais de Tokyo, which he has cofounded with Jérôme Sans. The most recent exhibition cycle of the institution is dedicating a solo show to artist Korakrit Arunanondchai who, not long ago, said to Inrocks: “When relational aesthetics appeared, I was still in high school back in Thailand. I only learned about the theory much later […] To be honest, I think that every form of art can be used to perceive the world around us. Which means that relational aesthetics have enabled us to become aware of things that already existed: when conceptual art was born, we suddenly realised that all art is conceptual.”

Relational aesthetics, which does not exactly refer to a movement, have definitely incorporated reflexions on art, pushing artists to become aware of an essential dimension of their work. Today, it is a recognised artistic form, which continues to influence the art world. However, it still remains the subject of many interrogations, which will only grow stronger in the future.

Relational art: interrogations for the future

From 2008 until 2009, the Guggenheim hosted an exhibition entitled “theanyspacewhatever”, as a tribute to the pillars of Relational art Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Douglas Gordon, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and Carster Höller.

However, when MoMA curator Nancy Spector set up the exhibition, she was instantly confronted to the difficulties of the display of the artworks. How can an artwork, which can only exist in a specific period of time, be properly exhibited? Indeed, Relational artworks are defined by a “hic and nunc”. Because Sehgal does not allow any record of his performances, his art is featured in a strictly defined geographic and temporal space. Many contemporary artworks prefer the form of an event, rather than displaying the object, and future exhibition strategies will have no choice but to adapt to this change.

The gallerists who represent these contemporary artists, are also confronted with another issue: the commercialisation of art performances. The galleries are the laboratories of these contemporary artworks and cannot ignore these particular art forms. However, galleries cannot set up exhibitions without paying their artists, and without profiting from financial returns to ensure their functioning. It is true that some performances have been produced in reaction against the market system and are therefore not for sale, but that is not the case for all Relational aesthetics artists.

Finally, there is a more profound issue regarding our conception of art. Relational art, which dates back to the Fluxus movement, in which spectators were invited to participate in performances, represents a break with the sacredness of art, and with the “Noli me tangere”.

“Noli me tangere”, a Latin expression that can be translated into “Do not touch me”, are the words Jesus said to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday when he rose from death. This expression is a symbol of the distance that the sacred entails. Relational aesthetics have slowly reduced the distance between the artwork and the viewer, as well as the sanctity of the work itself — leading viewers to experience art as an eventful and playful activity. The shift from art towards diversion is not necessarily a bad thing, nevertheless, it needs to be properly analysed and commented by critics.

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