In 1998 a french art critique, historian and curator Nicholas Bourriaude coined the term “Relational Aesthetics” in his book of the same name, where he defined it “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” (Tate). The goal of most relational aesthetics art was to use social and economic context as a medium, drawing attention to relationships that are normally invisible to the public sphere. Relational art created a lot of ambiguity between art and non art, since most projects tend to break the traditional social space of the art gallery, and the viewer experience of the constructed social experience becomes the art (notes).
Rasheed Araeen is known for creating immersive environments in his work, and allowing multilateral network of relationships among his viewers. For Documenta 14 in Athens 2017, Araeen created “Food for Thought: Thought for change”, where he built a shamiyaana-a traditional Pakistani wedding tent, designed with rich bright colors and playful geometric shapes he often incorporates in his work (Sharjahart). A wedding is a place where two families, two lives come together, and by choosing this particular structure, Araeen is communicating it’s a place that was meant to be filled with joy and new connections. Much like Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings”, some relational art is also participatory. Both aspire to sensitize the visitors to various kinds of surroundings and emotions, yet unlike in “Happenings” the physical interaction in participatory art is less scripted or constrained by instructions (Book p.806). Rasheed invited people to sit together and share a free meal with refugees, while reflecting on possible scenarios of social change (notes). The project’s location was meant to draw attention to the history of the public space, which serves as vital meeting point to the city’s immigrants. Aereen’s offering of hospitality creates an opportunenitc for visitors and existing community to merge into one, and consider the historical and present dynamic of the space.
Other Artists like Santiago Sierra took an antagonistic turn on relational art, curating intentional discomfort within the viewers by drawing attention to invisible social and economic relationships most of the museum spectators tend to ignore. Rather than creating an inviting environment for a community like Rasheed Araeen, Sierra consciously chooses to create confrontational moments, provoking thought about the exclusive community of the art world (notes). In fact Sierra almost goes out of his way to create very a difficult sight, or as some might claim-show how difficult the sight would’ve been if people spent more time looking.
In his complex piece “Line of Women Standing Facing a Blank Wall” displayed at the Tate, Sierra displayed a line of homeless women, who were paid the price of a night at a motel to stand still for an hour facing a blank brick wall (Tate shot). The name of the piece is a blunt description of the performance, as though the occurrence is nothing out of the ordinary. Not being able to see the faces of the participating women creates an active process of thinking about their identity, evoking conversation about their roll in the piece, or society. Sierra creates a dramatized comment about the obscurity in which these women might live. The fact he only paid them for one night at the hostel, and they are only performing for an hour after which they’ll disappear back into the streets, despite the strong emotions Sierras action evoke in a lot of the viewers, might be done in an attempt to emphasize the invisibility of the women. The controversy some of his pieces provoke, seem to be part of his initial intention. It makes the viewers wonder about labor and value, and the opposing forces of poverty and exclusivity of the art world.
At the time of cosmopolitanism, artists were looking to create a notion between “Archaism and assimilation” and what Rasheed Araeen called “Academism and modernism” (Book p.719). They created art based on engagement and human interactions that was able to take forms that “traditional” art couldn’t. Regardless of the approach different artist decided to take on, relational aesthetics actively created powerful conversations, stronger than any media network could ever provoke. Contemporary artists really succeeded in altering, or expending rather, the role of the artist. “There are ways in which artists can wield the world and make really amazing things happen, because they’re not just dependent upon the money that can be raised to generate a protest, the protest is in the work.” says Theaster Gates in his interview to Art 21 about the role of the artist. Based on a broad range of art-historical references, there are no recognizable black “old masters” we are taught about. European art history is co dominant, yet sadly there is barely, if any representation of black figures. As a response to art history’s privileged exclusive canon, many African American artists born during the Civil Rights Movement, that witnessed or experienced growing up during that time, chose to reference their history and culture in their work.
One of the most notable artists engaging with the problem is Kerry James Marshall. According to him, the principles that guide visual representations today, are still the same as they were 500 years ago (Art 21). The ever expending history is still based on things that have been established for ages, and were never questioned until artists like Marshall himself entered the scene.
Marshall bases his work off of very specific parameters upon which art operated for decades. He positions his work in relation to the classical principles of history paintings, while incorporating normalization of black culture, and deconstructing privilege (notes). These principals are particularly evident in “School of Beauty School of Culture” he made in 2012. As suggested in the title, the image represents more than just a beauty salon (BMA). Marshall strives to take a subject that is under represented and normalize it’s presence, by placing it in an ordinary environment. His compositions tend to be very complex yet mesmerizing, creating sort of ambiguity that encourages the viewers to ask questions and find connections. Like in most of his paintings, Marshall strategically places clues, almost equivalent to iconography used in classical paintings, about the statement he’s trying to make. Some have cultural references, like the colors in the windows representing the pan African flag, while others were placed to connect African Americans with Western artistic traditions. The skewed “card board” cut out of blond-hair, blue-eyed head of the sleeping beauty comments on the ideal of beauty to many Americans. In the cultural environment Marshall created, this image however is completely out of place (MBA).
