Rene — NU-E — Bridging the gap

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Bridging the gap
The supposed gap between art and life has been of great interest both for philosophers and artists. In the artworld there has for some time now been a surge for reality, a will to work in the real world and in real time. But can one really say that, for example, relational art has closed the gap between art and life?
By Rikard Ekholm
Art is fiction, and life is reality. Yes, that used to be the conclusion. And in most examples it’s actually a characterization which still fits rather well. In general, the artworld seems to be a place one comes to visit from the real world. One arrives to the artworld as a tourist to experience art-fiction-ventures. Then after a while, when one gets satisfied or disgruntled, or maybe somewhere in between, one leaves the fictional-artworld for safer, real ground. This supposed gap between art and life has at times been of much interest both for philosophers and artists. And through history there have with shifting success occurred artistic ambitions to bridge this gap. The most evident examples of such ambitions might be found in the Fluxus movement and with members of the Vienna Group. Paintings, performances and texts are of course real artefacts, which one can view and touch. But they are also something else than objects made for the real world, they are fictional objects – they are made for the fictitious artworld. These fictional objects do not only include things made in a mimetic tradition. The concept of art as fiction includes for example such differing artefacts as “The Brillobox” (1964) by Andy Warhol, “And for Today – Nothing” (1972) by Stuart Brisley, and “Cleaning the House” (1995) by Marina Abramovic. At a glance “The Brillobox” can be mistaken for the real soap pad box, although it doesn’t take long to realize that it isn’t, and to identify that it is an art object. Both Brisley’s happening and Abramovic’s performance are as well clearly connected to the artworld. If not by the mere artefacts in themselves, then through where they have been presented – in traditional spaces made for art.
There seem to have been strong forces to keep art separated from life. But in the early 1990’s something happened. Some artists tried to release the strings to fiction and tried to put art right into the middle of society. The line between art and life suddenly seemed distorted. In a traditional art philosophy, art can be chosen to be perceived. Art is known to be over there, in that specific room and so on. Art is not experienced as other experiences in life – with non-knowledge of what is going to happen, but, is conventionally experienced with awareness of what kind of experience will follow, accordingly, an experience of art (that is, artefacts presented within, and fully accepted in the artworld structures). One seems to make a choice to experience art, and after the choice is made, one walks to a gallery and alike to do just that. But in some art of today the experience is not explicitly a fictional experience. So to speak, the experience is not done in the fictional world, but in the real world. Oris it so?
Sometimes today, the perceiver does not pre-choose the art experience; she doesn’t always through choice enter the artworld. Many of Jeanne von Heeswijk’s social constructions seem to move around the supposed gap between life and art. One example is her portable wooden-wall room, “Room with a View”, which is a room, that among other places, has been placed in a boat ferry-departure hall in Rotterdam. Inside the room people didn’t necessarily need to choose to exit the ‘real’ world and to enter the ‘fictional’ world, but suddenly found themselves in it. So, in cases like these, is the dichotomy that used to sound: In the real world there is life, in the artworld there is fiction – not valid anymore?
There are of course loads of art presentations in the contemporary artworld that are not concerned with distinctions between art and life. The idiom which is most frequently used to signify this bridging or blurring between life and art is obviously relational art. The concept is however very wide, it embraces very different kinds of expressions. Relational art is not a style and it is concerned not simply with a way of making and presenting art. Such differing works like Gordon Matta-Clark’s house-drill-piercings, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ poster hand outs, Paula von Seth’s seductive taxi rides, and Dorinel Marc’s lecture-performances are all understood as relational gestures. These four examples vary in expression, but are at times put under the same ‘headline’. The concept therefore is as wide and non-informative as concepts like ‘contemporary’ and ‘postmodern’. They all mean so much and in consequence not very much at all. There is as always a battle of the concepts and about what they really should mean. Anyway, whatever one chooses to call these expressions, there has for some time now in the artworld been a surge for reality; it’s almost like a post vacuum state effect. For so long the artworlds concentration has been directed towards fiction, i.e., art not perceived in life, but in the fictional world. This seems to, once again, have lead to ambitions to break down the dichotomy between life and art.
‘Relational art’ is still probably the best term to use when it comes to describing and identifying a supposed breakdown between the art and life of today. Although there are many different kinds of expressions incorporated in the understanding of what relational art is, there seem to be two major directions, which simply can be characterized as one ‘social’ and one ‘asocial’. The social direction, which has a potential to be non-institutional, explicitly involves people as co-creators of the artworks, the art is socially constructed during for example a performance where the artist’s expressions meet the audience/participant’s expectations and the artwork – in whatever space the expression is presented – gets established. A relational performance should not be mistaken for ‘theatre’ or for the 1960’s versions of performances, because relational performances are open for public-change, something which theatre or old school performances never are. The control tool for the finish and the changeability of the relational work is shared between the artist, the space and the audience/participants. Swedish artists like Elin Wikström and Dorinel Marc could be placed in this understanding of relational art. The asocial alternative does not involve individuals or groups while constructing the art, Matta-Clark’s house drills is an example (Matta-Clark is retroactively placed in a relational corpus, he died in 1978).
