Nowadays contemporary art works are often created through in-depth processes of appropriating found imagery. In which, style plays a significant role in developing a narrative centered around different methods of communication and interactions between people and their environments. Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1998 book Esthétique relationnelle sets forth that relational art involves taking the whole of human social relations as a theoretical and practical point of departure. Comparing the art works of Gillian Wearing and Marlene Dumas we can see exactly this kind of social and political approach to making art playing out on the canvas. They both achieve transitive relationships within the works but do not adopt the constitution of political terms and conditions deemed significant by Bourriaud. These works do not support Greenberg’s belief that art should move away from even the post-modern and reject having any absolute political or social interpretation.

Bourriaud defines his theory as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertation of an independent and private symbolic space.” Whereas this attempt to unfold contemporary art in the late 90’s in light of aesthetic, cultural and political developments following on from the optimism of modernism is not entirely consistent with the expanded field of contemporary art we are now witnessing. Contemporary like relational art definitely brings about a dialogue or shared experience between conscious minds but to say the discursive properties of an artwork is its most vital overlooks plenty other means of relation. In his words, art works are “beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience” but that is not to pay due attention to their unique function and objecthood. In a much more realist approach to the configuration of contemporary art Bourriaud envisions a collective community minded experience where there are multiple interactions between the audience and viewer. He proposes that the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist.

The truthful nature of conceptual art is so important for it bears resemblance to our daily lives moreover providing a place of solace for some. Although reducing an act, a thought of a feeling to a single moment on image Wearing gives significance to it as a performative example of her ideas rather than prescribing them with any pre-existing meaning. Wearing in an interview notes that “Choosing the moments that make the whole coherent […] in a way can feel like painting – choosing the right brushstrokes to make a form.” And Marlene Dumas’s process is equally comparable as she uses imagery from a myriad of sources including newspapers and magazines. Thus, fusing political theory, creativity and painterliness into one whole system of expression she creates a simulacrum of emotion that approaches themes from the role of painting to those addressing social oppression and sexuality.

In Wearing’s conceptually driven photographic series Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say she invites the audience to examine aspects of everyday life. The work embodies an interaction with the public in a public space and speaks for individuals and aspects of their unique identities in today’s society. This collaboration involved asking those wandering the street to write a phrase and then pose with it for the photograph. Without her prompting the text she in fact allows those who partake to disclose personal thoughts or opinions, giving the audience a glimpse into their individual walks of life. Consequently, she has transformed something that might be as simple as a member of the public commuting to work into a much more unsettling image. Using film to create the work, this underlying concept in which Wearing addresses psychological behaviour and its social content draws our attention far away from aesthetics and their use of media. This is a perfect example of using human relations and a strong level of candour and realism within an image. But the question, as posed by Claire Bishop, is for whom are relations being produced?

Dead Girl is a shockingly violent image of a girl laying lifeless, made using gestural slabs of red paint to confirm that this is a scene of horror and demand our emotional response. It is based on a magazine clipping of a young terrorist killed attempting to hijack a plane in the 1970s. By framing only her head and shoulders Marlene Dumas strips the image of any context, time or place obscuring the narrative. There is of course, a level of anxiety in appropriating source material for the girl has no means of consenting to be seen or portrayed in this way and, at the expense of repurposing the story, the work is fuelled with harrowing undertones. Nevertheless, one can also see the work as an expression of a psychological state of reaction to the event as opposed to a re-telling of it.

The original sketch seeps through the image and paint is loosely applied to signify her facial details. It is interesting how gestural movements of the hand are archived within this work, and in juxtaposition with the abstract sweeping heavy black vertical that realizes the composition as a whole. Having given the work, the quality of being a ‘work-in-progress,’ Dumas has too drawn our attention to the visual complexities of the medium and materiality as many contemporary artists are highlighting in response to the modernist movement. In one way this work is a testimony to the power and beauty of the medium and act or performance of painting itself. If you look at the work of the Abstract Expressionists for example, and action painting you are looking at a work that is the site of spontaneous and direct action.

Bourriaud’s contention that the artist produces relations by way of aesthetic objects implies that the art works are only important in terms of how interactive, playful, and user friendly they are. And this excludes contemporary pieces like these that are clearly producing emotional and aesthetic dialogue but at the same time dealing with social or political issues – in this sense they are both painterly and thought provoking in equal measure. Furthermore, inching closer the gap between the how and why of traditional fine art and expressing a lack of interest in leftist politics. The development of information technologies and the conditions and reception of art in the current moment are just some of these contextual issues we are dealing with in the work of Wearing and Dumas. But their end goal is not so contrived; they seem to be acting out a process to create art works that could be considered a social performance in themselves.

‘Gillian Wearing, Marlene Dumas and Relational Art in the 1990s’ is an article written by Emma Lynette Morgan. You can follow Emma on Instagram.