Relational Aesthetics

Xiaochuang Wang

Rikrit Tiravanija, Pad Thai, 1991-1996. Paula Allen Gallery, New York.

Figure 1. Rikrit Tiravanija, Pad Thai, 1991-1996. Paula Allen Gallery, New York.

Relational aesthetics is a term coined by the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud.1 According to Bourriaud, relational aesthetics is a set of artistic practices which begin in the sphere of human relations. Artists work with concepts such as social networks, community, private relationships, or urbanism, which are all dynamic forms of coexistence. Relational aesthetics involve open artistic practices which invite viewers to participate in the creation of the work. In this way, the ultimate meanings of the work of art are the result of cooperation with the audience, and are not imposed by the artist. According to Bourriaud, an artist becomes a ‘catalyst’ at the center of his or her art, providing the viewer with the opportunity to interact with and become involved with the artwork.2

This term was first applied in 1996, in the catalog for the exhibition “Traffic” curated by Nicolas Bourriaud for the CAPC, Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux in France. The exhibition included work by artists Henry Bond, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Rirkit Tiravanija, Carsten Holler, Philippe Parreno, Gillian Wearing, and Douglas Gordon, among others. Bourriaud’s goal was to approach art as “a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts.”3 The exhibition encouraged  interactions between the audience and the artworks, with the artist creating the opportunity for and catalyzing these interactions behind the scenes.

Bourriaud uses the technological vocabulary of the late twentieth century: terms such as ‘interactivity,’ ‘user-friendliness’ and others to help describe the meaning of relational aesthetics.  As he writes: “These days, communications are plunging human contacts into monitored areas that divide the social bond up into quite different products. Artistic activity, for its part, strives to achieve modest connections, open up [one or two] obstructed passages, and connect levels of reality kept apart from each other.”4 Via relational aesthetics, interpersonal connections have the potential to be restored using artworks to catalyze their restoration. Bourriaud also states the potential for relational aesthetics to create the radical upheavals of cultural, aesthetic and political goals of the modern art.5 It is leading a new direction to explore relationships among people after traditional artistic explorations between people and god, or people and objects.

One example of an artist practicing relational aesthetics is Rirkrit Tiravanija. His installations take the form of rooms set up as stages for cooking, sharing meals, playing music, or reading. One of his best known series began with Pad Thai (1991) at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York [Figure 1]. Tiravanija rejected the traditional objects of art, such as painting and sculpture, and instead he cooked meals and served them to visitors.6 He made a similar work in 1995, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where he provided written instructions to make South-East Asian curry on the wall of his installation. His installations are usually contingent upon the reactions of viewers. As some critics have mentioned (as well as the artist himself), this involvement of the public becomes the main foundation of the work, and the food in this case represents the means for communicative relationships between artist and audience.7 The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija is a clear example of relational aesthetics, as they are grounded in human relations. Moreover, his work represent an open artistic practice, which invites the viewers to participate in the artworks. Thus, the artist becomes the catalyst of the process of this action, and the audience takes an active part in the installation, restoring social connections through their participation.


  1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2002).
  2. Ibid., 10.
  3. Ibid., 10.
  4. Ibid., 8.
  5. Ibid., 12.
  6. Faye Hirsch, “Rirkrit  Tiravanija,” Art in America (June 7, 2011). <>
  7. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 56.