Sunday, October 26, 2008

Guggenheim's Brave New World: RA or MT?

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY, Oct 24 - Jan 7

Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija

organized by Nancy Spector

I have not yet seen the Guggenheim show on relational aesthetics (RA), due to the fact that the museum no longer maintains an aesthetic relationship with me. But who knows, I might drop by one of these days and actually view it.

Meanwhile, all accounts I have read or heard on what I prefer to call theanyaestheticwhatever show indicate that, in addition to being nominally RA, it also feels rather MT. Frank Lloyd Wright would probably not mind: by default this allows greater attention to be paid to his shell. But I do understand that you can have a cup of coffee there (no Thai curry this time - darn!), catch an old timey movie, sit in a padded, carpeted video lounge and watch interviews with the artists, or on various S-shaped red benches and listen to biographical factoids that are mnemonically intoned on Acoustiguide.

You can view (and even book a night in) a revolving hotel room under a domed skylight perpetually blanketed by a starry night sky. There is a drowned Pinnochio in the pond, lots of text stenciled on the floors and walls and even done up in free hanging black painted aluminum letters (like a pawnbroker sign). And as one leaves, there is a pile of small giveaway booklets filled with iron-on transfer images - of the museum itself.

Is this institutionally self reflexive or merely self regarding? Democratic and inclusive or cliquey and arrogant? Austere and pedagogic or just plain trivial? And having said all that, do I now even need to bother going?

An earlier version of this text was posted on Artworld Salon. My further commentary appears on the same thread.


This idea of laziness is stimulating, but not just in reference to RA as a “lazy term” or as subject to “lazy branding”. Rather in the very model of artistic practice encouraged by RA, a built-in posture of slackness or purposeful incompleteness, analogous to the folksinger who encourages the audience, halfway through the number, to “all join in”. We feel good after that rousing group rendition of “Kumbaya”, but might be reluctant to call it art. Or perhaps it does resonate as a form of “social sculpture”, after Beuys, who is the obvious precursor of RA, twenty years before Bourriaud’s treatise.

Not to be (too much of) a curmudgeon, but one of the cautions I bring to RA is that it requires audience participation to achieve wholeness. This is often seen as an essential strength, going beyond performance art to incorporate the viewer as an active agent. From this perspective, RA is open ended, democratic, interactive, unfinished. It conspicuously leaves a theoretical door ajar, an invitation to outside intervention.

But it can also suggest a certain sloth, with artists who are loath to commit to a final statement and execution, who happily fall back on halfway gestures, advancing only the suggestion of structure and situation, which must then be inhabited by the audience in order to fully connote. The international movable feast of RA requires the assent of an itinerant fan club, ready to travel from art capital to art capital, populate the installations and cheer.

It is interesting that the RA of the 1990s was contemporary with slacker movements in music and fashion, and that all were potentially influenced by bad economic times, when a pristine, finished product was not so essential, because it was not likely to be financially rewarded - so why not experiment in the realm of the incomplete, in hanging out and hanging on? Perhaps our current economic meltdown provides a particularly suitable climate for a reexamination of RA. Have the Guggenheim and Nancy Spector arrived at a prescient moment in the zeitgeist? theanyspacewhatever is years in the making. Back in fall 2004, when planning for the show began, the good times were still very much a-roll.

The press opening, which I did not experience, but which I imagine (like most media previews) was only sparsely populated, undoubtedly accentuated the emptiness of the installations. There were no crowds, none of the usual acolytes to add a frisson of artworld heat. No strength in numbers. Without this noise and activity, the work must have seemed thin, dry, half baked and lost in space.



Although I did not experience the Miereles piece, I enjoy your discussion of the added resonance some artwork can achieve by enlisting “unwitting participants”. My particular comment led you to the converse, that of “witting non-participation”, in which the artwork is experienced or actualized in a manner not originally intended by artist or institution.

It’s true that the chattering classes, those who do not necessarily attend an exhibition but are still able to understand it via received media coverage, are an expansion of the population that is “party” to the work. The dissemination of information online tends to enlarge this population exponentially.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that artist, institution and audience are best served by the traditional model, by the actual presence of bodies, brains and eyes to directly experience an exhibition. The basic fact, the physical presence of the spectator/participant, is obviously that much more vital in the realm of relational aesthetics.

On a practical, operational level, if the museum does not encourage direct access to the exhibition, or even somehow manages to obstruct same, it commits a great disservice and betrays a large part of its cultural mission. In the special case of media access, which has the potential to exponentially expand the population that is “party” to the work, as discussed above, the problem is aggravated.

Sadly, this is a problem for the Guggenheim, but not attributable to RA or MTness. Rather to NS. As in BetC.


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