The Guggenheim’s latest show comes up empty.

Photograph: courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>1/5

Frank Lloyd Wright had a pretty decent imagination, but I doubt he could’ve envisioned his baby, the Guggenheim rotunda, being turned into the setting for a circle jerk. Yet that’s what you get with the museum’s latest offering, “theanyspacewhatever.” The exhibit, which takes its name from Gilles Deleuze’s concept of a cinematic moment unmoored from time and space (in other words, any episode of CSI: Miami), surveys ten youngish artists associated with relational art. Known for collaborating with one another on various projects that take them to the far corners of the art world, they share an aesthetic of social engagement, and apparently, a knack for conflating mutual admiration with self-regard. Viewers can certainly be forgiven for wondering if the curators forgot to put up a show: The space looks half-empty, but it’s really just devoid of ideas.

The problem is not that the work on view is conceptual, or what passes for conceptual these days. The problem is that the thinking behind it is a symptom of the same global system—the one currently in meltdown—which it purportedly criticizes.

As defined in the early ’90s by its main proponent, French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics is basically the latest in a long line of stabs at bridging the gap between art and life. Bourriaud proposed that in the Internet age, the whole of human relations and societal contexts can become the artistic fodder for “reprogramming the world,” to borrow from the title of his tome on the subject. A tall order for any artist, but the ones here—Angela Bulloch, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija—have been ably abetted by an international network of curators who are themselves creatures of the new world economy. Accordingly, relational art has become a sort of political expression without the real politics that might upset the moneyed elites who support artists and art administrators.

As Walter Robinson notes in his review of this exhibition on Artnet, there’s nothing here remotely like Hans Haacke’s infamous work from the early ’70s that linked various Guggenheim board members to the ownership of slum properties. Something like that would be too impolitic and beside the point.

Instead, the aim seems to be for everyone involved—curators, collectors, artists—to pretend like they’re not part of the game they are playing, and applaud themselves for it. For instance, Parreno’s movie marquee, hung on the outside of the museum like a garish barnacle, presents itself as a poke at the star status of the gang inside. But it also reminds you just how lucky you are to be entering this orgy of self-congratulation. Similarly, Pardo’s obstacle course of decorative cardboard partitions hung with works by the other artists in the exhibition includes Tiravanija’s copy of a Richard Prince biker chick overlaid with I WENT TO THE GUGGENHEIM AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS RICHARD PRINT. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.

Another figure central to this bunch, Liam Gillick, makes pretty stuff if your tastes run to minimalistic high-end furnishings. In this regard, his haiku-like metal signs and S-shaped benches (provided to give you somewhere to sit while listening to his version of an Acoustiguide program for the show) don’t disappoint—but they don’t add much either, besides demonstrating once again how this artist uses inscrutable discourse to puff up an otherwise thin output.

Still, the poster boy for the distance between the rhetoric of relational aesthetics and the reality of it has to be Tiravanija. Like a lot of people in the New York art world of 17 years ago, I enjoyed his “performances” in which Thai food was served up to gallery-goers in closet-size project spaces. They suggested a we’re-all-in-this-together solidarity for an art scene in a recessionary coma. Since moving on to a larger stage, however, Tiravanija has been less and less able to sustain the contradictions of what he’s called a “Buddhist” critique of globalism that depends on the latter’s largesse. Case in point is his main contribution: a carpeted lounge scattered with pillows and flat-screens playing video interviews with his artist friends—most of whom are, yes, in the show. You have to take off your shoes and don headphones to listen to them weigh in about the relationship of their work to the world around it, though what they have to say isn’t especially interesting. But watching them sit in their studios and country homes, you do begin to notice a gap: not between art and life, but between their lives and your own.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through Jan 7