The Relational Aesthetics of Leisure
Pool floaties, half-read novels and condensation pearls on your ice-cold tinnie. As we hurtled into summer on a metaphorical pool slide, artist-run gallery Fontanelle wet our boardies during the month of September with Leisure, a reflection on the ‘various ways and places we spend our downtime’. Curated by Lara Merrington, the exhibition featured a mix of established and emerging artists, including Adelaide artists Meg Wilson, Henry Jock Walker, Aida Azin and Luke Wilcox, Melbournian Chris Dolman and Belgian photographer Maxime Delvaux. Replete with live performance, Fontanelle’s back gallery buzzed during opening night, an epitome of the ‘experimental art laboratory’ of Relational Aesthetics.
Theorised by curator Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1998 text, artworks aligned with Relational Aesthetics use social relationships as their primary medium. The aesthetic quality of the works is judged on the positivity of the relationships produced or the livability of the ‘world’ the work creates (1). The majority of works shown in Leisure arose from performative processes subsequently petrified into tangible objects.
The first work encountered was Dolman’s miniature ceramic diorama of what appeared to be the leftovers of a lazy Sunday afternoon, titled All in a daze work. Cigarettes and an excess of beer bottles lay strewn around a chair (the chair was supported by a cinder block, of course). It brought to mind the irreverent celebration of working-class Australian culture of the Skangaroovian funk ceramicists of the sixties and seventies (2). Dolman’s earthenware sat atop an orange and white plinth which visually linked the work with Walker’s A Surfing Painting hung on the adjacent wall. The surface of the painting was densely layered, with lines of fluoro orange finding form against a scrubbed backdrop of earthier tones. The painting appeared weathered, with the texture of sandblasted stone. This made sense once you understood Walker’s process: A Surfing Painting was created whilst the artist was riding a wave. Walker held the canvas in his mouth while paddling and, once balanced, grabbed the canvas and squeezed paint onto the surface from a tube taped to his wrist (3). Water droplets and inevitable submersion added elements of chance. The painting was a document of the symbiotic romp between artist and sea.
Leisure was representational for Dolman, but it was methodology for Walker. These works modelled ‘possible universes’, spaces where the artist and viewer can seek respite from the stresses of modern society (4). Nicolas Bourriaud asserts that it is not the artist’s duty to continue the avant-garde project of inspiring revolution, but rather to provide pragmatic ‘ways of living and models of action within the existing real’ (5). Neither Dolman’s nor Walker’s pieces are a critique of the politics of leisure, instead they evoke ‘micro-utopias’ created for one’s own enjoyment: the quiet respite of a beer on the couch, or a world where surfing, play and fine art are one and the same.
In the far corner of the gallery were remnants of Wilson’s opening night performance The pleisure is all mine. Wilson had worked at a table, quietly and fastidiously constructing a leisure suit out of vibrant orange fabric using her vintage sewing machine and a sixties Butterick pattern (with flares). She sat on a plastic green-fabric-topped stool and sipped a martini with olives. A kitschy Starburst clock ticked above her.
Bourriaud discusses the ‘ambiguity’ which awaits the viewer of a Relational work, especially one which objectifies the artist and puts the audience into the position of the voyeur, ‘keeping the beholder at a distance’ (6). Indeed Wilson’s demeanour was so peaceful that though the audience was welcome to engage with the artist, it felt disruptive, as she seemed enraptured in her task. There was a sense of the private made public in her performance, of time-travelling back fifty years and peering through the window of a housewife relaxedly sewing. After the performance the suit hung on the wall adjacent to the clock, the stool and martini glass abandoned on the floor, the olive shriveled on its toothpick. It was as if Samantha Stephens had wiggled her nose and ‘bewitched’ herself away into the ether.
It is pertinent that the realm of social relations are the most recently affected by the Capitalist commodification of life. This objectification has become even more acute since Bourriaud penned his text; as we are now only worth as much as the number of Likes on our last Instagram selfie. In the age of social media, friendships and social bonds have been turned into ‘standardised artefacts’, (7) quantifiable and available as data and the source of profit for advertisers and platform shareholders. By objectifying herself, Wilson called into question the general reification of what was once private.
