Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two Examples of Relational Art: Tino Sehgal vs. Marina Abramovic

Tino Sehgal's piece "This is progress" at Guggenheim was something of a disappointment for me: it did not seem a successful example of socially engaged art. The work belongs to the realm of what Nicolas Bourriaud calls "relational aesthetic": its meaning should be elaborated in a collective effort, through the encounters between the artwork and the viewers. Claire Bishop's famous criticism of the work of several artists supported by Bourriard (e.g., Rirkrit Tiravanija) raises the question of the character and the quality of the inter-subjective relationships that arise in such socially engaged artworks – the issues essentially ignored by Bourriaud. Bishop's concern in her response to Bourriard's texts is the possibility of formulating aesthetic criteria for judging socially engaged art. According to Bourriard, relational artwork is automatically capable of producing positive human relationships by means of its "social form", which immediately makes it political and emancipatory. But is it really so? Bishop argues that the mere social structure of an artwork encouraging inter-subjective interaction often leads to trivial, self-satisfied art, which circumvents truly political issues. Bishop suggests that for relational art to be successful, it should "provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one other". Such grounds for Bishop are political issues: social inequality, exploitation, etc (e.g., Thomas Hirschhorn's work).

I think it is fair to ask questions about the character and the quality of the inter-subjective interactions with regards to Sehgal's piece. What kind of the relationship is produced between the viewers and the performers of the piece? What is the meaning of the question that opens the piece ("What is progress?"), who asks it and why is it being asked? What are the roles of the artist, the performers and the viewers? How are they structured and why?

Sehgal's piece seems to be a good example of the relational art in which the "social form" is the end in itself: the piece is deemed socially engaged and successful because it provokes a conversation between the viewer and the performers of the piece. The whole structure of the piece is aimed at prompting such conversation regardless of its content and of the motives of the participants, and without much concern for creating a meaningful relationship between the interlocutors, in the absence of which the conversation is unlikely to be anything deeper than the accidental exchange of truisms between two commuters on a train. Although the conversation is seemingly open (the only limitation is the theme: What is progress?), the piece itself is curiously over-determined: its beginning and end are two fixed positions between which the viewer is guided with relentless determination and the encounters are strictly codified in almost all the details: the age and the social status of each successive interlocutor, the amount of time allocated to each episode, the rigid system of transitions, the impersonal character of the conversation, the business-like efficiency of the ending. The very favorable review of the piece by Holland Cotter, characteristically, contains a slightly disconcerted remark: "I was about to press on with this when Bob stopped and said gently, as if on cue, "The piece is called "This Progress,' " and walked off." At the same time, despite the highly controlled structure of the piece, its meaning is extremely loose: everyone is invited to answer for themselves what progress is. As the case usually stands with such broad questions removed from any specific context, the answers are either random observations or vague generalizations. The starting point for the conversation might have being almost any other of the so-called profound questions – what is the nature of art? what is time? what does it mean to be a human being? – without making much difference for the functioning of the piece. Anyone can say anything because there is not much to say (or there is too much to say, which eventually amounts to the same thing).

In contrast to Bishop's position, I do not think that for the social art to be successful it necessarily must raise political questions. But I am, with her, interested in a productive discussion about the social art. An artwork should not be praised for a single reason that it provides a chance for communicating with other people and for experiencing yet another random encounter. Not all communication is meaningful and not any experience is worth having. As Gilles Deleuze remarked, “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation."

As opposed to Tino Sehgal’s show, Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at the MOMA left strong and lasting impression on me. Her current performance in the MOMA atrium is a very strong piece, emotionally charged and disturbing; undoubtedly it is also a feat of endurance. It establishes a very personal connection between the artist and those among the audience who choose to participate in the piece. The rest of the audience, although only spectators of the piece, are still conscious of the particular relationship developed between Marina and each of her successive co-performers. The piece is especially effective when considered it in the context of her work from the last few decades shown upstairs.

Seeing the documentations of so many of Abramovic’s historic performances in one show is an overwhelming experience: it makes one certain that she is among the greatest artists of the late 20th century. I am somewhat doubtful, however, about the use of the live actors in the re-enactments of several of her pieces. For me at least they looked the least interesting element in the show – mere illustrations of Marina's past work rather than actual living performances. The fact that these artists are seemingly anonymous and work in shifts only reinforces this impression. The important elements of a performance – the presence of the artist and his/her physical endurance, which create a bond between the artist and the audience – are totally lost. To make the reenactment element of the show more successful I think at the very least the performers' individual names and artistic backgrounds should have been made known to the public.


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