Reflection - Meaning : Interpretation : Connections : Relational Aesthetics : Association : Definition : Semiotics / by Ally McGinn

Six words, all seeped in meaning, all related to meaning.


I have spent a fair amount of time researching ‘meaning’. The ways we interpret work and understand the contextual depth behind it. The link between implied meaning and our personal taste. The subjective nature of interpretation and the ways artists explore and understand interpretation, which is arguably one of the foundations of art. In many ways it was the subject of my dissertation. (Although I would say that it was as much about value as meaning, but that's a separate post)

Artists concern themselves with meaning. Whether it's through a subject, material or idea. We are people who spend a great deal of time pondering the meaning of ‘things’. (I say ‘things’ here because we are not only pondering meaning, in the existential sense. Although sometimes of course, we are.)

We worry about the meaning the audience interprets. We try to overcome our own biases to see the work in an objective way, usually unsuccessfully. (How unsuccessful depends entirely on which philosophy you adhere to.) Most philosophy seems to agree that interpretation is biased. It is formed by the person doing the interpretation and an objective eye is hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

It would be hard to write this reflection without mentioning Derrida, and the ‘parergon’.

A fuller post about Derrida, but far from full, can be found here.

For this post i will simply quote myself to say that Derrida’s ‘parergon’ explained “why when looking at the work the frame is part of the wall, and yet when looking at the wall it is part of the work. Refused by each to be considered as part of themselves the frame exists between the two, as a separate entity.”

The parergon is both a physical frame (which includes the gallery and setting of the work) and a metaphysical frame (the context : meaning).



The term ‘connections’, in my practice, is tied to meaning. I use it here to describe the connections between objects in my works. These connections are vital for the reading of the work, and the reason for many objects inclusion. (This idea is also mentioned in my reflection ‘Narrative : Conversation : Dialogue’)

In the past I have used the term ‘relational aesthetics’ to describe my work. Relational Aesthetics, in art terms, was defined by Nicholas Bourriaud in 1998. Bourriaud describes the idea as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (Bourriaud, 1998 : 113)

In my practice i believe the term is applicable, but for very distinct reasons. The creation of the work is done in a private space, of sorts. Once i collect my materials i rarely involve others in the creation of the works. I observe but don't necessarily actively collaborate or attempt to engage physically or personally with the audience.

Where relational aesthetics sits in my practice is in the relationships between individual elements of installation. Taken as a term without the above context, these words speak about the aesthetic similarities and differences between objects, forms and ideas; the way they relate to one another.

This element of intention is vital to my work. It is part of the medium used. Arguably this is true of many artists, but i believe it is a focus in my work. I seek out associations and context within these objects and then spatially explore ways of objectifying those relationships.

A quick note on Bourriaud - I've spoken before about a viewpoint of myself as narrator or director. Bourriaud describes artists as facilitators, a description that i connect with.

From the Tate website, which is a superbly succinct description, “He saw artists as facilitators rather than makers and regarded art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewers. The artist, in this sense, gives audiences access to power and the means to change the world.” (Tate, Undated)


In many ways ‘relational aesthetics’ is the wrong term to use here. I need to explore an alternative.

A focus on the way objects communicate with one another shows the ways they affect the meaning of one another. The passive interactivity of objects.

Viewing this conflict in an artwork allows for a deeper exploration of the meaning of each.

The connections are not singular, they form a complicated web. The challenge is to present that web in a concise visual form. Or maybe it is to present it with a concise visual form. Even when being concise in context involves an over abundance of material.



We make associations between things, it is a way of understanding the universe around ourselves.

I would argue that it is most prominent in children and art (in its broadest sense).

Artists play with associations, to communicate a message or idea.



The definition of objects becomes important through the questioning of it.



Semiotics is the study of meaning in signs and symbols. More can be found on Semiotics here.

To put it in words that are succinctly, and woefully, shallow - Semiotics explores signs, composed of two parts; the signifier (physical reality) and, the signified (the language we use around it).

Semiotics is a complex subject and one i’ve only begun to explore contextually. It is an interesting and useful methodology and will become more tangible when reflecting on individual works.



These words are important to my practice, and of personal interest. Most interesting is the term, however wrong, ‘relational aesthetics’ and the ways i have been using the term. Finding a new term could lead to a focus.

The other terms in this articulation are more general, and while interesting are not a focus or drive.