With the constant development of technology comes the expansion of communication and one’s freedom and possibilities in terms of expressing their creativity. However, since creativity can be so versatilely defined, after so long we have started to run out of things to suddenly deem “art”. Relational aesthetics was born as a response to the issue and is the latest step in the process of turning everything into art.
The term was first introduced by internationally-renowned curator Nicholas Bourriaud in his 1998 book of the same name. According to Bourriaud, relational art encompasses “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” In simpler terms, the true meaning of relational aesthetics does not lay in the artwork itself, but in the process, how the participating spectator and the artist reenact every-day social relationships that model aspects of global interactions as a whole.
In his project named Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), American installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres offers a specific aesthetics of relations that can only be activated through viewers’ active participation. Viewers were encouraged to take away a piece from a large heap of candy, but also informed of the destruction of the work. By this way, the artist has cleverly implicated the sense of responsibility to his audience reflected by their action in relations to the physical artwork. Furthermore, Untitled is also considerably a representation of Gonzalez-Torres’ partner, an HIV-inflicted survivor, since 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 installation, as the they consume the candies, the meaning of the piece is generated. In other words, the viewers complete the work.
In his book Relational Aesthetics (1998), Nicholas Bourriaud objected the insistence that art should be separated from social, political and religious issues. He stressed:“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”, which broke relational aesthetics away from other art movements with the array of issues it can address. Relational aesthetics creates a social circumstance in which the viewers experience of the constructed social environment that becomes the art.
Relational aesthetics is experimental and the artworks are experiments created by artists who become a conduit of a social event. The realization of the concept is explored through a variety of extraordinary methods.
Rikrit Tiravanija cooked Thai food for his audience in the middle of an art exhibition, Lee Mingwei sat down to have dinner with his viewers, Victoria Bradbury supplanted the viewer’s face onto the soon-to-be-beheaded blue boar, all aimed to create art in interaction, “it is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people,” according to Tiravanija. Although 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.