The Fall of Relational Aesthetics

Maurizio Cattelan is bringing the pope to the Guggenheim; Carsten Höller is setting up a sensory deprivation tank at the New Museum. Together, they are putting an embattled art term back into the spotlight

"Mini-Me" (1999) by Maurizio Cattelan. (Photo: Attilio Maranzano, courtesy the artist)

Occasionally exhibitions of contemporary art are eerily timely. Curatorial programs click into step with the zeitgeist, and notions that have been floating around in the air coalesce in concrete form, in a museum near you. Such will be the case in New York this fall, as the Guggenheim and the New Museum unveil retrospectives of two midcareer European artists who have never before had surveys in the U.S. The two are old friends and collaborators, and their concurrent shows are almost certain to provoke heated debates about the health and importance of contemporary art.

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Meet Italian prankster Maurizio Cattelan and Belgian mad scientist Carsten Höller.

First, some history. Mr. Cattelan, whose work will fill the Guggenheim as of Nov. 4, and Mr. Höller, who will take over the New Museum on Oct. 26, came to prominence in the mid-1990s, championed by macro-thinking French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who noticed that artists were engaging in unusual behavior in galleries and calling it art: Rirkrit Tiravanija was cooking Thai food, Vanessa Beecroft was posing groups of women to look like mannequins, and Philippe Parreno was organizing parties.

“For some years now,” Mr. Bourriaud wrote in a 1997 essay that has since become famous or infamous, depending on your perspective, “there has been an upsurge of convivial, user-friendly artistic projects, festive, collective and participatory, exploring the varied potential in the relationship to the other.” The curator dubbed this phenomenon relational aesthetics.

Very quickly, the artists whom Mr. Bourriaud and a handful of other curators identified became a potent force, appearing regularly at museums in Europe and at international exhibitions. “They created the most influential stylistic strain to emerge in art since the early ’70s,” New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote when, in 2008, the Guggenheim presented “theanyspacewhatever,” a group show including many of the artists associated with relational aesthetics. By the time that show went up, that “stylistic strain” had become known to many simply by the acronymic shorthand “RA.”

“The goal of ‘relational aesthetics’ is less to overthrow the museum than to turn it upside down, wreaking temporary havoc with its conventions and the visitor’s expectations of awe-inspiring objects by revered masters,” Times critic Roberta Smith wrote on the occasion of that exhibition. “The larger point is to resensitize people to their everyday surroundings and, moreover, to one another in a time when so much—technology, stress, shopping—conspires against human connection.”

From the beginning, Mr. Bourriaud had ascribed potentially positive societal effects to relational aesthetics. “Art is like an angelic program, a set of tasks carried out beside or beneath the real economic system,” he argued floridly in one essay. In another, oft-quoted passage he sounded almost like a community organizer: “It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbors in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows.”

But there was a darkness embedded within the relational aesthetics program, and it was perhaps best exemplified by Messrs. Cattelan and Höller. In its preview for Mr. Cattelan’s upcoming Guggenheim show, in Time Out New York Howard Halle described the artist as the “bad boy of relational aesthetics,” succinctly capturing the reputation he has acquired over the years, one that has distanced him from his RA compatriots. A furniture designer who leapt to art in the early 1990s, the artist has generally favored provocative, realistic sculptures—the pope felled by a meteorite, two cops standing on their heads, a collector’s grandmother shoved in a refrigerator—over the open-ended situations that Mr. Bourriaud claimed to favor.

On the rare occasions that Mr. Cattelan has involved relationships in his work, however tangentially, they have tended toward the antisocial, the exploitative and even the criminal—always done with a wink. In 1995, he required his Paris gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin to dress as a giant pink penis, with rabbit ears, for the duration of his exhibition. The next year, he burglarized an Amsterdam gallery to acquire work for his own show, and in 1997, for another show with Perrotin, he produced exact copies of the work that Mr. Höller was showing at the neighboring Air de Paris gallery.

Mr. Cattelan is also the most commercially successful member of the group that Mr. Bourriaud defined. During the recession in 2009, The Economist noted that the artist’s prices were rising. A kneeling sculpture of Hitler traded hands for £10 million (or about $16 million at the time), which ranks Mr. Cattelan among the world’s most expensive living artists. Unsurprisingly, he is a canny promoter of his own work, limiting supply and almost always debuting only one work at a time, typically in a museum.

“The way he has always showed his work—one piece at a time—resisted the very idea of a survey, which we liked quite a lot,” Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, the proprietors of Triple Candie, a Harlem-based nonprofit that closed last year, told The Observer in an email.

Though the Guggenheim is rightly billing its show as the first official retrospective of Mr. Cattelan’s work, Triple Candie actually staged its own Cattelan retrospective in 2009 without the artist’s permission, as it has done for other artists, like David Hammons and Cady Noland. (Mr. Cattelan is represented in New York by Marian Goodman Gallery.)

“We prized the humor, the craft, his staging of individual pieces, his daring,” Ms. Bancroft and Mr. Nesbett said. “But we also had difficulty with his material success, his celebrity and the übersociety he is a part of.”

Triple Candie’s retrospective was, in other words, intended as more than a simple critique. “Our show, which brought together a large sampling of his work for the first time, provided gallery viewers an educational opportunity while at the same time undermining the will of the artist,” the Triple Candie proprietors explained. Instead of borrowing artworks, they photocopied images of Mr. Cattelan’s exhibitions and created “surrogates that stood in for absent sculptures but which looked only marginally like the originals,” crafting a thorough overview of the artist’s career. Essentially, they pulled a Maurizio Cattelan on Maurizio Cattelan.

