Relational Art: Then and Now
Several months ago I wandered down the hill from where I work to have lunch at Artspace, one of Sydney’s key venues for progressive contemporary art. Unusually, this was not to mark an occasion in the program or even for a collegial catchup, but an unconventional exercise in art making. I took my seat at a small table in the middle of the gallery—a space in which eating is typically circumscribed—and enjoyed a meal from the local Thai takeout among the jostling objects and videos, in the company of a complete stranger.
This action, repeated by other visitors over the course of the exhibition ‘Art as a Verb’ (2014–15), contributed to the collective realisation of Untitled (lunch box) (1998) by the Argentinean born, New York based artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is widely known for staging convivial gatherings based around food preparation and consumption as works of art. Tiravanija’s works in this vein are closely aligned with ‘relational aesthetics’, a phrase coined by the French curator Nicholas Bourriaud in his 1998 book of the same name, which marked an early and influential attempt to conceptualise the type of art that emerged with force during the nineties: participatory, socially engaged and open ended.
Bourriaud’s argument framed “the realm of human interactions and its social context” as the new horizon for art, extending the function of the artwork beyond representation to the modelling of new forms of action and exchange in the world at large.(14) The generation of artists he looked to—from Tiravanija to Liam Gillick and Vanessa Beecroft—produced situations first and foremost, rather than objects, although material often remained an important element in their work. In his observations, he acknowledged the influence of earlier movements like Fluxus, which prioritised dynamic encounters, chance and the imbrication of art and life. But ultimately Bourriaud diagnosed a seismic shift in practice— away from the affected picture making of the 1980s—as one aspect of the “broader cultural ascension of ‘interactivity’” encouraged by the emergence of a globalised service economy and new technologies, including the Internet.(25–26)