Welcome to the Relationship Museum

An artist invites viewers to a gallery exhibition, where he cooks and feeds them satay skewers and spring rolls. Another artist invites participants to stake wishes and prayers to a wooden beam in his living room. In both cases, relationships are being produced...
November 10th, 2006

What if we could put American President George Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Cuba's Fidel Castro, and Mexico's Vicente Fox, all in one room—and set them around a foozball table? Would they laugh? Would they get mad? Would Castro spin the little "foozball men" on the foozball table around as quickly as he could in a sadistic, but successful, attempt to aggravate Bush? What if we could end all the world's problems with foozball?

This is what Marizio Cattelan attempted in 1991. He lined up eleven members of an Italian soccer team to play against eleven members of his own made-up team, A. C. Forniture Sud (A. C. Furniture Supplies) consisting of Senegalese immigrants who had suffered racism in Italy. A major influx of North African immigrants into Italy in the early 20th century had created racial tensions in a country which, to that point, had been largely homogenous. Since no specific laws existed to control the situation, racism flourished. Cattelan came up with a solution: get men from both sides to line up along a specially designed, extra-long foozball table, and let them face off. And so Cattelan had the men play and, while he didn't technically create world peace in this performance piece he titled Stadium, he did set up a work of art that goes far beyond gallery walls: the idea of the relationship as the work of art itself.

Artists as manufacturers of relationships

This is but one example of an emerging theory which, while still a quaint and little discussed idea in the slick art world of galleries and museums, has intriguing ramifications for how Christians—inside and outside the art world—are called to live. "Art," Nicolas Bourriaud says in his influential book, Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses du reel, 2002), "is an activity consisting in producing relationships with the world with the help of signs, forms, actions and objects." Traditionally, this relationship consisted of the connection between a sculpture or painting, and the viewer. For instance, if you found yourself in front of a Picasso painting in a gallery or museum, you began a process of relating to the work of art. You reacted, consciously or unconsciously, to its colours, composition, and shapes. You may have attempted to decipher the imagery by grouping shapes, or to discern meaning by reading the title, or by searching for clues in the description. As you did this, information was transferred—a dialogue, of a sort, was begun between you and the painting, or perhaps the artist. Relational aesthetics turns this notion on its head. The artist, in this view, is the manufacturer of those relationships.

Take, for example, a unique installation—a performance piece—from my own New York City neighborhood. Artist John Silvis held an exhibition at an alternative art space called "Pole Position." In a Brooklyn loft space, Matt Anderson and Kris Badetscher, artists themselves, have created their own gallery surrounding one of the 8" x 8" x 11' structural beams in the center of their living room. They then began holding regular openings and parties to showcase local artists—often leading the exhibitors to more shows in commercial galleries. John Silvis, being a designated Pole Position artist, invited the audience to write their wishes for the new year of 2006 on a card and attach it to what he dubbed the "Wishing Pole." He would then take a Polaroid of the person and pray for them (right there, on the spot) and their wish. The piece relied on the relationship created by John with the participant. Secondary relationships were formed when viewers interacted with each other—pointing out their wish or Polaroid or discussing someone else's. It was fascinating to read the types of wishes people posted. Aside from the occasional witticism or joke, the majority expressed seemingly sincere desires for peace, success and loving relationships.

Or, take the work of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. He has, on multiple occasions, introduced a relationship and dialogue with viewers by cooking a traditional Thai meal for the audience. Beginning with a 1992 exhibit at 303 gallery, Untitled (Free), viewers attending one of his exhibitions would often be bewildered to find him cooking and orchestrating the production of various traditional Thai dishes for them to eat. The audience was invited to both observe the art-making process and to participate, by eating the product. Participants were literally fed with his artwork. I found myself at the opening of his installation at the Vienna Secession Gallery where I was treated to satay skewers, and spring rolls. The crowd was predominately made up of knowing individuals, but also included some passers-by from the general public. The result was that Tiravanija met a basic, essential, need of the audience by feeding them. This action was the foundation for expanded dialogues about the art process, the gallery setting, his heritage, and the culture of the particular audience.

Bundles of relationships, on walls or forks

How does this apply to those of us who aren't artists? Bourriaud says, "Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum." Here is the significance for us. If everything I do as a Christian stems from my relationship to Jesus Christ, and my life is a Christian is about relating to others as an ambassador of His love, then creating and maintaining relationships is central to being a Christian. The Christian life is intimately tied to the idea of creating relationships that give rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum for the glory of God.

Artists make stuff. That stuff is art. Art is relationship. Artists, therefore, make relationships. Relational aesthetics is, basically, a theory of art as human relationships. It is, in Bourriaud's words, "judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt." Relational aesthetics is very similar to what the Bible tells us we are supposed to do anyway. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes that a key role of the Christian is to have relationships—to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and protect the widow.

In the Old Testament, it is God himself who is the model for our relationships. "He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10:18, ESV). References to caring for the weak and poor in the Old Testament consistently show God setting the example for His people. "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this" (Deuteronomy 24:18, ESV). God provided for the Israelites and used His example as the motivation for how they were to relate to each other.

Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus himself is our primary example. In nearly every account of His life, He is creating and developing relationships with other people. Elsewhere in the New Testament we are urged us to actively participate in people's lives. James writes, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction" (James 1:27, ESV). This is not a passive description of religion, by God's standard. It is actively taking part in other people's lives that makes for true religion. It is not only finding out what people in your environment need, but taking steps to meet those needs.

You are an artist

Relational artwork in an exhibition is strikingly similar to a church service. The artwork exists without our help, but it is only given shape or made real when it introduces a relationship—when it is exhibited somewhere, such as a gallery space, a museum, or a living room. The church is a regular occurring exhibition of our relationships—to God and each other. Truly, it isn't the only place relationships happen for Christians, but it is a significant one. Rituals unfold and signs, forms, actions, and objects bring the congregation closer to God and direct them to honour Christ's desire that we all become one in Him. Indeed, this was His prayer for all believers, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:20-21, ESV).

What is striking about Nicholas Bourriaud's definition of this new state of contemporary art is that it can be applied to us as well. In some sense all Christians are to be artists. You are an artist. Your relationships are your artwork. Create art—in all its forms—for the glory of God.

Topics: Arts Religion
 

Wayne Adams is a Brooklyn-based artist who received his B.F.A. from Calvin College and M.F.A. from Washington University in St. Louis in 2000. Adams has exhibited throughout the Midwest, New York and Vienna, Austria. Recent shows include, "The Strange Place," Alogon Gallery, Chicago, IL (2008); "Really?" New York Center for Art and Media Studies, NYC (2007); "Pole Position," Brooklyn, NY (2006).

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