Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, London, was formerly director of the California College of the Arts (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, and was the founding chair of CCA’s graduate program in curatorial practice.
As an art term, relational is conventionally joined to the word aesthetics, following the coinage by the French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who first used it in an essay for the catalogue of the 1996 exhibition “Traffic” (CAPC musée d’art contemporain, Bordeaux, France) and then published a book titled Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics) in 1998. Bourriaud forged the concept of relational aesthetics in response to a diverse group of mainly European artists who emerged in the early 1990s and whose practices, as he noted in his book, “take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context.”1 Making reference to the work of Vanessa Beecroft, Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and others, Bourriaud elaborated a type of “soft” manifesto for art practices that aspired to make human relationships their primary focus while embodying a spirit of convivial sociality, a user-friendly bias, and participatory and collective dimensions.
A seminal and well-known work associated with relational aesthetics was first presented in 1992 by Tiravanija in his untitled debut exhibition at New York’s 303 Gallery. For the duration of the exhibition the artist cooked Thai food for visitors in a temporary kitchen installed in the gallery. Establishing a sense of hospitality as a key element of the genre, Tiravanija’s work was intended not as a soup kitchen for people needing a meal but as an atmospheric social lubricant meant to facilitate or encourage a sense of connection between visitors. In other words, the emphasis was not on the food or his cooking but on the relationships and dialogues that developed between those who took part in the event.
From early on, much “relational” work seemed tied to a similarly therapeutic agenda. Works placed in galleries often aimed to ameliorate the alienating effects of their institutional environments or to serve as sites conducive to promoting conversations between people. In contrast to historical precursors such as Tom Marioni’s artwork The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (1970), a good deal of this work also came equipped with elaborate theoretical armatures linked to aspirations for broad political change. In recent years somewhat utopian claims by Bourriaud and others regarding the social efficacy and relationship-building capacities of this work have come in for substantial criticism—not least because mainstream museums and galleries have been able to embrace this work in ways that reduce and simplify concepts of the social.
It is worth noting that the emergence of this “relational” genre may itself have been a response to the perceived failure of activist art and particularly the genre of institutional critique, which “failed” only in the sense that it too proved to be easily accommodated by establishment art institutions without necessitating any fundamental changes in their public structures and internal hierarchies. In contrast to artworks that directly criticized the politics of museums and galleries and their capitulation to, and collusion with, market forces, many of the artists associated with relational aesthetics sought a softer, more oblique means for altering the public character and offerings of such institutions. (That the genre developed in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union—a moment when advocates of capitalism were declaring its global triumph—is also significant in this regard.)
As “relational” work has evolved, it is possible to see a split between those artists whose work addresses visitors to galleries and typical art consumers and those who reach out to underserved populations or focus on reexamining neglected social histories. Much of the latter group draws on legacies of feminist, activist, and community-based art from the 1970s and 1980s that focused on instigating public dialogue, including some of the open-ended formats developed in those decades by relevant artists and artist collectives. Group Material’s Democracy project, carried out in New York between 1987 and 1990, articulated a participatory model that encompassed multimedia exhibitions, roundtable discussions, and town hall meetings addressing political and social issues. This kind of work in turn drew on projects from the 1960s that were broadly participatory in nature and sought to provide a place for social dialogue within art institutions, such as the exhibition “Poetry Must Be Made by All / Transform the World,” organized by Ronald Hunt and Pontus Hulten at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1969.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon, France: Presses du Réel, 2002), 113. ↩
“Poetry Must be Made by All / Transform the World,” organized by Ronald Hunt and Pontus Hulten at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, 1969.
Tom Marioni, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art, 1970.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, “Untitled (Free),” 1992. 303 Gallery, New York.
“Traffic,” curated by Nicolas Bourriaud at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, France, 1995.
Jeremy Deller, “Unconvention,” 1999. Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff, UK.
Thomas Hirschhorn, Musée Précaire Albinet, 2004. Aubervilliers, France.
Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, 2009–.
Tino Seghal, This Progress, 2010. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Group Material, “Democracy,” 1988–89. Dia Art Foundation, New York.