A Brief Intro to Relational Aesthetics

Vanessa Beecroft - Vanessa Beecroft - "Untitled" (detail from a performance at the Van Abbemuseum in 1998). Sold for CHF7,500 via Piguet Hôtel des Ventes | Genève (Sept 2019).

What do art historians mean by the term Relational Aesthetics? The term was initially coined by the art critic, historian and curator, Nicolas Bourriaud when he curated a groundbreaking exhibition called Traffic at the CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux in 1996. Bourriaud had observed a trend, or tendency, in the art of the day, and he used Traffic to bring it to the world.

Relational Aesthetics or Relational Art – terms which are employed interchangeably – in its essence is creative practice that blurs, or even eliminates, the line that has historically divided the artist and their art from the audience.

Bourriaud’s Traffic exhibition included work by artists who have gone on to become some of the most successful contemporary artists practicing today. These include the likes of Vanessa Beecroft, Douglas Gordon, Maurizio Cattelan and Jason Rhoades. Following the success of the exhibition, Bourriaud went on to solidify the concept and term in his 1998 book, Relational Aesthetics (or Esthétique relationnelle). The book’s main conceit was that for too long, art had been evaluated on the basis of the object (the work created) and techniques used to create it, rather than its ability to encourage interaction and discussion. He felt the execution of a piece – color, technique, form – was often more highly regarded than its impact on the viewer and how they relate to it. One might say that Bourriaud wanted to critique how art was critiqued.

Bourriaud believes that social change can be facilitated through an artistic medium. His argument is that art should serve a social function: it should help viewers to understand, share, interact and participate with other people, not just with the art. He has been proven correct as art has become ever more centred around social interactions, immersive exhibitions, and inviting viewers to participate in the works.

Relational Art and its Microtopias

Maurizio Cattelan - Cerniere.

Maurizio Cattelan – Cerniere. Auction passed via Art-Rite (Sept 2022).

The key takeaway from Relational Aesthetics is that it provides a platform and space for artists to communicate and interact with their viewers by creating more sensory, experiential and participatory events and installations. Bourriaud referred to “microtopias” – that is “arenas of exchange” between artist and audience. Viewers and their interactions with the work no only contribute to the work, rather they constitute what is considered the artwork: both artist and the work they create serve as a catalyst to creating the final artistic output. In its thesis was the theory that an artist’s role should be to create idealized but realistic moments and environments, instead of producing subjective realities that can exist only in the imagination. Bourriaud said of the exhibits he chose to show in Traffic, “[the artworks exhibited] 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.” 

The Roots of Relational Aesthetics

Relational artists have, by and large, eschewed traditional or conventional art forms like painting. Instead, they opt to engage their audiences through situational experiences. These have origins in the modern art movements, including Dada (a modernist art movement with roots arguably in performance), Conceptual art, Fluxus and Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings.” These experiences can demand a variety of interactions, inputs or actions from viewers, and can range from interpersonal interactions, creating social situations and community-centric thinking.

What’s Curry Got to do With It?

Rirkrit’s work “is fundamentally about bringing people together.”

Curator, Rochelle Steiner

This exhibit is arguably the most cited in terms of Relational art examples. It was 1992 and the art dealer and galleries, Gavin Brown, helped the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to transform the 303 Gallery into a fully operational kitchen, in which he cooked Thai curry that was to provide the catalyst for people to become participants in the work. His work – part performance art, part installation – is simply known as Untitled (Free). Globalization/digitization

To start, Tiravanija moved the contents of the storeroom and gallery office to the exhibition space, making an exhibit of the “business of art”. He then set up the back rooms with tables and chairs for people to sit and partake in a free curry, while entering into discourse – and it was generating discourse among a diverse group of people that was the aim of the work.

Critics Divided on Relational Aesthetics

Maurizio Cattelan - Untitled.

Maurizio Cattelan – Untitled, 2001. Sold for $2,023,500 via Christie’s
(Nov 2004).

As with anything new, Relational Aesthetics was been met with criticism, most notably from art scholar Claire Bishop. Bishop argued that if the aim of works like Tiravanija’s was to expand art to a wider group and encourage political dialogue that breaks down societal boundaries, then such works fail because their exposure would most likely be limited to people within pre-existing socio-economic bubbles. 

You shouldn’t need to be a critic or expert to be able to glean value from the experiences presented by the adherents of Relational Art. And whether you feel positively about it or not, it would be difficult to argue against the cultural influence that experiential exhibits, public installations and artists who, like Marcel Duchamp in 1917, make us call into question the very nature and purpose of art have had.  Artists like Tiravanija help audiences to “step out of their habitual roles as observers and become participants” (MoMA) on a physical level, something ever more needed in 2022.