Another signature feature Marshall includes in all his work is the pure exaggerated black paint used for the figures. He doesn’t mix it with any other paint, using it as a rhetorical device, to empower blackness, and show it for what it is in the western culture. In the late spring of 2014, Kara Walker created a massive sugar coated women figure, shaped into a sphinx, inside the old industrial space of Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. She called the piece “A Subtlety” in reference to the days of the French monarchy, when the used to serve small sugar figurines as a dessert at the kings table. The use of sugar is a statement regarding imperialism and slavery (art 21). The fact that the creation is also cite specific, contributes to the historic references Walker is trying to communicate. The sphinx shape creates associations with ancient slavery of Egypt, bringing another level of complexity to her work.
The physical features of the figure are extremely exaggerated, similarly to Marshall’s exaggerated black skin tone, representing the recognizable features associated with black women throughout history, and even unfortunately until this very day. However, the dimensions of her work, granting the figure almost heroic proportions. Walker is known for her confrontational sexual depictions of black history, where she combines reality and metaphor to communicate her ideas to modern society.
Once the audience in art galleries and museums will be able to see images like Kerry James Marshall’s and Kara Walker’s as “normalized” images, we will be able to get past the notion of separating between “black” and “white” art, which is the ultimate goal of artists like them seeing how history can’t be changed-but our future can. When it comes to contemporary art, many people have a hard time enjoying it, understanding it or even simply appreciating it. After this past semester, it seems that those emotions sometimes triggered by contemporary art, are most likely due a certain obliviousness, and embodied expectations to what art should be, which is everything contemporary art isn’t. It was set to challenge the principles the used to guide visual representation for the past thousands of years. The art pieces emerging out of the last 50 years are so diverse and hard to constrain within generic visual characteristics.
Starting with the 1960’s pop art and minimalism, which successfully managed to create a notion between fine art and mundane aspects of our everyday life. Artists like Carl Andre submerged in the industrial process and materials, eliminating traditional emotional content from his work. In his series “Equivalent” made out of 120 fire bricks, Andre created multiple compositions of the same height, mass and volume positioned in different ways. The characteristics of every unit, and it’s arranging and position within a specific space, formed the substance of his work. At a first glance to the naked eye it seems nothing more than a pile of bricks, yet Andre created a bold statement that was heavily questioned by the art world in the 60’s. It gave a stage to a new way of perceiving the museums space, art, and our surroundings in general. It was the beginning of the reconsideration of art’s place and purpose in the world.
Moving forward into the 1970’s, more artists began experimenting with new formats creating works that exposed connections between money, art and politics. The art world was governed by powerful individuals who were associated with wealth and often even played a significant role in the city or the country (Hans Haacke). The movements ambition was to make art politically and socially useful, by turning against the bodies that nurtured it. Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll (1970) consisted of a sign, two transparent boxes, a photoelectric counting device and a set of ballot papers installed at the Museum of Modern Art. Hacke asked a question about the politics of Nelson Rockefeller, who’s family was associated with MoMa, and it was the last time for about 16 years that he was invited to a show there, demonstrating what is not permitted in certain institutions. At that point it was more than clear that contemporary art was about more than crafting something beautiful or pleasing to the eye, it was about showcasing the dramatic social political, and further down the road even technological changes that were rising for the past 50 years.
Not much further down the road, came identity politics in the 1980’s. This powerful movement used their art to critique the ongoing oppression that was mainly based on race, gender and sexuality. The movement refused to hide behind galleries and abstraction, bringing important subjects to the front and center of the public eye, and encouraging discussion of the issues. Felix Gonzales Torres decided to openly respond to the uprising concern of the AIDS epidemic, during a time when President Ronald Reagan notoriously never even used the word “AIDS” because of it’s direct association with homosexuality. “Untitled” (billboard of an empty bed) made in 1991, is a mesmerizing appearance of white sheets, empty pillows and intimacy, on the background of a colorful city, and the colossal size, force the viewer to almost confront the reality of loss. The use of billboard almost immediately creates an association of a grand commercial, but rather it’s a loud wake-up call. Contemporary art in the 80’s finally found it’s voice. It spoke loudly about profound social problems, opening the viewer’s eyes to uprising global issues.
Even though contemporary art rejected almost every established visual code and the process of making art, it created a safe space for diversity, and rediscovered the ability of art to communicate in so many different meaningful ways. Contemporary art took art beyond commodity, and initiated a process of open discussion about our history, present and the world around us as a whole. It might not necessarily make everyone fall in-love with contemporary art, but it surely must communicate the significance carried upon it’s shoulders, to our past, present and more importantly – our future.