Whatever happened to relational aesthetics? Theorized by Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s, the term designated the open-ended art works that proliferated in Europe throughout that decade. Concerned with human interaction and the contingencies of everyday life, these convivial and frequently collaborative works broke with such modernist tropes as the discrete object, the artist’s signature and the idea of radicality. Their aim, according to Bourriaud, was not to change the world, but to inhabit it in a better way – by stitching social bonds back together.
By the early 2000s, however, relational art increasingly started to come under fire. Emblematic projects such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup kitchens were variously criticized for catering exclusively to the cultural elite, for perpetuating the status quo and for policing common space – criticisms that came to a head on the occasion of the 2008–09 Guggenheim retrospective ‘theanyspacewhatever’. As for the artists, they apparently tired of collective projects and have been going their separate ways. The major solo exhibitions by former relational aesthetics practitioners Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno taking place simultaneously in Paris – at the Centre Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo, respectively – comprise both old and new works, highlighting the breaks and continuities in their output as a whole.
Bringing together 50-odd projects spanning more than 20 years, Huyghe’s compelling Pompidou retrospective dwells on a number of recurring themes. His interest in what he has called ‘reflexive time’ or ‘time for self-realization’ (as opposed to ‘mandatory’ activities such as work or sleep), led him to found the pivotal Situationist-inspired L'Association des Temps Libérés (The Association of Freed Time) in 1995, which explored notions of unproductive time and a society without work. Four years later, Le Procès du temps libre (Free Time on Trial) illustrated these concepts with an assortment of documents ranging from Paul Lafargue’s seminal book Le Droit à la paresse (The Right to be Lazy, 1883) to a found poster of a naked young woman lying meditatively in the grass. Elsewhere, the fragmented parallel narratives in The Host and the Cloud (2010) materialized Jacques Lacan’s concept of the split, decentred subject, while the French psychoanalyst’s theorization of the interdependence of the real, symbolic and imaginary registers are evoked by neon tubes on the ceiling bent into the shape of Borromean rings in RSI, un bout de réel (RSI, A Piece of the Real, 2006). This is the very same figure traced over and over again by an ice-skater on a rink installed in the retrospective’s main space in L'Expédition scintillante, Acte 3 (The Scintillating Expedition, Act 3, 2002) / Untitled (Black Ice Stage) (2013).
In addition to clarifying the dense web of interconnections that bind Huyghe’s pieces together, the Pompidou exhibition also provides insight into the artist’s working methods, most notably his practice of scoring or scripting real-life events or situations to generate ever new configurations. In the film Streamside Day (2003), for instance, Huyghe invented, organized and staged a celebration for a newly built town in New York State, complete with a parade, a concert and a public speech, which the inhabitants modify and reconfigure year after year. As the art historian Patricia Falguières has pointed out, rather than the role of auteur, Huyghe privileges the unending conversation of collective speech, subject to continual renegotiation.
The orchestration of life – whether human, plant or animal – was also the theme of Untilled (2011–12) the teeming environment he created for dOCUMENTA(13). At the Pompidou, the film A Way in Untilled (2012) affords round-the-clock views of the original work, while its principal elements have also come back to haunt the show: Human, the dog with the painted pink leg, roams the space while Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) (Reclining Nude, 2012), a statue with an active beehive on its head, reclines in an enclosed area beyond the museum walls. At the Pompidou, the bees and the dog co-habit with a spider, a stream of ants issuing from a hole in one of the walls and a variety of bizarre sea creatures housed in carefully designed aquariums, one of which features a hermit crab residing in a replica of Constantin Brancusi’s 1910 Sleeping Muse (titled Zoodram 4, 2011). Together, these creatures offer an ongoing spectacle that extends beyond the museum’s opening times as well as its spatial limits. Portraying a world evolving in the absence of humans and at its own pace and rhythm, Huyghe’s exhibition echoes the critique of anthropocentrism inherent in such branches of contemporary philosophy as speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. In particular, the autonomous reality it generates defies the participative modus operandi of relational aesthetics. As opposed to a retrospective in the conventional sense, Huyghe’s show looks forward rather than back.
