Sweetness and light

A constructed world: Unconditional regard
Gertrude Contemporary Art, Melbourne
Wednesday 1 June 6.00 – 6.45 pm

The best sort of openings are those that make no bones about their true social nature, that do not posture with lengthy speeches, thanks to sponsors and awkward viewings; basically they are the ones where you booze with friends and yack about art. It is later that you get to the heart of the work—over coffee, in bed, on a return visit. That is why I was glad when this invitation arrived in May: ‘a convivial gathering, bring everyone’. The event was an installation/performance by A Constructed World (ACW—Turin/ Melbourne based artists Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva). And so I happily braved the cold and fronted to Gertrude Contemporary Art spaces, assuming an easy evening. It is what I got, albeit without the anticipated social lubricant of gallery wine.

The installation comprised a circle of lit candles across the floor, spelling out ‘unconditional regard’, a warm glow, a crowd chatting and people filming. Candles are a common symbol of naïveté and hope—rare qualities in the art world, and it is an achievement that ACW managed to keep its work from lapsing into irony and religious kitsch. This symbolism did not keep the work from becoming installation-as-backdrop though, as the actual work offered little more than a couple of words to be read. All the same, the cosy atmosphere and content of those words acted to prime the audience with warm fuzziness, as they were told to go into the world with an unconditional regard for others. And so you turn to your friends with sweetness in mind. Convivial indeed.

This work falls within the realm of art that French critic/curator Nicolas Bourriaud has termed ‘relational aesthetics’, meaning work primarily concerned with creating inter-human relations. The stock-in-trade of such art is the opening/ performance/ event, not an exhibition as such, but a participatory event where one interacts amongst an active audience. Think of art as a meeting, a community, or a dinner for new friends. In this context it is understandable and probably intentional that the ACW artwork was treated as a backdrop, as a tool or a trigger to the real work—the relating that was carried out in front of it. This reading of Unconditional Regard brings it into conversation with (the formally dissimilar) work of Liam Gillick. While Gillick’s modular, visually modernist and colourful sculptural installations seem to demand contemplation and seem to imply a meaning imbued in the artwork, the artist denies this as his focus. Instead the installations provide a type of stage for the audience, where their activities in the gallery become the focus rather than the artwork.

The creation of relations, once they become complex and binding, could also be termed the creation of community. Certainly both ACW and Liam Gillick illustrate how relational art reifies communal experience and exalts its creation as art’s pinnacle. This is a pluralistic conception of community-building and it is the creation of micro-communities that is advocated, rather than grander all-encompassing groupings. While making relations is an admirable aim, as communities form the basis of humanity, artists working in this field (such as ACW) tend to set their sites on the immediately available and often pre-existing micro-community, which does little to broaden the relational sphere. Communities like those ACW create are formed of like-minded individuals. As such, these communities are based on normative rather than transformative community-building, and by creating a uniform community, room for dissent and otherness is reduced.

In ACW’s work an authentic sense of forming part of a community is generated for the audience, and if the artists were content to work within this realm then they would be successful. However ACW are also intent on flirting with the ‘real’ world and affecting actual change beyond the gallery. To be successful on these terms, a project of conviviality is not enough, because in this exhibition, and in the use of social forms (such as gatherings, bars and meetings) we see the creation of communities reduced to superficiality. The most pleasant ‘convivial’ aspects of communities are fostered, rather than an interrogation of the more complex and uncomfortable aspects of living in relation to others. This is where an art context has the ability to provide an insight into socialisation. Rather than striving to provide a micro-utopia of conviviality, it can be a heterotopia: a place outside of the mainstream to reflect on the world, its dystopian aspects and potential sites of positive change.

Within the performance of Unconditional Regard it was only an inadvertent intrusion that opened the constructed conviviality to the disarray of the outside world. Mid-evening a newcomer wondered in and through the installation, scattering candles and ending up wearing the wax. In response to the unfortunate woman, most sniggered and suffered some mortification on her behalf. Cynic that he is, my date thought the woman a plant to intentionally disrupt the evening. I doubt she was, as it would hardly sit with ACW’s studied harmony. I do wish she had been though, as it was in this act of clumsiness, discomfort and embarrassment (and the unfortunate sacrifice of her shoes) that the impossibility of forcing concord was revealed.

Though experience of Unconditional Regard was undoubtedly enjoyable for all bar this one waxed woman, with those visiting forming interpersonal convivial relations (we chatted and smiled), ACW’s version of a heterotopic space for exchange feels watered down. Indeed rather than create a truly ‘other’ space for the formulation of experimental relations, Unconditional Regard seems to repeat the naïve positivism of some earlier manifestations of utopia. It does not interrogate the way we relate in the world or offer up new modes of relating. All forms of interaction are not equal, nor do they have the same outcomes. By couching the night as ‘convivial’, humanity is represented at its best, hierarchies of power and status are repressed and goodwill is encouraged. The complexities of relations in the world, in communities beyond the gallery, are ignored. Perhaps it is too much to ask of artists working with social relations to seek conditions for their change. In any case, Unconditional Regard is act two of five in a series of ‘Five Acts of Optimism’ planned for 2005, and in this ACW’s standpoint of hope, optimism and belief in the innate goodness of humankind is to be applauded as an admirable starting point for constructive social critique.