A temporary tattoo of random letters in Lawrence Weiner’s iconic script; a Gilbert & George pin reading “Burn That Book”; a black and white t-shirt by Rirkrit Tiravanija—these were all in my brown paper bag as I walked down 5th Avenue. No, I was not leaving a private auction, nor am I a millionaire collector. All of these artworks, and many more by some of the world’s most prominent contemporary artists, are available at the Jewish Museum right now—for free—in Take Me (I’m Yours).
The exhibition, in which all the artworks have elements that viewers can touch or take home, restages a 1995 show of the same name at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Christian Boltanski, the original exhibition opened and expanded the discussion around participatory art, and the new installation, more than twenty years later, shows how this conversation is anything but resolved. Obrist along with the Jewish Museum’s Jens Hoffmann and Kelly Taxter have brought together twelve of the original artists with thirty new additions from around the globe.
Relational aesthetics, an art movement that emerged more than two decades ago to scrutinize the relationship between the work and its audience, still challenges art critics, curators, and institutions to pick sides. When Nicolas Bourriaud, its foremost curator, coined the term relational aesthetics in his namesake text in 1998, he suggested that the dynamics of the movement pose a challenge due to its open-ended and loosely-orchestrated nature.
Lawrence Weiner, NAU EM I ART BILONG YUMI (The art of today belongs to us), 1988-2016. Courtesy of the artist. Artwork © Lawrence Weiner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
“Transitivity is as old as the hills. It is a tangible property of the work. Without it, the work is nothing other than a dead object, crushed by contemplation,” wrote Bourriaud in his essential text, adding, “any artwork might thus be defined as a relational object, like the geometric place of a negotiation with countless correspondents and recipients.” The distributed works on view in Take Me (I’m Yours) emphasize a major element within relational aesthetics: claiming possession of the work. Viewers become participants as they take pieces of the original work, furthering the dialogues and influence beyond the museum setting. Through touching, tasting, or wearing, the audience internalizes artworks typically protected and kept away from interaction. Thus, each audience member takes a role in determining the work’s existence: their material consumption infuses into the core of the discourse.
The strengths, and challenges, associated with relational aesthetics occupy this dual territory in which the art institution mutates into a mundane social environment, be it a store, restaurant, school, or park. Instigated by social engagements typically practiced in public locales, impromptu performances, spearheaded by artists and maintained by audience participation, modify traditional structures of white cubes while freeing the works from narrative climaxes. The fact that claiming ownership is the main premise in Take Me (I’m Yours) frames this particular conversation within shopping, a type of commercial exchange many contemporary artists—including those in this exhibition, such as Gilbert & George, Yoko Ono, and Christian Boltanski—have always remained critical about. This tension in the exhibition is clear: the diffusion of so many identical objects—and at little or no cost to the new owner, no less—undermines the commercial value of the singular, precious art object. At the same time, shattering the mystical aura around artwork as an inviolable object, the show’s foundation on physical transactions attributes a commercial element to what would otherwise be a strictly fixed interaction between two parties: viewer looks at artwork.
Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (USA Today), 1990, candies individually wrapped in red, silver, and blue cellophane, endless supply. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the Dannheisser Foundation, 1996. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Visiting the exhibition a second time on a Saturday, when the museum offers free admission, complicated this whole affair. Alongside a crowd including Upper East Side locals, a few tourists, and those who heard from the grapevine about the show’s particular premise, I gathered a few artworks, including Alex Israel’s pins of his silhouette, Self-Portrait (Label Pin) (2016) and pieces from all-time favorite Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (USA Today) (1990) installation of candies in the colors of American flag. The shiny wrappers, waiting to be grabbed and consumed, are a milestone in Conceptual art and an exemplification of American identity that never seems dated in its method.
The exhibition was packed, and during this visit, the museum had exhausted its sources to refill Tiravanija’s giveaway t-shirts untitled 2016 (form follows function or vice versa no.two) (2016), rather displaying the silver-colored Minimalistic box that once housed the garments. Safeguarding against their depletion Jonathan Horowitz’s Free Store (2016) and Christian Boltanski’s Dispersion (1991–2016), on the other hand, poignantly require participants to substitute each takeaway with one contribution, initiating broader conversation around the notions of ownership and consumption through spontaneous donations from anonymous individuals—a stand that seems comparatively critical about the show’s up-for-grabs assumption.
Christian Boltanski, Dispersion, 1991-2016, used clothing, bags. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. © The Jewish Museum
“This mixed panorama of socially collaborative work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialized, anti-market, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life,” writes Claire Bishop in her 2012 book Artificial Hells in which she studies the impact of socially engaged art as opposed to the spectacle of its content. “While I am broadly sympathetic to that ambition,” she continues, “I would argue that it is also crucial to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.” The disarray Take Me (I’m Yours) falls into derives from the profusion of such exchange crammed onto a single museum floor where works, in excess number, lack the space to individually exist, furthermore obstructing one another from building dialogues.
The audience, like children in a candy store, leap from one giveaway to the next—having fun, sure—yet potentially eschewing some of the theoretical concerns emphasized by the artists. Many works in the show reconsider this very ‘90s genre within current socio-political and cultural discourse. Daniel Joseph Martinez, for example, offers emergency blankets folded into plastic bags to be given to those in need, and Andrea Bowers’ work includes ribbons in various colors printed with expressions like “Trans Is Beautiful” or “Deport Hate.” Yet, in an exhibition where the interaction between the work and its viewer reaches such frenzied extents, the highly voluminous checklist seems to distract the participants from grasping the crux.
Andrea Bowers, Political Ribbons, 2016, screenprinted ribbons. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York. © The Jewish Museum
But then one may ask: is anything really free? Aptly contributing to the exhibition’s interactive aspect was a Kickstarter project, asking donors to participate in raising $30,000 to secure the constant refill of takeaway pieces, eventually orchestrating a unique network in which the public’s monetary engagement online initiated gratis gains in the unconventional museum-going public realm. I couldn’t help but ask myself whether the original exhibition would have included such a component had internet culture and networks been that prominent back then. Although, the genuine intention was to raise enough money to fund the exhibition, this online dialogue, including the website where gifts were offered to donors at different levels, adds a consequential element to the relational network of exchanges and transactions, where monetary and ethereal gains intertwine.
Take Me (I’m Yours) continues at The Jewish Museum in New York through February 5, 2017.
Osman Can Yerebakan is a writer and curator based in New York.
(Image at top: Exhibition view of Take Me (I'm Yours) at The Jewish Museum, NY, September 16, 2016 – February 5, 2017. © The Jewish Museum)
Tags: relational aesthetics Take Me (I'm Yours) The Jewish Museum hans Ulrich obrist, installation