Triple Candie called its exhibition “Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead: Life & Work, 1960-2009,” since, in the depths of the recession, it seemed unthinkable that another artist would achieve so much so quickly. They explained, “Obviously, Maurizio wasn’t dead; but, at least it seemed at the time, his example was.”

Mr. Cattelan visited Triple Candie’s exhibition, and promptly suggested to the Athens, Greece-based Deste Foundation—the foundation of Dakis Joannou, one of the world’s most ambitious contemporary art collectors, who has major holdings of Mr. Cattelan’s work—that it acquire the entire display, which it did. “In 2010, Deste flew us to Athens to install it there, in a room of mirrors, specially selected by Cattelan himself,” the Triple Candie gallerists explained—a coda that would be almost impossible to believe about any other artist. Mr. Cattelan manages to subsume just about anything into his art.

In contrast to Mr. Cattelan’s work, which engages viewers with shock and controversy, Mr. Höller’s has indulged interactivity to an almost comical degree and disoriented viewers with crafty inventions and bizarre interventions in museum practice.

Jerry Saltz’s review of the Guggenheim’s RA show back in 2008 featured a photo of the critic, in the Guggenheim rotunda, reclining in a bed (with black satin sheets) that Mr. Höller made available for rent in the museum for few hundred dollars a night. Every night sold out for the run of the three-month exhibition.

A former scientist who specialized in the communications systems of insects, Mr. Höller has produced technically advanced works that ground users in their own private experiences, cutting them off from easy association with others. He has designed a pill to simulate love and glasses that flip the world upside down. At the New Museum’s show, there will be one of the artist’s trademark Psycho Tanks, a sensory deprivation pool that renders participants weightless, and a mirrored carousel that provides surreal, fractured fun-house rides.

These two epic museum shows arrive at a moment of intense skepticism about the thesis of relational aesthetics and the potential of interactive, socially based work in general.

Consider “Fear Eats the Soul,” the recent show by Rirkrit Tiravanija—perhaps the group’s most visible exponent—at Gavin Brown’s enterprise. The artist removed the doors and windows from a section of the gallery, built a modestly sized T-shirt shop and established a soup kitchen in a side room. Mr. Brown took to parking his Volvo station wagon inside the nearly vacant show. One day two young artists hopped in and, finding the dealer’s keys inside, took it for a short short ride.

“We didn’t know much about the show beyond the usual ‘do as you please’ side,” one of the artists claimed later, after posting images from their joyride onto critic Jerry Saltz’s Facebook profile. “The absence of authority made it feel so fresh.”

Mr. Brown was not pleased. In the comment section of an article that Mr. Saltz wrote about the affair on New York’s site, he wrote to the artists, “I quote you as you exited the car: ‘We thought it was part of the interactivity.’—Is this Disney?” People responded to Mr. Brown and discussed the state of RA. Most were critical. The comments section of the magazine’s website briefly became the battleground for a fierce fight over an art term that until then had seemed relatively innocuous. One anonymous writer described the car theft as “a trendy stab at wishful critical significance, a desperate search for frisson within the smug, rotting corpse of RA.”

“When I looked on the Internet, people were quite unself-consciously referring to the term RA,” Mr. Brown told The Observer over the phone last week. “I had to stop for a moment and figure out what RA was.” The phrase, he said, “provides people a way to not actually look. It’s a catch-all for a generation of humans who are alienated from day-to-day experience. You give them a pill they can swallow and suddenly they can experience things.”

Mr. Brown noted that Mr. Tiravanija was hosting his cooking exhibitions—along with other work—well before Mr. Bourriaud coined the term, and recalled that, when the artist hosted meals in 1992 at 303 Gallery “there was surprise at the ease with which one could–excuse the pun–digest his work.

For Mr. Brown, no theory was necessary to understand Mr. Tiravanija’s work. “There was a sense somehow that this had taken all of the modernist ideas of radicality and turned them upside down,” he said, “and that perhaps the world had changed without us knowing it, and that appealed to us.”

Times critic Ken Johnson slammed Mr. Tiravanija’s recent exhibition. “All of this would appear less self-congratulatory if the show delivered on its promise of full disclosure by, say, revealing the social and financial machinations by which Mr. Tiravanija and Mr. Brown have achieved their considerable success in the international art world,” he declared. “Or if the soup kitchen were kept permanently open to serve the truly needy.”

Mr. Johnson’s criticism is not the type of complaint one would levy at a painting, but it points to the fact that, 15 years after it was coined, the term RA has perhaps saddled the art it purports to group together with unrealistic or inappropriate expectations. Ms. Smith may have put it best in her 2008 review of “theanyspacewhatever” when she wrote that “the claims by these artists and advocates that their work can help heal human relations and create a sense of community, any more than any other art does, are hard to prove.”

In this month’s Artforum, critic John Kelsey goes further, proclaiming that artist Bjarne Melgaard’s installation at the Venice Biennale, which Mr. Melgaard and his collaborators, students from a nearby university, filled with references to H.I.V.—which is spread through bodily contact—“can be seen as a brutally kitsch catastrophe of relational aesthetics.” Mr. Kelsey noted, “The press release insisted that art could never change anything.”

Like Fauvism, Cubism and the names of many other art movements, RA is a label that was applied to artists by a writer, not a name those artists came up with to describe their work, or one that they’ve ever really embraced. Maybe it’s time to rethink the term; maybe it’s time to discard it. This fall, you can decide for yourself.

The Fall of Relational Aesthetics