Aida Azin’s warm painting of a beach scene hung on the far wall. Pastel salmon and turquoise on un-stretched canvas, Hotel California radiated tranquility, making use of minimal marks to depict a beach chair and a palm tree on a far off island. Azin’s paintings have been described as reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s train-of-thought paintings, hurried marks, loose figures and scratchy text (8). There was room to leisurely breathe in this painting, counteracting the perplexity of Wilson’s performative assemblage. Like Dolman and Walker’s pieces, Hotel California presented the image of a utopia which one may be inspired to momentarily reside within, or later, create.
Delvaux’s training in architectural photography was evident in his photographic print, picturing droves of Europeans sunning their luminescent bodies on the rocky outcrops at Sautadais Falls in France (9). Site was key in the composition; the people appeared as one with their environment, like barnacles suctioned to the rubbery blue skin of a whale. The photograph comes from a series of Delvaux’s aptly titled Leisure, a project ‘about how people deal with leisure, the various facilities and implantation it implies as well as the relationships that can be built between people and this particular kind of place’. Here, Delvaux’s conceptual focus is similar to that of Relational artist Liam Gillick, who’s work considers the way architectural space affects and facilitates social interactions within consumer society. Like Gillick, Delvaux’s Leisure examines the social aspect of spaces, however in this instance his focus is on the respite from the rat-race, not quasi-critical imitation. Sautadais Falls was neither a landscape nor a portrait, but documentation detailing the mediating role environment plays on human affective states and sociality.
The pinnacle of the exhibition’s feel-good celebration of leisure was found in Wilcox’s video work Dance with me vol. 1-9. The work featured the artist, a tall, lanky man getting his groove on in his living room to a range of songs with lyrical content equivalent to the phrase ‘dance like there’s nobody watching'’. These included Taylor Swift’s Shake it off, Hermitude’s Speak of the Devil and Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s song for every person who has commitments but just wants to party, Telephone. Wilcox aimed to provide a safe place for self-expression by being a ‘dance partner on demand’ (11). In conjunction with the video, Wilcox invited guests to a live experience at an undisclosed location, titled On September 27, we’ll dance until we can’t anymore, or until they kick us out, whichever happens first. I’ll get us in, you get yourself home; on the stated evening Wilcox took participants to a nightclub for a night of unashamed dancing. Together these works tapped into Bourriaud’s definition of the ideal form of art—with their theoretical and formal constructs framed within human relations and their social context, they provided a ‘tangible model of sociability’ (12). Bourriaud presents works such this as a political project, because they make the commodification of sociality an issue and aim to reverse it through activities that foster positive social relations (13).
The sentiment of Wilcox’s Dance with me was thoroughly well-intentioned, however came across as somewhat unaware that no matter how lovably goofy, the image of a white man gleefully dancing is not an inviting image to all. Wilcox’s work may have created a space for self-expression, but one only accessible to the type of people that frequent contemporary art galleries: fellow artists, twenty-something hipsters and the culture vultures of the leisure class. The image presented an uncomfortable relationship to his privileged gendered and racial status, evoking connotations of unshared celebration. Claire Bishop’s critique of Relational Aesthetics is relevant here, when she asked ‘If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?’ (14)
Bourriaud’s artistic ‘microtopias’ routinely fail to live up to his political claims because the projects inevitably attract an educated arts elite as their audience and thus the essential harmony of the projects are predicated on the exclusion of ‘the Other’. Bishop states that for art to be truly democratic and politically effective it must include those economically and culturally alienated from the art world (15). Wilcox has achieved this by engaging the general public in previous manifestations of his dancing projects, demonstrating that perhaps work that escapes the gallery and familiar art scene are the only way to ever actualise Bourriaud’s hyperbolic political claims for Relational artworks.
The works in Leisure straddled the boundary between action and object. Relational Aesthetics reverberated throughout the exhibition and provided a pertinent example of the complexities and complications of Bourriaud’s ideas. The performative works presented an intersubjective moment between artist and accomplice, crystallised into matter, while the object-based works presented options, ideas and worlds to step into. Conjuring Edens out of small, everyday pleasures, Leisure created a space of respite where we could be present again, with ourselves and others.