‘Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World’, Parreno’s exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, challenges yet another tenet of relational aesthetics: as opposed to Bourriaud’s homely micro-utopias, it offers a giant spectacle of light, music, sound and image more reminiscent of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. The show consists of a series of automated tableaux driven by the score of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1910–11) played on Disklavier pianos connected to computers. Visitors are guided from one tableau to the next by means of a succession of sonic and visual effects. Ever since ‘Il Tempo del Postino’, the stage production and group show he co-curated in 2007 with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Parreno has been expanding on the idea of the exhibition as a sequence of ever-changing timed events.
Yet despite its spectacular proportions and the occasional descent into cliché – as exemplified by the lingering close-up shots of a newborn baby’s face (Anna, 1993) – Parreno’s show offers many surprisingly intimate moments; for example, the gesture of including works by Liam Gillick and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, artists who were also part of the 1990s scene. No less moving were Parreno’s evocations of such figures as Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Exploring the divide between presence and absence, How Can We Know the Dancer from the Dance? (2012) consists of an empty circular podium traversed by the ghostly footsteps of Cunningham’s dancers, which Parreno recorded using under- floor microphones in their New York studio. An even more explicit homage, this time to both Cage and Cunningham, is concealed behind Gonzalez-Foerster’s La Bibliothèque clandestine (The Secret Bookcase, 2013): namely, Parreno’s re-enactment of an exhibition of Cage’s drawings that took place at the Margarete Roeder Gallery, New York, in 2002. Every day, using chance operations, the staff at the Palais replaces one of Cage’s drawings with one of Cunningham’s, in such a way that this section will gradually become a show of Cunningham’s work. The pair’s enduring creative partnership was also an oblique reference to Parreno’s own past – to the ongoing friendships, conversations and inspirational cross-disciplinary practices on which the ’90s scene was based. The key to that time, Parreno seems to suggest, lay neither in relational aesthetics, nor in such oft-quoted 1970s precedents as Tom Marioni’s beer salons or John Armleder’s tea-drinking sessions, but further back, in the confrontations and exchanges between the different arts initiated at Black Mountain College in the early 1950s by Cage.
Questions of lineage aside, the main thrust of Parreno’s show lies in its equally insightful exploration of the shifting nature of contemporary reality. Tino Sehgal’s Ann Lee (2011), an ongoing performance taking place throughout the duration of the exhibition, features young girls acting the part of the Manga character purchased by Huyghe and Parreno in 1999. Echoing the story of Petrushka, a puppet who developed human emotions, the performance bridges the divide between the virtual and the real. Other pieces evoke man’s ongoing obsession with the simulation of reality: in counterpoint to the video The Writer (2007), in which an 18th-century automaton haltingly wrote out words with a pen, a modern-day robot in another part of the space is deftly reproducing the handwriting of the artist himself (ModifiedDynamicPrimitivesforJoiningMovementSequences, 2013). Eeriest of all however, is Parreno’s film Marilyn (2012), which uses biometric identifiers to bring the film star to life. A camera surveys the suite in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that she occupied in the 1950s, reconstituting her gaze. Meanwhile a robot re-creates the loops and curves of her handwriting and a computer imitates her voice, which can be heard meticulously describing the furnishings of the suite. Marilyn’s almost palpable presence testifies to technology’s near-perfect capability to simulate life, while suggesting that it might one day take our place.
Huyghe’s and Parreno’s exhibitions are altogether different: one teems with life, the other is haunted by spectres and automatons. Yet they both question the role and place of the human species at the start of the third millennium. Such investigations might seem a far cry from the optimistic sociality with which their authors were associated in the 1990s, but then labels always omit far more than they include.