Artworks and Artists of Relational Aesthetics
Progression of Art
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.
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.
Loud speaker and audio recordings - Oslo
Green River Project
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.
Performance - Various
Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Sit Inside Cardboard Boxes
In this work, which Spanish artist Santiago Sierra had previously carried out at other venues in Guatemala, Mexico, and New York, six workers who held status as political exiles from Chechenia sat inside cardboard boxes for four hours a day, over the course of six weeks. Sierra and the workers who participated hoped that the work would call attention to the plight of the exiles, who, according to German legislation, were to be given 80 marks (about $40) per month, and were prohibited from working in Germany, at risk of deportation if they were to do so. For their involvement, the workers were paid by Sierra in secret, so as not to be put at risk of deportation.
Many of Sierra's other works also involve paying marginalized people for carrying out degrading tasks, such as pushing cement blocks around a gallery floor for several hours, being tattooed, standing around at an art opening, bleaching their hair blonde, and masturbating. Sierra even gave junkies a shot of heroin in exchange for having a line shaved on their heads. Sierra justifies this exploitation by saying that "I simply follow the generally accepted rules of society. I buy human beings and pay them the wages that are customary in their respective countries." However, arts researcher Stefan Heidenreich argues "the concept of parading socially disadvantaged people in the art world as economic outcasts [...] becomes more questionable the more one sees of his work. Doubtless, Sierra's interventions get attention, but it's the kind of attention that doesn't really implement change." In response to being labeled as an "exploiter," Sierra argues that "extreme labor relations shed much more light on how the labor system actually works," and therefore his works aim to "give real visibility to these people." Yet, elsewhere he has admitted, "I can't change anything. There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work."
Claire Bishop argues that it is this controversy and tension that makes Sierra's works more emblematic of "relational antagonism" than the more positive, harmonious forms of Relational Aesthetics. She writes that Sierra's works set up "'relationships' that emphasize the role of dialogue and negotiation in [his] art, but [does] so without collapsing these relationships into the work's content. The relations produced [...] are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, because the work acknowledges the impossibility of a 'microtopia' and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context." She continues, "If relational aesthetics requires a unified subject as a prerequisite for community-as-togetherness, then [Sierra provides] a mode of artistic experience more adequate to the divided and incomplete subject of today. This relational antagonism would be predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony. It would thereby provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one other." Her dialogue exemplifies the criticism that has swirled around the Relational Aesthetics term.
Cardboard boxes - Kunstwerke, Berlin
Battle of Orgreave
For this work, British artist Jeremy Deller choreographed a reenactment of the Battle of Orgeave, a notable miner's strike that took place in the UK in 1984, during which 8,000 riot police fought with nearly 5,000 miners. 200 former miners and local residents collaborated with 800 members of over 20 historical reenactment societies, carrying out a number of rehearsals before restaging the conflict for a public audience. Deller says of the work, "Basically, I was asking the re-enactors to participate in the staging of a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans of the campaign. I've always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem, or as a thousand-person crime re-enactment."
The event embodied the ethical conscientiousness, participatory/collaborative/open-ended format, and political focus of Relational Aesthetics. Yet it also highlighted some of the inherent challenges in these types of semi-scripted artworks. Deller himself referred to the project as "a recreation of something that was essentially chaos," and although participants were issued conditions of participation that were fairly strict, Deller admitted mid-performance that the event had taken on a "life of its own," over which he had very little control.
Moreover, Deller noted that bringing the middle-class battle re-enactors into direct contact with working-class miners presented its own unique set of challenges. As Bishop notes, "this also forced an uneasy convergence between those for whom the repetition of events was traumatic, and those for whom it was a stylized and sentimental invocation," as it exposed the ongoing class struggles in the area, as well as the ongoing tensions between the government and miners. She also asserts "...it is hard to reduce The Battle of Orgreave to a simple message or social function (be this therapy or counterpropaganda), because the visual and dramatic character of the event was constitutively contradictory."
The event inspired a feature-length film in 2001 by Mike Figgis, who implicated the conflict in his indictment of the Thatcher government, which had targeted the mining industry and trade unions.
Participatory performance - Orgreave, Yorkshire
Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)
This work, comprised of a mountain of colorfully wrapped candies, was meant as an allegorical representation of Gonzalez-Torres's lover Ross Laycock who passed away due to AIDS-related complications. When first installed, the total weight of the pile of candy was 175 pounds, which was Laycock's ideal pre-illness body weight. Visitors were encouraged to touch, and even take, pieces of candy, and the gradual dwindling of the pile represented Laycock's decreasing weight as his illness progressed. Gonzalez-Torres stipulated that the future owner of the work had to occasionally replenish the pile, thereby granting symbolic eternal life to Laycock.
While this work may appear to be merely a sculptural installation, it depends on viewer participation (taking and consuming the candy) for meaning to be fully realized. The artist explained, "I need the public to complete my work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in." By implicating the object and the viewer in a relationship of togetherness, the artist sought to break "the pleasure of representation... the pleasure of the flawless narrative." Gonzalez-Torres thus engages in Relational Aesthetics in this work, by prioritizing use over contemplation, as well as by engaging viewers in a highly politicized experience. He explained that "the most successful of all political moves are ones that don't appear to be 'political.'" This idea is clearly exemplified by this work, in which viewers begin by engaging in the casual, pleasant activity of consuming candy, only to then become aware of the work's sobering representation of a body gradually approaching death.
Candies individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane - Art Institute of Chicago