I’ve always liked Isms. A hundred years ago there seemed to be lots of them. Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism… in the early twentieth century hardly five years seemed to go by without the arrival of a new Ism. But in recent years, I had noticed a terrible dearth of ‘isms.’ Artists, I was told by many curators, were now too individualistic to fit into the old-fashioned, Modernist ‘grand narrative’ of the ‘ism’, aka the collective movement in art. I never agreed with that point-of-view, since I think human beings are always part of shared historical and social forces, artistically and politically.
So imagine how excited I was in 2002, when I picked up a copy of Nicholas Bourriaud’s book “Relational Aesthetics”! Today Nicholas Bourriaud’s text (first published in 1998) is the best-known art theory book of the last ten years, and on the reading list of virtually every art school course in the world. In it, Bourriaud outlined a new ‘relational’ theory of art, in which the viewer interacted with and formed part of the art work. Bourriaud claimed that a handful of international artists were creating art according to this new theory – Liam Gillick, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Rikrit Tiravanija, Philip Parreno, Carsten Hoeller, Angela Bullock and others – and he organised a few group exhibitions of these artists works in the late nineties. It all sounded like a new Ism.I had a few questions about Bourriaud’s book, It was written in quite a complicated French way, so I wanted to talk to him about it. I wondered how the artists felt about being placed in a group together, and how ‘relational’ they considered themselves. So I decide to make a film about it. I had no idea how controversial this subject would be. Some artists seemed to be embarrassed by the thought of belonging to any group, and many denied they were relational. Liam Gillick slammed the phone down on me and told people I was dangerous. And there were a couple of other curators with competing names for this new movement such as ‘Art For Networks.’ Still Nicholas Bourriaud and Rikrit Tiravanija were very helpful, and convinced me that a new ‘Ism’ really had come into existence.So what is a relational work of art? One is Gonzalez Torres’ neat rectangle of boiled sweets, in silvery wrappers (you are free to take one and eat it), laid out of the floor of a international museum of contemporary art; another is Carsten Höller’s wall of violently-strobing light bulbs that fill your entire field of vision; a third is Liam Gillick’s sheet of mauve Perspex hanging just above your head, and entitled “Discussion Platform”; a fourth is Tiravanija’s Thai meal cooked for forty people attending a cool NY opening.
In the years since I have made this film, there have been more and more relational works of art. Relational artists have had retrospectives at the Serpentine (Tiravanija), won the Turner prize (Jeremy Deller), decorated the new Home Office building (Gillick) and filled the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern (Olafur Eliasson). Nicholas Bourriaud, meanwhile, moved on, and invented another ‘ism’ at the 2009 Tate Triennial – ‘altermodern(ism)’. Let’s see if it catches on.