Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Reappraisal of Relational Aesthetics

In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud outlines a theory of contemporary art, paying particular attention to the ways that present-day artists break with the traditions of Modernism, or perhaps more accurately, adopt, shift, distort and transform the goals and ideas of modern art. As Bourriaud writes, “Social utopias have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies, any stance that is ‘directly’ critical of society is futile, if based on the illusion of a marginality that is nowadays impossible if not to say regressive” (31). Thus, art proceeds within the world of lived relationships and circumstances, creating new conditions –what he calls “relational devices” – out of the set of existing forms, objects and relations. It does this by taking up and transforming existing conditions and relations, such as those that persist in the art world: “The exploration of relations existing between, for instance, the artist and his/her gallery owner may determine forms and a project” (33). In such projects the art object, however immaterial it may be, now becomes “a relationship with the world rendered concrete by an object” (48).

In her two exhibitions “The Appraisal” at Steffany Martz Gallery and “The Reappraisal” (pictured above) at Winkleman Gallery, the first in 1999 and the second in 2009, artist and former Christie’s auction house employee Jennifer Dalton auctioned off objects from her home. In “The Appraisal” she had the possessions in her apartment valued by Christies and then sold some of them on Ebay, comparing the estimates from the former to the money obtained via the latter. Some of these works were her own paintings and sculptures, or those of friends, but the auction also included found furniture and household belongings.

In “The Reappraisal”, she made an inventory of every item in her home on index cards with photos, descriptions and initial bids based on their emotional value to Dalton, her husband and their four-year-old son. For the five weeks that the exhibition lasted – the materials in the gallery consisting of shelves full of multicolored index cards – visitors could bid on any and every object from Dalton’s home. Here, Dalton collapses not only the utilitarian value of an object and its aesthetic qualities – a manipulation at work in the readymade artworks of Marcel Duchamp – but she adds the additional economic wrinkle of translating emotional attachment into economic terms. In so doing she underlines the fundamental equality between the objects in her private home and those shown in an art gallery. As Bourriaud might write, both classes of objects are valuable as material records of immaterial relations between people, whether they be Dalton and her family and friends, or the gallery-goers who appraise and, in some cases, buy her belongings.

Dalton's installations and performances address some of the questions that were raised in our conversations in class tonight, about whether or not such events, situations and relations have some inherent value (whether we call it democracy or discussion, or something else), or if they need to be qualified by some additional criteria like those suggested in Claire Bishop's constructive criticisms of Bourriaud's work. Being in an art gallery certainly limited Dalton's audience: even though admission to the space is free there are certain cultural boundaries implicit in the gallery space, certain inherent values to the way art is presented that allow some people in and not others. That being said, Dalton's work also acknowledged its status as art that has the benefit of certain privileges based on differences of class, race, sexuality and gender. The work she presented, the life being appraised, was very clearly that of a middle-class white woman living in a suburban home with a husband and child. In making these cultural circumstances apparent, Dalton's "Reappraisal" at least acknowledged and addressed the problems of homogeneous spectatorship that Bourriaud's work tends to ignore, even if she didn't necessarily posit a solution to those issues – as if one existed!

Below is a more or less helpful video of the installation, with commentary that isn't always valuable but provides good context. There are also more images of Dalton's exhibition here.

- Ben Sutton

1 comment:

  1. Ben, thanks for integrating your comments on Dalton with some of the issues raised in last night's class (and so quickly!). You are right to say that Bishop's critique of Bourriaud needs to be understood not as a dismissal of the notion of "relational aesthetics" but as an attempt to rethink the nature or quality of the relations produced by (or through) an artwork. The questions you raise here are exactly the type of questions that should be asked, and that Bishop also asks. Not simply as a way of devaluing or belittling "relational aesthetics," but, rather, as a way to allow such a practice to achieve its true relevance or potential.