Fine art is around us.
For those of you who might not know, I’m currently completing my BA in Communication Science degree. It hasn’t been an easy road.
With all my modules, I try as hard as I can to bring whatever I learn into and relate it my own context.
2016, first semester, I had to deal with an art modules that didn’t make sense, and a question is asked about what relational aesthetics means and how it can close the gap between ‘fine art’ and ‘popular visual culture. I’m releasing this piece for the culture (I hate that phrase) because it is important. More now than ever…
‘Art is the place that produces a specific sociability.’ – Nicolas Bourriaud.
There has been constant arguments and efforts since the 60s to narrow the gap between ‘fine art’ and visual culture in society. With the burning question, I will be critically engaging, evaluating and discussing curator and art theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud’s highly acclaimed ‘Relational Aesthetics’ theory which reveals the success and failures in this regard. But to simply define what rational aesthetics is, it is the theory and also a practice of artists who make interactive, inclusive and an open-ended art piece that makes the general public involved in the work, and not merely just “view” with an opaque opinion of the art piece that is exhibited. Bourriaud’s theory created a widespread interest – which can be relatable within the South African contemporary art context as well.
Regarding the success of Bourriaud’s successes of relational aesthetics theory, there are ample examples of how many [contemporary] artists have applied it to their art works. Much like in the 90s art era, Rirtkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled exhibitions were the living examples of how this rationale is, and was, truly successful. Tiravanija organises Thai soup for dinner and leaves ingredients at a collector’s home, makes installations where the general public can make food in his kitchen and take breaks in his lounge. For more context and understanding, relational art sets up situations in which viewers are not just addressed as a collective or social entity, but are actually given the opportunity and a chance to fully engage and create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be (Bishop 2004:54).
The 90s contemporary art heavyweights such as the likes of Vanessa Beecroft and Rirtkrit Tiravanija’s work is very reminiscent of that of the South African performance art duo FAKA, namely Thato Ramaise (Fela Gucci) and Buyani Duma (Desire Marea) – which explores the alternative expressions of black queer identity in South Africa, using lo-fi aesthetics, costume designs and textured wigs to communicate their art pieces. Their social media platforms are used to expand their reach for other black queer bodies to voice their stories and experiences, as well as to support fellow black South Africans who relate and identify with FAKA to promote their identities in the much intense socio-political climate of our country. While doing so, they’ve redefined their own theory called ‘Siyakaka Feminism’.
Their art includes performances at art galleries and exhibitions around Johannesburg, and even expanding their performances to Europe. Using YouTube to document and manifest projects of their experience through dance and original written music.
This opens up a dialogue that is important to the South African youth – are their identities being heard and represented in the contemporary art scene or mainstream media? Bourriaud also suggests that we ask the following questions: “does this work permit me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist, and how, in the space it defines?” (RA, p. 109)
FAKA defines their art themes as ‘godliness, being in empathetic, allegorical existence.’
Bourriaud (RA, p14) also argues that art of the 1990s takes its theoretical horizon “the realm of human interactions within its’ social context, rather than the assentation of independent and private symbolic space”, which brings me to the next point that speaks about 90s art not being about ‘the style, theme or iconography’, but for Bourriaud, it was about the fact of operating within the sphere of inter-human relations. (Ibidi, p43).
There is one problem that arises with this theory, that it is exacerbated by the fact that relational art works are an outgrowth of installation art, a form that has from its inception solicited the literal presence of the viewer (Bishop 2004:63). Another problem that arises herein with Bourriaud’s notion of “structure”, according to Bishop (2004:64) is that it has an erratic relationship to the work’s ostensible subject matter, or content. For example, do we value the fact that Surrealist objects recycle outmoded commodities—or the fact that their imagery and disconcerting juxtapositions explore the unconscious desires and anxieties of their makers?
In the society we live in, which is capitalistic in its essence, relational aesthetics is a social exchange that disengages from capitalistic exchange – and at the heart of it all, it – how is the form of relational art relate to or opposes the commodity or the value form. What also follows is an attempt to draw attention to profound limitations in Bourriaud’s conception of art as a form of social exchange, and thereby explain why it is so helplessly reversible into an aestheticisation of capitalist exchange. But it is also an attempt to reconstruct the idea of relational aesthetics by rethinking it within a dialectical conception of art and its commodification. (Stewart 2007:371)
FAKA is purely for artistic freedom and expression, but is the art within itself a self-enriching art or is it social exchange? It is a question we constantly ask ourselves for artists who use relational aesthetics or base their work on the concept of it. Which brings the subject matter to the next point of Karl Marx’s account of commodification, a dialectic of subject and object – i.e., ‘person’ and ‘things’. We can also discern a struggle of subjection or subjugation in commodification and, by extension, in art. The ambivalence of the term ‘subject’ condenses this struggle and its stakes. The subjectivity of humanity is de-subjectified or subjected to the subjectivity of capital; the commodity form subjects labour to the self-valorisation of capital – capital’s autonomous or subject-like self-determination. (Stewart 200:327)
While dealing with the issue at hand, there is a clear link between relational art between then in the 90s and how it is still transcending through the 2010s contemporary art space. There is also the dominant economic model of globalisation which perpetuates the profound limitations of Nicolas Bourriaud’s conception of art as a social exchange and the aestheticisation of capitalistic exchange.
Do leave your comment below about your thoughts on your understanding of this, about South African art and let’s engage in dialogue.