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Relational Aesthetics Collage

Relational Aesthetics

Started: 1996
Relational Aesthetics Timeline
"The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist."
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Nicolas Bourriaud
"When an artist shows us something he uses a transitive ethic which places his work between the 'look-at-me' and the 'look-at-that'"
2 of 8
Nicolas Bourriaud
"In focusing on 'relations of exchange', social interplay and inter-subjective communication, relational art practices - in their exhibitionary method - also provide nodal points for reflection on their socially transitive potential."
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Anthony Downey
"Any examination of the politics of relational aesthetics is engaged not so much in an examination of political content as it is with the politics of social formations"
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Anthony Downey
"The general mechanisation of social functions gradually reduces the relational space ... and professional behavior patterns are modelled on the efficiency of the machines replacing them, these machines [in turn] carrying out tasks which once represented so many opportunities for exchanges, pleasure and squabbling. Contemporary art is definitely developing a political project when it endeavours to move into the relational realm by turning it into an issue."
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Nicolas Bourriaud
"Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence. It is the critic's task to study this activity in the present."
6 of 8
Nicolas Bourriaud
"The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art."
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Nicolas Bourriaud
"Art is a state of encounter."
8 of 8
Nicolas Bourriaud

Summary of Relational Aesthetics

Classical painting versus live historical re-enactment? Traditional sculpture versus staged dinner for twenty? Still life photograph versus activist advertising campaign? When French curator Nicolas Bourriaud first coined the term Relational Aesthetics in 1996, the art world already had a long history of exploring questions surrounding what constitutes art. Art had journeyed over the centuries from being, initially, a presentation of physical objects for mere beauty to a complex genre containing many modes of articulating creative concepts. At the term's inception, Relational Aesthetics essentially encompassed work that sought to produce a temporary environment or event in which viewers could participate in order to assimilate and comprehend the artist's specific impetus or message; interactivity and experience becoming more central while material, content, and form are less prioritized. Although critically this distillation remains ambiguous in its open-endedness, it does reflect an important evolution in a long lineage of art that values social encounter over product.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Works of Relational Aesthetics are typically based upon the artist's communication of his or her mission in a public, as opposed to institutional, space where the viewing population is not limited to the traditional art spectator. Thus, by expanding the works' exposure to a more far-reaching viewership, these pieces are often considered examples of temporary democracies.
  • Bourriaud called relational artists and their audiences "microtopias," in that the communal bonds that are formed from these experiences create a temporary container for experiencing human connectivity within the social context of the works. Because of this, it's no surprise that much of this art evokes political conscientiousness and inspires change.
  • Oftentimes, relational pieces evoke "witnessing publics," considered provocative in that they allow unrelated individuals to participate in a common feeling or event they might not otherwise experience collectively.
  • An artist's subjectivity is often eschewed in the presentation of relational works. Instead, the experience itself and the people participating combine in a present time to determine the overarching tone and evoke the work's ultimate meaning.

Overview of Relational Aesthetics

Relational Aesthetics Photo

Gillian Wearing's sculpture in Birmingham, UK reflects the notion that the modern definition of “real” family is something that cannot be fixed. It invites the viewer to reflect upon, and depart from the stale definition of the “nuclear” mom, dad, and two kids model, and step forward into modernity, of which we are all a part.

Key Artists

  • Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist who is known for his sculptures and large-scale installations that create diverse pieces intended to propose critical interventions within existing social systems, an effort that is designed to inspire debate and fresh perceptions, or to catalyze change.
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an American, Cuban-born visual artist known for his minimal installations and sculptures. Using materials such as strings of lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies, his work is sometimes considered a reflection of his experience with AIDS and living at the time of the outbreak of that disease.
  • The British Gillian Wearing rose to fame by photographing strangers to hold up a sign saying whatever was on their minds.
  • Sculptor Maurizio Cattelan wittily interrogates social norms, and pinpoints our darker human struggles and uncomfortable emotions.

Do Not Miss

  • Institutional Critique is the practice of systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions and their connections to the development of art. Institutional Critique focuses on the relationships between the viewer, language, process, the consumption of art.
  • Beginning in the 1960s, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community.
  • Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
  • "Queer Art" became a powerful political and celebratory term to describe the art and experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

Important Art and Artists of Relational Aesthetics

Pad Thai (1992)

Artist: Rikrit Tiravania

For his first solo show Pad Thai in 1992, the Argentinian-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija set up a kitchen inside the 303 Gallery space in New York and proceeded to cook Thai food for visitors. However, as Tiravanija explains, the "art" produced through this activity was not the food itself, but the encounters that occurred between people who participated in the communal experience. In fact, his list of materials for many of his works includes the phrase "lots of people."

Bourriaud considered Pad Thai to be revolutionary for the art world, as, rather than putting any artworks on display, Tiravanija created a situation which, in any other context, would not be considered artistic. Moreover, Bourriaud saw this participatory event, in which a sense of "microtopian" community was fostered (albeit temporarily), as a rebellion against the alienation that characterizes postmodern society.

However, Bishop argued that although Pad Thai may have produced a temporary, harmonious microtopia, "it is still predicated on the exclusion of those who hinder or prevent its realization." She also pointed out that the piece was "addressed to a community of viewing subjects with something in common," reducing its scope "to the pleasures of a private group who identify with one another as gallery-goers."

Tiravanija is the artist most commonly associated with Relational Aesthetics, and has even described his own work as "relational." He has described his work as "comparable to reaching out, removing Marcel Duchamp's urinal from its pedestal, reinstalling it back on the wall, and then, in an act of returning it to its original use, pissing in it."

