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Philippe Parreno, ‘Marquee Guggenheim, NY’, 2008, acrylic, steel, LEDs incandescent, fluorescent, neon lights, installation view, Guggenheim, New York, 2008

When chief curator Nancy Spector entrusted the Guggenheim to ten artists representing relational aesthetics, no one could have suspected how prescient the result would seem in light of this fall’s economic meltdown. From early 1990s penury, the movement achieved the zenith suggested by a Guggenheim takeover, and suffered the same consequences as an inflated Wall Street: insolvency, despite years of interest.

The exhibition theanyspacewhatever is disjointed, alternately prim and unconsidered; it boldly leaves certain halls vacant without compensatory presence elsewhere; it gratifies the wit of some artists while understating the poetry of others; it is often cute. But if its flaws are not remarkable, this is: the incapacity of one of the most significant aesthetic developments in recent history to historicise itself viably.

‘Relational aesthetics’, a term conceived by Nicolas Bourriaud and developed in a book of the same name (Esthétique relationnelle, 1998), took root in a climate that recognised art as a ‘state of encounter’.

For the artists it designated, ‘each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world’, a micro-democracy caricatured as free Thai dinners (Rikrit Tiravanija) and novel office furnishings (Liam Gillick). Accordingly, theanyspacewhatever provides opportunities to remove shoes, watch movies, loiter and, for a select few, bed down in Carsten Höller’s ‘Rotating Hotel Room’, 2008, under the glinting LEDs of Angela Bulloch’s ‘Firmamental Night Sky: Oculus.12’, 2008. Philippe Parreno’s lily white ‘Marquee, Guggenheim, NY ’, 2008, twinkles above the entrance with the promise of good times, the idea of which is offered in abundance. One can get free coffee at Tiravanija and Douglas Gordon’s reprise of ‘Cinéma libérté’, or weave through Jorge Pardo’s Swiss-cheesed cardboard, chortling at the artist posters hung there, like Tiravanija’s ‘I Went to the Guggenheim and All I Got Was This Richard Print’. Good times, nonetheless, are not the great ambition of relational aesthetics as Bourriaud, or anyone else, put it. The title of the exhibition references a phrase by Gilles Deleuze (borrowed from French anthropologist Pascal Augé) for anonymous sites in which multiple perspectives might converge. The melancholic potential of this concept is refracted in an exhibition that seems to drift between real spaces of relation and illustrations of where relating used to occur. Pierre Huyghe’s thrice-enacted ‘OPENING’ is the most luminous instance of the former, in which the museum is lit only by spectator’s headlamps (echoing Duchamp’s flashlight-lit intervention in the International Surrealist Exhibition, 1936), and Pardo’s cardboard may be the gravest example of the latter, where notions of collaboration and ad hoc structures are perverted into a suffocating display of artist contacts.

Maurizio Cattalan, 'Daddy Daddy', 2008, steel, resin, painted and varnished finish, installation view, Guggenheim, New York, 2008 
Maurizio Cattalan, ‘Daddy Daddy’, 2008, steel, resin, painted and varnished finish, installation view, Guggenheim, New York, 2008

The title theanyspacewhatever also recalls Gillick’s ‘Literally No Place’, 2002, described by its author as ‘a text that sought to go beyond the stifling neoliberalism of the present… and to find ethical traces in the built world that surrounds us.’ Gillick assigns this motive to relational aesthetics itself, which, he writes, ‘outline[s] new approaches to addressing the suppression of meaningful exchange in a consensus culture.’ Given the glib depictions and wan praise this exhibition has incurred (Roberta Smith calls it a ‘romantic comedy on six levels in ‘Museum as Romantic Comedy’, New York Times, 2006), one can wonder: how do such complex motives produce work that shows so little resistance to simplification?

Gillick’s statement comes from a rebuttal published in October 115, 2006, in response to Claire Bishop’s polemic ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, published two years earlier in the same journal. Bishop probed the supposed progressive politics of relational aesthetics by scrutinising the ‘micro-democracies’ of Tiravanija and Gillick – and found them lacking the tension, or antagonism, critical to a democracy’s integrity (Bishop refers to the political theory of agonism discussed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso, 1985). Gillick responded by berating Bishop for shoddy fact-checking and insufficient command of the artists’ intentions. Their projects, he insists, do not merely illustrate but address themes like compromise, context and exchange. Bishop responded that her interest was in the ‘viewing experience’ of the work, and the political conditions it actualised—not those it propounded.

Liam Gillick, installation view, Guggenheim, New York, 2008 
Liam Gillick, installation view, Guggenheim, New York, 2008

The simplification that provoked Gillick was in fact an insight: in shifting the emphasis away from the artists’ intentions and toward the viewing experience, Bishop exposes the rift between ‘addressing the suppression of a meaningful exchange’ and indulging in ‘jocularity and frank talk’ (Jerry Saltz, ‘A Short History of Rikrit Tiravanija’, Art in America, February 1996). So why should the latter trump the former? In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud specifies that the ‘shared worlds’ created by these works are not utopias but practical structures—that is, not avant-garde propositions to merge art and life, but heuristics. Participation is required, usually accompanied by the thrill of transgression, as the decision to take part requires a departure from the self. (It may be that democracy itself is built on such transgressions.)

But the institutional authority of the Guggenheim has the effect of sanctioning participation, and thus nullifying any tension it once carried. Whether you remove your shoes or not will hardly affect your fellowship with the crowd; free coffee (Illy, of course) was never less thrilling. Served by uniformed museum staff, it rather has the effect of confirming the museum as a premier site for the luxury experience economy. ‘Today what the museum exhibits above all else is its own spectacle-value,’ writes Hal Foster (Design and Crime, Verso, 2002) and perhaps that is why the exhibition’s most engaging works are its performances, while the rest resembled hollow rehearsals.

Phillipe Parreno’s second contribution to the exhibition is an audio-guide that features world memory champion Boris Konrad reciting by rote ‘iconic projects’ of relational aesthetics. Behind this self-aggrandising inventory is the irony of recording a feat of memorisation on an audio-guide, wherein it becomes both banal and unverifiable. The Champion’s credibility lies with his reputation, and the hesitations and stammers that ‘prove’ his talent by illustrating his struggle. Also exhibited in a format that cannot accommodate it, theanyspacewhatever displays a kindred ungainliness.

Museums like the Guggenheim prepare movements for history, reifying them in the shape they take there. In this, there’s reason to doubt whether relational aesthetics will survive its canonisation as anything but anecdotes of free meals and bonhomie.

Joanna Fiduccia is a writer based in Paris