It was brought to my attention that all the artists that I had been researching were male. Olafur Eliasson, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Stelarc, Richard Goodwin, Lucian Freud, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres are all dealing with practices that I need to address in my work but I’m wary of developing a theory of self in art, which is biased towards a male perspective. I set out to understand why this might be the case. The most recent aesthetic theory that I’ve been reading about is Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics; so I thought I’d do a quick survey of the gender balance with the artists by picking out artists in the book’s index (Bourriaud, 1995 - p115-120).
From a quick tally I discovered that men were over represented in Bourriaud’s study as well. There are eight men for every woman mentioned. They are: Angela Bulloch, Sophie Calle, Jenny Holzer, Vanessa Beecroft, Julia Scher, Georgina Starr, Gillian Wearing among others who may be included in various collectives. This is a sample from one book, which is the seminal text on relational art in the contemporary artworld.
This might indicate that men are more important than women when it comes to relational art, but a closer look at the influences of relational artists shows that women played a crucial role in the development of relational art practices, such as the practice of Felix Gonzalez-Torres - Bourriaud’s relational art poster boy. Bourriaud discusses Felix Gonzalez-Torres:
The formal structure of his work lies in this harmonious parity, and in this inclusion of the other in the self, which is endlessly declined and which certainly represents its main paradigm... So from the mid eighties onward, when the Cuban artist had his first shows, he foreshadowed a space based in intersubjectivity, which is precisely the space that would be explored by the most interesting artists of the next decade. (Bourriaud, 1995 - p51)
Whatever reason Bourriaud had for the gender imbalance in his book, Nancy Spector has documented that it was feminist art that set the scene for Gonzalez-Torres’s practice by forming a postmodern aesthetic – critiquing traditional modes of representation used in advertising and mass communication and forming an alternate aesthetic which disturbed traditional power relations perpetuated by traditional image culture:
The artists most effectively and publically engaged with these issues during Gonzalez-Torres’s early years in New York were women – among them Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Martha Rosler, and Cindy Sherman – whose work is informed by a feminist critique of the patriarchal precepts of representation. (Spector, 1995 - p5)
The seeds sown by these feminist postmodern artists reaped a landscape that was critical of established traditions of representation, and the power relationships they perpetuated (Spector, 1995 - p4). A new postmodern aesthetic developed as well as a new concept of self-liberated from the ideologies that served the heterosexual white male - at the expense of women, homosexuals (which Gonzalez-Torres was openly)(Spector, 1995 - p14), and non-whites (Spector, 1995 - p6).
Represetnation as a whole including representations of the self changed considerably as a result of postmodernism. Cynthia Freeland discusses the dissolution of self in the late twentieth century portraiture in terms of disappearing selves, exposed selves, and scientific selves. “Disappearing Selves” refer to selves depicted without subjectivity, for example Cindy Sherman’s and Yasumasa Morimura’s use of disguise, and Andy Warhol’s interest in surface-only representations of people (Freeland, 2010 - p247-9). “Exposed Selves,” refer to works that describe selves as overly subjective, for example, the confessional practices of Nan Goldin and Tracey Emin, where subjectivity is so overly exposed as to become meaningless noise (Freeland, 2010 - p269-71). The third self is the “Scientific Selves”, which describes works that use biological or biometrical material as a replacement for subjectivity, such as Marc Quinn’s DNA portrait of Sir John Sulston (Freeland, 2010 - p276).
The path from this postmodern aesthetic to the relational art of Gonzalez-Torres is found in another response to the change in the scopic regime of the late twentieth century - Minimalism. Susan Best documents that minimalist artist’s attacked the “the subjective qualities of art” (Best, 2011 - p6) by deploying “Industrial methods, materials and ready-made modules… to disable the traditional aesthetic questions of expression, design and purposiveness.” (Best, 2011 - p6) But that by attempting to “expunge” the work of feeling, these artists in fact facilitated reflection on feeling, by as they produced objects, which had the attempted evacuation of feeling in the core of their existence (Best, 2011 - p1).
While minimalist artists were busy trying to ‘expunge’ their works of feeling, Gonzalez-Torres was instead critiquing this minimalist aim, Spector explains:
It has been often said that Gonzalez-Torres appropriates and rearticulates these styles in order to subvert the supposed neutrality of work that has professed to be only about itself (an imposibile claim given the ubiquitousness of ideology). (Spector, 1995 - p16)
With the intellectual and artistic landscape that had emerged, Gonzalez-Torres recognized that cultural production cannot escape ideology (Spector, 1995 - p16), that all aesthetics have their own political ideologies but that the artist must be mindful of controlling that ideology in the work. Spector describes Gonzalez-Torres work Loverboy (1990) (above) as a work that uses minimal or “nonreferential forms” (Spector, 1995 - p17). This work alludes:
to the theme of homoerotic desire circulating through much of his work, while at the same time, making explicit the phenomenological body implied by minimalist sculpture… He acknowledges that minimalism helped to recast his own views on making art because its practitioners had “dared to do so little” and yet what they did formally was perfectly sufficient. As an artist whose work exemplifies understatement, Gonzalez-Torres employs an extreme economy of visual means for the dual purposes of enticing and challenging his viewers. (Spector, 1995 - p17)
So modern representation was critiqued by a variety of artists and intellectuals with a significant contribution made by feminism. This paved the way for a variety of alternate aesthetic responses and one of those alternate aesthetic responses was minimalism – a formal language within which Gonzalez-Torres could manage political ideology. This was the climate in which Gonzalez-Torres developed. This is missing from Bourriaud’s account of Gonzalez-Torres and relational art – the contribution of female artists.
Best, Susan. Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-Garde. London: I.B.Tauris, 2011.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Translated by Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods and Mathieu Copeland. Paris: Les Presse Du Reel, 1995.
Freeland, Cynthia A. "The Fallen Self." In Portraits and Persons a Philosophical Inquiry, 243-90. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Spector, Nancy. Feliz Gonzalez-Torres. NY, New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995.
Warr, Tracey. "Works." In The Artist's Body, 48-189. NY, New York: Phaidon Press, 2000.