What artists working in both understandings seem to have in common is a will to work and establish art in the real world and in real time. They seem to leave the ‘fictional’ art space and its traditions, they display a strong will to perform in life – to perform live. The social alternative of relational art can be divided into two separate versions, one which is obviously institutionalized (the real time art is presented in traditional art contexts) and one which seems to be disconnected from such structures. It’s the supposedly disconnected alternative which is the most significant when it comes to the breakdown between art and life. The real time presentations which are institutionalised are those which are presented in traditional art contexts – which to be frank means – in galleries, museums and various art exhibition halls. A traditional art context does of course not only subsist of space but also of certain socio-cultural ‘manners’, though they are too inconsistent and subversive to be easily pointed out. There’s obviously a need to differ between the actual real time presentation of the work and the presentation of the documentation of the work which at all times seems to wind up inside an institutional frame. As a result, the two social versions and the asocial version join each other in the presentation of the documentation in the white cube, or such milieus. These are not modern times and therefore these kinds of concepts can’t be viewed as fixed, it would simply be obsolete to do so, the meanings of them constantly change. But anyway to recap: Relational artists are leaving the artworld. But, at the end of the day, have they really left, or has the will to power as art compelled them to hang around some more? Maybe a permanent disconnection from institutional contexts isn’t favourable?
What atone for the difference between art and life are its differing contexts. The question of context is interesting when it comes to the difference of a reception of an expression as ‘art’ or as ‘non art’. Either the question of an artefact’s status as art is posed as; “when, what or why is it art?” – the context is of considerable importance. This is naturally something we all take for granted – a bottle dryer in a café is not art, but signed by an artist and presented in an art-certified context the dryer miraculously turns into a work of art. Therefore, the context is traditionally of importance for the status of the objects classification. The theories pressing the importance of the context and the role of stable institutional personal are predominant in the understanding of art. Put forward in a summarized and straightforward way: Art in institutional theories is identified because the given expressions are connected to stable structures formed by people and spaces. There has to be a link between the artist and her presented artefact and, for example, curators, critics, academics, rooms, materials and narratives undoubtedly connected to art. All these contextual structures are what relational artists for some time now have tried to steer clear of, or even to tear down. Then again, that is, until a documentation of the presentation is to be presented, because then, the white cube or some other art room seems to be very attractive. To perform outside the institutional art context and in real reality is an attempt to disconnect art from art spaces and art manners as well as it is an attempt to present art and hope it is received for what it is. Namely, as artefacts being presented at specific times in front of, or with, surrounding audience/participants, and a possibility is hopefully made for receivers to perceive and interpret without loads of traditions made up of space, manners and history. Two questions seem to arrive when one moves around the gap between life and art and its relation to relational art. (1) Has relational art closed the gap between art and life? (2) If so, is relational art not fiction?
The answer to (1) must be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The social non-institutional version of relational art has in its presentation very few strings attached to traditional art contexts, the strings that are the most usual are economic in character, they are made up of funding or ads placed in art milieus. Otherwise, the sheer presentation of the performance is in real time and in reality. But because of the fact that these are outplayed in real time the work is open for change, the form or meaning of the work changes as well as how the status of the artefact is received. At first it can be received as plain madness, like when Elin Wikström during her project, “What Would Happen If Everyone Did This?” (1993) slept in a bed during the opening hours inside an ordinary supermarket in Malmö. The same kind of annoyance was by some first expressed around Paula von Seth’s “Love Taxi” which was a project that introduced an alternative room for affection and love inside a large estate car which drove around picking up people which had strong affections to each others. Because of these works changeability the first reactions are ‘everyday’ reactions, so to speak, people react to them just like to any other non-conformities of ordinary life. One gets irritated, happy, sad or alike, then the gap seems to be closed, but during the real time event when the work is outplayed people get aware through second-hand texts, rumours, media and so on, that this is Art, the closed gap between life and art is suddenly again reopened. When one sees a car spasmodically breaking during the rush hours on the streets of Antwerp while spreading a message of doubt (Carsten Höller’s “One Minute of Doubt”) one gets perplexed because what one sees is really strange and not what one expects. But after a few days, or even hours or minutes, the reality experience changes into an art experience. The gap between art and life is in these examples both open and closed, although not for the same person, just for different persons at the same time.
The answer to (2) is: When relational art is seen as abnormality of everyday life it is not fiction, just weird life, but at the moment the abnormality, through knowledge, turns into art – the fictional experience takes over, and all the traditions with its norms and contexts take over during the interpretational procedure. The traditional choice to experience art is half-lost with relational art, one experiences art when one finds out that it is fiction, as well as when one knows about these events and chooses to go to them. In some of the relational artworks the choice to experience art is lost and exchanged to an sudden ‘awareness’ that what is experienced is art. Well, it anyway seems like the dichotomy – In the real world there is life, in the artworld there is fiction – is still valid. One thing which must to be cleared about this text is, what is said is, ‘art is fiction’, but it doesn’t say ‘fiction is always art’. Because, it just isn’t.
– Rikard Ekholm