In addition to Pad Thai, and a number of similar works in which he cooked food for participants, he staged other opportunities for visitors/participants to connect with one another through pop-up versions of banal activities. For example, in Untitled (1999) he constructed an exact replica of his East Village apartment and invited several students to come live in it. For his piece The Land (1999-), Tiravanija and others transformed a plot of arable land in Thailand into a communally-run site for artistic and agricultural pursuits and social collaboration, which continues today as there is no time limitation for the cultivation of it.

Turkish Jokes (1994)

Artist: Jens Haaning

For this work, Danish artist Jens Haaning made an audio recording of Turkish immigrants in Europe telling jokes in their native language. The recording was then broadcast through a loudspeaker attached to a lamppost in the Turkish area of central Oslo. In the following few years, Haaning repeated this process in various European cities with both Turkish and Arabic jokes.

The intention behind this work (in its various iterations) was to create a sense of conviviality amongst the Turkish (and later Arabic)-speaking immigrant communities in the European cities in which they now reside. Haaning explains, "One of my interests in language is based on the psychological, therapeutical effect of contacting people in a language they do not understand [...] I am also interested in the language as a power tool, because when I have been putting up works using language only understandable by minorities in the given context, the street becomes more dominated by the culture familiar with said language. Oslo became more Turkish because of the work Turkish Jokes." In other words, the immigrants' laughter upon hearing the jokes connects them in public space, while simultaneously excluding the other passers-by who do not understand.

As critic Jennifer Allen writes, "By creating communities - at once inclusive and exclusive - Haaning underscores what most art historians, theorists and critics have chosen to ignore: aesthetics is about people, not objects." Moreover, by using pure audio to create a relational experience, Haaning rejects Kantian aesthetics, which center upon visuality. At the same time, Haaning's work challenges the dominant role of museums and galleries in the art world, instead opting to bring an unexpected artistic intervention into the everyday public space of the city streets.

Green River Project (1998-2001)

Artist: Olafur Eliasson

For the Green River Project, artist Olafur Eliasson infused a non-toxic powdered dye called Uranin into the rivers of major urban centers, including Bremen, Germany (1998); Moss, Norway (1998); Los Angeles, USA (1999); Stockholm, Sweden (2000); and Tokyo, Japan (2001). The dye caused the rivers to turn a vibrant green, appearing suddenly and without warning, and thus highlighting the interdependent and complex relationship that exists between humans and nature, the natural and artificial, and between spaces and those who dwell within them. The project was unsanctioned, created guerilla-style, and unaffiliated with any institutional organization.

As art historian Madeleine Grynsztejn explains, Eliasson's "perceiver-dependent" works emphasize "active corporeal vision" and the "kinetic involvement" of the viewer. For Eliasson, The Green River Project sought to address the way in which "a lot of people see urban space as an external image they have no connection with, not even physically" and thus the project "was really about showing people, in this city, as they walk by, that space has dimensions. A space has time. And the water flows through the city with time. The water has an ability to make the city negotiable, tangible." In other words, rivers act as an ideal site for a re-consideration of the "turbulence" that characterizes life in urban centers. Eliasson also wanted to gain insight into "how the river is perceived in the city. Is it something dynamic or static? Something real or just a representation? I wanted to make it present again, get people to notice its movement." He says, "I was interested in the reaction of the people looking at the water [...] and the way this would change their perception of the city."

Speaking about his relational oeuvre as a whole, Eliasson has stated that "...the activities or actions of [the] user in fact constitute the artwork," and, furthermore, that "art and culture [...] have proven that one can create a kind of a space which is both sensitive to individuality and to collectivity. It's very much about this causality, consequences. It's very much about the way we link thinking and doing ... And right in-between thinking and doing, I would say, there is experience. And experience is not just a kind of entertainment in a non-causal way. Experience is about responsibility. Having an experience is taking part in the world. Taking part in the world is really about sharing responsibility."

For Eliasson, de-contextualizing this work, and not allowing it to be pre-conceived of by the viewer as an art project, was crucial. In an interview with art historian, critic, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Eliasson describes an earlier project (Proposal for a Park, 1997), which he believes "didn't work" due to the public's prior awareness of the project as an "art" project. In his view, this preconceived notion of the project as "art" leads the viewer to see the work as a painting, rather than as "some kind of modification of the urban layout." Eliasson believes that The Green River Project, at least in Stockholm, was a success in this regard, stating: "That day, when the people in Stockholm looked at the river - to them, that the water moved was a surprise. The city wasn't a postcard! Not knowing it was an artwork was important. If people knew beforehand there wouldn't be the same discussion." Indeed, the key product of this project was discussion itself, discussion through which urban citizens could share their views on what constitutes the city, and could debate and hypothesize together about what possible reasons there could be for the river to change color in this way. Eliasson's aim was to provide an engaging experience that was "infinitely variable" for individuals, yet simultaneously shared amongst members of the community.

Without institutional affiliation, The Green River Project prompted action, interaction, and engagement, rather than the passive, liminal mode of viewing which so often characterizes a museum or gallery visit. Eliasson stated, "I want the museum visitor to understand that institutional ideology and display is in itself a construction and not a higher state of truth." Eliasson believes that "the museum and exhibition scene too often makes the public passive, instead of stimulating it ... There's a reversal of subject and object [in the Green River Project]: the viewer becomes the object and the context becomes the subject. I always try to turn the viewer into what's on show, make him mobile and dynamic."

This intervention has been praised by many, yet many spectators at all locations reacted with distress or fear, likely due to the fact that the violent green hue of the river provoked "alarming associations with environmental disaster." The amount of panic that developed in some instances was so great that it led Eliasson to decide to abandon such guerilla-art installations after 2001.

Useful Resources on Relational Aesthetics

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Relational Aesthetics Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 28 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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