Is This Art? You decide.
By Martyna Majewska
The auction season has ended and if you follow any art news websites you have probably got more reports about the successes and failures of the lots than you needed. Yet if there is one thing that does not really qualify for auctions and actually seldom lands in private hands is installation art. As hard to sell as they are, installations have been a strong presence both inside and outside institutions since they stormed the art world in the 1960s. Today nobody would dare question their status as works of art. However, this is questionable when it comes to installations that invite participation, or, “interactive art.”
Certainly, we could assume that today, that is, after Duchamp, anything goes, but it is clear that not everyone is willing to accept it. It’s been almost a century since the Fountain, and yet sculpture and painting are as commonly exhibited in contemporary art galleries as mixed-media installations and video art. If you look at what happens at Art Basel these days, it becomes clear that the paintings and sculptures are there to be purchased, whereas the installations scattered in and around the venue solicit active engagement in a bid to prevent the weary buyers from falling asleep. Indeed, Art Basel 2015 was a bit like a department store just before Christmas: the booths stood for boutiques and the installations analogised of all those glittered plastic sledges that kids can sit on to play with the elves.
Participatory practices are often associated with the term ‘relational aesthetics,’ coined by the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud. To put it succinctly, this term describes art understood as experience or as social exchange; it is the kind of art that makes room for human interaction and allows us to reflect upon it. To be sure, codifying and institutionalising this type of artistic practice was much needed, given that it was making its way into art galleries anyway. This is not to say that the idea ‘relational aesthetics’ is easily absorbed by the public. It’s not even that we’re so accustomed to conceptualising art as a physical object – after all Marina Abramovic’s sitting in a museum is widely accepted as an artistic act – but the problem is that, in practice, relational aesthetics can be used to claim that anything can pass as art. It gets especially irritating – at least to some – when applied to those quirky things celebrity artists do. Why is it art? Well, because relational aesthetics. Of course, the nice thing about relational aesthetics is that, by embracing the viewer’s participation, it makes the smug modernist critics like Michael Fried (who says good art exists independently of the beholder) look stupid. '
Let’s return to the interactive installations at Art Basel. They are useful because they demonstrate how wide the spectrum of participatory art can be. One one hand, we’ve got one of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cooking shows, on the other, there’s the ‘colour-field painting–turned–cocktail bar’ panel by the Brasilian collective Opavivará! Judging by the description alone, you would probably think the two installations are quite similar: they’re both about consumption (and, this time, it’s not the consumption of images). Yet I think they represent two contrasting takes on interactivity. Tiravanija invited architects and a chef to create a makeshift kitchen, where he not only gave out food to the Art Basel visitors, but also encouraged them to help to do the cooking and the washing up. This is not something many of those millionaire art buyers are used to be doing. Rarely do works of art prompt us to contemplate the importance of collaboration and of our position within our community, or to realise how artful the simple exchange of food can be. In that sense the installation changes perception through participation. Contrastingly, Opavivará!’s panel containing spirits for visitors to enjoy (yes, the nice colours are brought to you by Bailey’s, whisky, and limoncello) seems to be just an amusing way of serving cocktails to the demanding Art Basel clientele. Certainly, the installation requires you to take active participation, but your participatory act boils down to pouring yourself a glass. No surprise Opavivará!’s work was such a hit with the art-loving crowds.
Similar tension surrounding participatory art was felt at London’s Hayward Gallery during the Carsten Höller retrospective staged this summer. The title Decision nicely encapsulated what the exhibition was about: besides the choice between the two entrance ways at the beginning, the visitor was constantly asked to decide whether to participate or not. One of the “experiences” on offer was a ride on a gigantic slide, another test involved picking up one of the pills from a large pile and swallowing it without knowing the effect. The visitors were also encouraged to put on the Upside Down Goggles on the Hayward’s terrace, to enjoy a slightly different view of London’s skyline. It is as though the artist were trying to carry out, in the most literal sense, the defamiliarising function of art expressed by the formalist, Viktor Shklovsky: “Art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived.”
I’m not sure to what extent Höller’s retrospective renewed my perception but it definitely blurred the distinction between an art exhibition and a theme park. For one thing, the visitors were forced to queue to participate in each installation. The children were definitely having fun on the flying machine, but their parents were quick to observe that several of the exhibits, if we may call them thus, had been broken. When I was there, the Pill Clock’s mechanism wasn’t working: the pill wouldn’t drop from the ceiling. I felt like a child that wasn’t allowed on a rollercoaster. Queuing annoyed me too, but I was certainly less averse to the whole idea of treating Höller’s experiments as artworks than the Hyperallergic editor, who decided to demonstrate her opinion of the show by decorating the exhibition views with cat GIFs (http://hyperallergic.com/226637/9-thoughts-on-funhouse-art-now-with-cat-gifs/).
I agree with Rupert Hawksley, who reviewed the exhibition for The Telegraph, in that the most interesting work was actually the least participatory, the least astonishing, and the least expensive one. Twins consists of two rows of television sets showing faces speaking in different languages at the same time. Without forcing the spectator to put on magical glasses, lie down, or get into a metal tube, the simultaneity of the disparate screenings creates a disconcerting effect, and makes us acutely aware of the shortcomings of our own vision. Ironically, unlike other installations in the Hayward’s space, it didn’t attract huge crowds.
Evidently, to install Höller’s work during the high season was a wise decision on Ralph Rugoff’s part: it did bring in staggering numbers of visitors. It thus demonstrated that participation is exciting. Shows like Decision are a refreshing break from the often repetitive painting and sculpture exhibitions. To me, the exhibition proved that the most show-stopping, operatic installations may not be the most compelling ones, and the subtler pieces can engage our senses and thinking at a deeper level. Perhaps, when it comes to interactive installations, we will never be able to definitely state which ones are art and which ones are not. Art is probably one of the most elusive concepts known to man. It may be, then, that this kind of classificatory approach is beside the point. What counts is what we get out of the participation at stake. Instead of ‘Is this art?,’ we should be asking ‘What does it teach me?’.