Natalie Loveless: From Relational to Ecological Form: Erasing the art-life divide

by Ana Fernandez Miranda-Texidor

Cohort ’17

The lecture “From Relational to Ecological form” by Natalie Loveless proposes a reflection on the contradictions of Nicolas Bourriaud’s notions of relational aesthetics and the difficulties of shifting from theory to practice in a way that erases the borders of art and life. Loveless tackles the possibilities of making art at the end of the world that “can be mobilized as a leaver to create carefully attuned and just practices.” By this, Loveless reflects on how form informs content, or, to be more precise, how form is content. This is possible in such practices that carry a Fluxus approach which reject the notion of the art object as a commodity and forwards the Duchampian imperative: “It is art if I say it is.” This notion is “politically generative,” in Loveless’ words, because of the possibilities it carries to influence education, climate catastrophe, and other realms.

Loveless turns our sight to artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles who in 1973 began a practice from her needs as an artist within a milieu full of the disparities that is the art world. At the time Ukeles was the mother of a young child and as such was unable to pursue her career as a painter. Ukeles devised a method that precisely erased the borders of art and life documenting what it takes to maintain a young child. The level of commitment, time, and dedication needed are often ignored within male or female artists’ practices that do not have to engage with maintaining a family. Ukuleles’ next move was to take this level of maintenance to the museum’s steps. Ukeles began thinking about maintenance as a form of art—maintenance of a child as a mother, maintenance of a house as a homemaker, maintenance of institutional space as a paid laborer. Ukeles coined the term Maintenance Art for this type of artistic action. She performed daily as a woman and mother instead of making “real art.” She proposed this act of caring as a performance piece to various museums but none accepted except the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Connecticut. With this invitation, Ukeles set out to do a performance of scrubbing the entrance staircase of the Wadsworth. The artist was maintaining the staircase and was repairing something no one had ever thought of as art before.

Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, mentions the notion of keeping attuned to what most bothers and hurts us in order to make amendments and bring change. Ukeles actions can be extended not only to Borriaud’s notion of relational form but also to ecological form, bringing attention to the infrastructures of the sanitation system, to the ecological infrastructure, and to the daily practice of an undervalued and invisibilized system. Loveless proposes that the prospect of form that deals with ecological content becomes, as in relational form, a kind of lingua franca where the conception, production and circulation of the work of art are all components of the form.

The work of Colombian artist María Teresa Hincapié could be placed within this notion of ecological form. Always within the boundaries of the art institution, but at the same time, peripheral to it, Hincapié was able to gather together art, ritual, and a notion of time/space continuum through her performances. In her 1995 work Peregrinaje hacia lo Sagrado  (Pilgrimage to the Sacred) Hincapié walks large extensions, first from Bogotá to San Augustín, then through a museum space in which she has planted, in the nooks between cement dabs, small and humble plants. Hincapié tends to them, she lives the space, traverses it with body and silence, giving the performance an air of sacred ritual.  This is precisely what she wants, the possibility for art to offer a ritual as potent and as significant as a religious ceremony, giving the possibility for museum visitors to be touched at their very most core. In this extremely slow walk of hers, tending to every single muscle at the exact minute where it commits to the step, Hincapié is able to fluidly cross the art-life divide and transform hers into an art ritual. Her performance in all aspects of its very paused and thought about action: walking, using her body, planting, caring for her humble garden, in solitude and silence, speaks profoundly of the “ecological form” Loveless talks about. On the way, Loveless touches upon what artist Joseph Beuys proposed every human being should seek: “to become a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism.”  

Maria Teresa Hincapié,   Peregrinaje hacia lo Sagrado  (Pilgrimage to the Sacred) 1995
Maria Teresa Hincapié,  Peregrinaje hacia lo Sagrado (Pilgrimage to the Sacred) 1995

Works Cited

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016.

Hincapié, Maria Teresa. Peregrinaje hacia lo Sagrado, 1995.

Loveless, Natalie. IDSVA lecture “From Relational to Ecological Form,” Part of the series On the Anthropocene, Either/Or. February 2021.

Tisdall, Caroline. “Beuys Statement.” Art into Society, Society into Art, ICA, London 1974.

Ukeles, Laderman Mierle. Maintenance Art 1973.