The phenomenon of “global art” emerged after a revision of the world’s relations. With the expansion of communication and technology, a new inter-connectivity was created throughout most of the globe. New media forms and aesthetic relations were born as a response to and embodiment of the cross-cultural interchanges and easy transmutations of national borders.
Currently, many artists are using their practice to probe the new relations of power in a global world by creating works that set in place certain social relations. In each piece, the participating spectator and the artist reenact every-day social relationships that model aspects of global interactions as a whole. In an attempt to describe this current in art, internationally-renowned curator Nicholas Bourriaud introduced the theory of relational aesthetics in his work Esthétique Relationelle (1998). His main claim is that the social interactions created between the viewing audience and a work of art hold the true meaning of art. Through “little gestures,” Bourriaud suggests, the “relational fabric” of society may be “re-stitched”(1).
Relational aesthetics draw from two other currents in contemporary art—Conceptual art and Installation art—the former, a projection of art as idea and the latter, an emphasis on art as experience. According to Bourriaud, relational aesthetics are a clear break from modernism (because its approach to art drastically opposes Clement Greenberg’s understanding of art as autonomous from other facets of life) and postmodernism (which rests on the idea that there is no set meaning in a work of art, because its interpretation is constantly changing). As a type of anti-modernism, Bourriaud’s theory addresses Greenberg’s insistence that art should remain separate from social, political, and religious issues. Bourriaud states, “Artistic practice is now focused on the sphere of inter-human relations…so the artist sets his sights more and more clearly on the relations that his work will create among his public, and on the invention of models of sociability” (1).
The American installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres offers a specific aesthetic of relations, as he is best known for awakening the visitor’s sense of engagement in social exchanges. Gonzalez-Torres imbues the piece Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) with both emotional sentiment and political poignancy that can be activated only through viewers’ active participation. His work invites viewers to take away a piece from a large heap of candy, thus implicating the taker in the destruction of the actual “work of art.” In this way, the artist “appealed to the visitor’s sense of responsibility,” (1) by forcing him or her to reflect upon his or her own hand in relation to the physical work. Furthermore, Untitled is a kind of symbolic stand-in for Gonzalez-Torres’ HIV-inflicted partner, because the 175 pounds of candy corresponds to his ideal weight. As each candy is removed, the weight of the pile decreases, representing the slow decline and eventual end of his partner’s life. The poetic metaphor is performed through the visitor’s interaction with the piece – as the viewer consumes what has been offered, the meaning of the piece is generated. In other words, the viewers complete the work. The artists, of course, sets the whole thing in motion, by creating the specific conditions or settings to “prompt” a certain kind of interaction.
In 2002, Claire Bishop published a response to Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics in October – “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” In her work, Bishop points out that Bourriaud fails to emphasize that the main purpose of relational aesthetics is not simply to produce social relationships and interactions, but to reflect upon society and critique it through the approach of disruption.
Relational antagonism, the revision of Bourriaud’s theory that Claire Bishop proposes, is exemplified by Blue Boar, a work by Victoria Bradbury soon to be featured in the New Media exhibition series at the New Britain Museum of American Art. The work is full of cultural and historical implication that are brought out in the tensions created between the viewer and the piece.
This mixed-media video installation presents the metaphorical manifestation of Bradbury’s 10th great-grandmother, who was prosecuted during the Salem Witch Trials. Bradbury explains:
“Three-hundred years of history are compressed in a one-minute loop of a woman eternally turning herself into a blue boar and trampling the flowers.”
Blue Boar works to superimpose the image and voice of Bradbury’s ancestral great-grandmother with the psyche of the viewer through video and electronic puppetry. By supplanting the viewer’s face onto the body of the boar using face recognition software, Bradbury casts the viewer into the role of the betrayed and wrongfully accused. Using the principles of relational antagonism, Bradbury is able to transport the viewer (a stranger to both her and her family history) into an absurd but true history. The theatrics of the trial are infused into the nerves of the viewer, as the projection of the head on the boar symbolizes the ultimate sentence of beheading. This implied beheading is meant to instill the viewer with emotions of frustration, helplessness, and vulnerability through a metaphorical yet real interaction. The social exchanges created in Blue Boar are more than just between media and viewer, but between the present and the past.
For Claire Bishop, this kind of rehashing of a historical account draws attention to the prosecution and tensions that are so inherently imbedded in the history of human relationships. For Bishop, the key aspect of relational aesthetics is its use of discord to foster relations between medium and viewer that illuminate a problematic feature of history or society. Bishop states that relational aesthetics should be “predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony”(2). As such, Bradbury is able to set up a relationship that is largely reactionary against social institutions rather than proposing a harmonious synchronicity. In working from the history of the Salem Witch Trials, Blue Boar is able to highlight the horrific accusations endured by Bradbury’s ancestor. The work calls attention to the absurdity of the accusers, who claimed to have seen her 10th great-grandmother physically turn into a blue boar. This action, however minor in today’s terms, has come to shape the lived history of both the Bradbury family and that of the accusers. In Blue Boar, Bradbury shares this determined fate with viewers, recreating the scene visually and mentally to place the innocent viewer in the shoes of her innocent grandmother.
Gonzalez-Torres and Bradbury are not the only artists working within the idiom of relational aesthetics. While the theoretical understanding of what it means to make an relational work is still being debated, it is undeniable that relational art has shaped, and will continue to transform how artists create and how viewers seek meaning in art. Be sure to experience Victoria Bradbury’s Blue Boar on display from October 15, 2011-January 29, 2012!
How do you interact with art? Do you find relational aesthetics important or significant? How would you react to either of these installations?
(1) Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (les presses du réel: 2002)
(2) Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, Fall 2004