Situationists as Vanishing Point

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my article,The Paradigms of Nicolas Bourriaud: Situationists as Vanishing Point” in the current issue of Evental Aesthetics.

It was great to work with the journal’s editorial board–their thoughtful commentary was some of the most dedicated peer-review that I’ve yet encountered.

My article was inspired in part by a show curated by Nicolas Bourriaud at the Palais des Beaux-Arts that I’ve written about here. I grew fascinated by the ever-morphing aesthetic paradigms that Bourriaud has created for his publications and his exhibitions over the past several decades in order to characterize contemporary art.

My article follows the trajectory of Bourriaud’s paradigm production, suggesting that much of it is based on a process of updating and back-dating some of the key concepts that the Situationist International set forward in their eponymous collective journal. I propose that Bourriaud’s formalism-as-theory is far better understood as descriptive of his own creative project than as a framework for contemporary artistic practices.

The abstract of my piece is here, and the PDF here.

An excerpt from the article:

What Bourriaud presents in Relational Aesthetics is considered one of the defining aesthetic debates of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  In Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Bishop writes that Bourriaud’s book helped “render discursive and dialogic projects more amenable to museums and galleries,” and indeed, Bourriaud launched the careers of many artists who have since been the subjects of museum retrospectives and scholarly publications.[5]  Taught in contemporary art seminars worldwide, often juxtaposed with its rejoinders, Relational Aesthetics has contributed to the institutionalization of participatory art in the form of MFA programs and artists’ prizes, and provoked “a more critically informed discussion” of the practice.[6]

Given such canonization of relational aesthetics and relational art, this article argues that it is crucial to examine the origins, composition and implications of these concepts.  Relational aesthetics must be contextualized alongside the paradigms, neologisms and vocabularies that Bourriaud has subsequently developed for the discourse surrounding contemporary artistic creation.  Readers and viewers of Bourriaud’s work should understand that regardless of the artists he situates in these evolving, interrelated, conceptual frameworks, he is his own best and most prototypical aesthetic “service provider.”  He views his paradigms as creative interventions – “theoretical tools” and “kick starts” for art makers, viewers and philosophers.[7]  If what Bourriaud calls his “theory of form” is now serving in an art historical context, it is essential to situate his publications in a historical discursive tradition, and to understand the tradition in which Bourriaud would situate himself.[8]

Full article as PDF here, and as HTML here.

The Angel of History

Here, four Dürer etchings from the catalogue of a show I saw this summer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris…

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from "The Apocalypse," of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from “The Apocalypse,” of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

These engravings were part of a portfolio that belonged to collector Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). They were badly damaged along with other precious artworks and art objects in a fire occasioned by the Parisian communards in May 1871.

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from "The Apocalypse," 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from “The Apocalypse,” 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

The exhibition these damaged engravings were a part of was called “The Angel of History.”   Its curator-in-chief was Nicolas Bourriaud, of “relational art” fame. Bourriaud is currently director of the École des Beaux Arts.

Bourriaud’s newest art conceptual gambit is “the ruin.” The contemporary artists he assembled (among them, Haris Epaminonda, Rashid Johnson, Walead Beshty, Jospehine Meckseper) were, in his view, like Benjaminian angels of history, picking their way through fragmented piles of the past and forming new artistic narratives out of rubble.

Dürer’s singed Biblical images were on the exhibition’s second floor, amongst other artworks and objects from the Beaux-Arts archives and collections. There were models of Greek and Roman ruins, Romantic-era watercolors and sketches of ruins and photographs of destroyed buildings dating from the Franco-Prussian War and World War One.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

It was moving and naughtily satisfying to look at damaged art, I admit. However, the interest of these engravings went beyond iconoclasm or pathos.

Blackened by revolutionary fire, each of these engravings was the kind of doubly-determined “dialectical image” that Walter Benjamin wrote about in “On the Concept of History.” Like all artworks, they tell a visual story, but they are also material culture. These engravings testify to the era in which they were created as well as the era in which they were damaged.

A pity, then, that Bourriaud and his team didn’t create a space for viewers to ask how their own reception in 2013 might constitute a further testimony of these engravings–can we see the present or the future in these images as well as the near and distant past?

The exhibition missed its opportunity to work dialectically because it enclosed its early modern and contemporary artworks within the limited parameters of universality, atemporality and the picturesque instead of delving into socio-aesthetic and institutional context.

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from "The Passion," 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from “The Passion,” 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

“The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”  – Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History,” 1935