Nicolas Bourriaud is a critical inventor. Co-founder of the hip Palais de Tokyo in Paris, he first coined the term “relational aesthetics,” and has now developed the idea of the “altermodern,” celebrated by the fourth Tate triennial of the same name.
What is “altermodernism”? It seems to relate back to Bourriaud’s earlier idea of relational aesthetics, namely art exists both within and without the parameters of the gallery space. Not only does art exist without dedicated art spaces, but also utilizes human and social networks as raw material and a starting point for artistic means of expression. He sees art as having the power to create shared experiences, as seen in works by Carsten Holler, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Pierre Huyghe. In many ways, Bourriaud’s theory uses the interactive conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s as its departure point, as expressed in the SFMOMA exhibition “The Art of Participation: 1950-Now” (which I wrote about back in January).
“Altermodernism” is a compound word, an idea derived from both “alternative” and “modernism.” According to Bourriaud, this “can be defined as the moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities.” In these terms, globalization has done away with the way we used to think about art (which was chronological). Now, in keeping with Altermodernism, it would be fairer to view contemporary artists’ works as interrelational documents of shared and experienced visual cultures. These works function without boundaries and with the investment and participation of the viewer.
What kind of works qualify as Altermodern? Bourriaud describes this mode of thinking in “Relational Aesthetics.” He writes, “The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realties, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.”
Scale does play a large role in this exhibition. Many works are life-sized or larger than life, and many artists create inhabitable environments. Then there is “Giantbum” by Nathaniel Mellors, a frightening if not technically insane “video installation with animatronic sculpture” which describes the plight of being stuck in God’s rear. Two films play in a dark felt environment, depicting rehearsals of a play about this journey, and then the viewer is eventually led to a brightly-lit white room in which three animatronic heads sing in unison about freedom and the universe.
Indian artist Subodh Gupta created “Line of Control,” a giant, life-sized mushroom cloud made of kitchen utensils which explodes in a main entrance hall of the museum, inviting visitors to gawk and guess at what such an explosion would sound like. Franz Ackerman’s “Gateway-Getaway” is a hypnotizing and disarming environment which creates the feeling of having stepped into one of his brightly-lit neon psychedelic paintings. The room is dizzying and carnivalesque—things spin and twist, your attention is pulled every which way by light, colours, and perspective.
A favorite piece in the exhibition was Mike Nelson’s installation “The Projection Room (Triple Bluff Canyon),” an immersive environment suggestive of a parallel world. The room is a life-sized recreation of the artist’s studio in the front room of a Victorian house. It looks as though someone has left the place in a hurry, leaving all evidence of their life behind. It’s impossible to not look for clues in the detritus, though the exercise is complicated by the room’s denial of entry to the viewer, shifting the experience on many levels, drawing a strict grid of allowances from the artist creating rules about what may be real and what may be imagined.
“Altermodern” is both chaotic and complex, and it’s not clear if Bourriaud is successful in designating a new type of contemporary movement. This exhibition is colorful and confusing, and it will be equally interesting to see if “Altermodernism” makes its place in the art history textbooks to come.
“Altermodern” the Tate Triennial is on view at Tate Britain through April 26, 2009