Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud
When I began this book I jokingly thought to myself, "Welcome to the 1990s!" And when I finished it I thought, "Thank God that's over!" -- Not the decade but the book. This was a tough read. I've said before I struggle with theory. Despite having just 114 pages, almost each one became a battle of will. And I was not aided by the awkward, typo-ridden translation from French. Nonetheless, I felt like I had to complete the assignment because while the focus of Bourriaud's treatise is the work of artists, the motives and activities described by the author are bleeding into the motives and activities of contemporary curators -- whether they were already there is a matter for further debate.
Rather than try to summarize the book, which would be impossible for me but has been done by many others (see Wikipedia), I'll mention a few points and quotes that I found particularly helpful and hope they are close to correct. In the past, art was essentially an inactive entity that represented things, which were analyzed by art historians. But now "art is a state of encounter" and an exhibition is an "arena of exchange" [p.17-18]. In some sense, art has always been relational to varying degrees and Bourriaud references Duchamp who suggested, "it's the beholder who makes pictures." [p.26] However, rather than creating a passive object that one hopes will connect with viewers, an artist today focuses more "on the relations that his work will create among his public and on the invention of models of sociability." [p.28]
Also differing from art of the past, and Modernism in particular, were the often grand and ultimately unrealized Utopian aims. Art today seeks to form micro-utopias, harking to Felix Guattari's advocacy for "microscopic attempts" on a community level to bring about social change. [p.31] Bourriaud calls artists "tenants of culture," [p.14], which I quite like, and also says later that "form" in this type of artwork becomes "the face looking at me." [p.36]
The artists cited as examples include Felix Gonzales-Torres (a clear favorite of the author), Rirkrit Tiravanija, Douglas Gordon, Pierre Huyghe, and Cartsen Holler among others. These artists make work that may or may not take a physical form and that when exhibited creates "a momentary grouping of participatory viewers." [p.58] Rather than gazing at a work of art, today's "beholder contributes his whole body, complete with its history and behavior, and [is] no longer an abstract physical presence." [p.59] Of course, this puts quite a burden on the spectator to participate, which the author acknowledges later and writes "Feeling nothing means not making enough effort." [p.80]
It's helpful to remember that Bourriaud published these ideas in the 1990s prior to the Internet's complete takeover of life and work, and well before the formation of social networking. Not that either event replaces relational aesthetics, but they certainly provide an avenue of dynamic relation forming that depending on your point of view makes the activities of traditional relational artists either antiquated or more necessary than ever in terms of providing real-time person to person interaction.
Bourriaud differentiates relational aesthetics from so-called participatory art, which over simplifies the complicated concept. Nonetheless artworks by artists who both encourage viewer engagement and offer them choices and not defined pathways of experience directly relate to recent ideas about exhibition and museum design, such as those discussed by Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum -- my next book to review!
Of course what is intended by an artist and/or a theorist doesn't always play out in real life. In summer 2005 I visited an exhibition by Tiravanija at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Within the space he had created "apartments" that visitors could walk through, relaxing on the furniture or cooking themselves something in the kitchen. However when I appeared just as the museum opened for the day, I was greeted by the smell of omelets cooked by and for the gallery attendants, who could barely manage a sneer at me, much less a greeting to join in this micro-utopia. In fact so strong was the feeling that I was disturbing their morning plans that I ended up tip-toe-ing throughout the installation and spending far more time in the bookstore than I'd planned. I do believe it was one of the most uncomfortable and unwelcoming gallery experiences I've ever had, and this includes the art galleries of Chelsea, NY.
But if nothing else, I highly recommend reading Bourriaud's short and very clever glossary in the back. It begins with "academicism" supplied with the synonym "pompous" and develops further amusing yet complicated definitions as it progresses. However my favorite definition of art was provided earlier in the book: "Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum."[p.22]
That's quite lovely.