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Rirkrit Tiravanija
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Wikipedia About Rirkrit Tiravanija

Rirkrit Tiravanija is a contemporary artist residing in New York. He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1961. His installations often take the form of stages or rooms for sharing meals, cooking, reading or playing music; architecture or structures for living and socializing are a core element in his work. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Rirkrit Tiravanija, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Rirkrit Tiravanija was born into a diplomat’s family in Buenos Aires, raised in different parts of the world, and settled in Bangkok to attend high school. Upon graduation, he continued his studies in Canada and the United States, and now divides his time between New York, Berlin, Bangkok, and everywhere in between. Peregrination—touted as the defining condition of our “global” age in which inhabitants lead “nomadic” lives—comes naturally for the artist. Constant motion, however, does not constitute a raison d’être in itself, but rather suggests a state of being. In his art, mobility is a catalyst for the formation of communities, networks of acquaintances, and lasting friendships within them.

It is only to be expected, then, that “convivial” is an adjective that appears so frequently in writings about Tiravanija’s art. Defined as “relating to, occupied with, or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company,”1 the word finds its etymological origin in the Latin word convivium, meaning a banquet, which is in turn a compound of “com” (with) and “vivere” (to live). Cooking performances, which the artist has done for more than ten years in galleries and museums around the world, are open to interested viewers, art world workers, total strangers, and friends, and indeed create experiences that resemble a banquet. But in a more fundamental way, his work reframes the experience of art per se. It is no longer posited as a solitary, meditative relationship between an object and a viewer, but as a situation in which audience participants are reminded that they are social entities coming into completion only in relation with one another. In that sense, the work is especially representative of the aspect of interpersonal connectivity in 1990s art, which French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud has named “relational aesthetics.”2

If a new kind of aesthetics is in fact expressed in Tiravanija’s art, it did not come out of a vacuum. His work and the larger aesthetic matrix of which it is part are intimately tied and deeply indebted to the conceptual lineage of postwar and contemporary art, which includes such figures as Carl Andre, Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Andy Warhol. Though wildly divergent from one another, these artists, between the 1960s and the early 1990s, collectively critiqued originality and auteurism in modernism, formulated the notions of dematerialization, interactivity, and communalism, and reconceptualized the economy of art and artistic labor. One concrete art-historical precedent for Tiravanija’s approach can be found in the work of Michael Asher. For his 1974 solo show at the Claire Copley Gallery, Los Angeles, Asher removed the physical, visual barrier between a pristine exhibition space and an office behind it, exposing the separation between a purely perceptual and reflective experience of art and the attendant fiscal transactions.3 Almost two decades later, Tiravanija’s rejoinder, Untitled (Free) (1992), presented at the 303 Gallery, New York, used a similar trick. He transplanted into the exhibition space what usually stays in the back room—inventoried artworks, custodial supplies, sundry electronic equipment—as well as the gallery owner. The emptied room was then turned into a place for the artist’s cooking and “conviviality.”

In that Tiravanija engages in a sort of social catalysis, an even more pertinent historical model for his art would be German artist’s Joseph Beuys, whose concept of “social sculpture” redefined art as various activities geared toward positive social change. Beuys’ utopianism was interwoven with his unique understanding of the artist’s role as a spiritual medium, an idea that approached something akin to shamanism. In his one-person exhibition at Migros Museum in Zurich in 1998, Tiravanija installed in the galleries a bar, an automobile body shop, and a supermarket, all fully functioning despite the displacement. Coming to the museum for a rarified experience, visitors were instead invited to be the social beings that they already are. The title of the exhibition, Social Capital, operated as a quip on Beuys’ social sculpture and may well describe Tiravanija’s larger project in general. Described as “human networks and institutions that constitute social cohesion” by the World Bank, the United Nations agency that oversees worldwide economic development, “social capital” as appropriated by Tiravanija is rendered specially relevant for a practice that is acutely conscious of the far-reaching dynamics of globalization.4 His work is distinct from Beuys’ for its lack of gravitas, however. His seemingly lighthearted art may not address the precarious condition of civilization at peril that concerned Beuys so greatly in the wake of a catastrophic war, but it makes its own political commentary on capital’s latest colonization of the everyday.

The artist’s works in the Walker Art Center’s collection include Untitled, 1995 (Back of Postcard Reads:), a multimedia installation he created for the 1995 exhibition Economies: Hans Accola and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Multiples, being especially well-suited for experiential multiplication and accessibility, are prominent in his body of work. Always having to do with specific actions and events that constitute his art, these objects are born out of memories and are reminders rather than remainders. Catalogue (Back of Postcard Reads) Memories, an editioned work that he produced and the Walker published, brings together various images and items related to the exhibition and maps, like an atlas, the memories associated with it.

Many of his multiples make reference to food or cooking, an integral element in his art-making. Young Man, if my wife makes it … (2000) is a fabricated plastic-and-wax model of a plate of pad thai. The title comes from an interaction he once had with a senior Thai artist, who on the occasion of the younger artist’s lecture on his earlier cooking performance “Pad Thai,” uttered those derisive words to question its status as art. Tiravanija recalls: “There were at the time questions concerning the authenticity of my Thainess, and [whether] I was using Thainess (culture) as an exotic flavour, for which [it] became in the Western context a successful work of art.”5 The question—a dilemma shared by many non-Western contemporary artists—stayed with him. A few years later, the artist encountered fake food models so ubiquitously displayed in restaurant shop windows in Japan. After a cooking performance at a gallery in Tokyo, he had an artisan fabricate multiple model copies of the pad thai he had made.6 With the production of this edition, the particular memory he had carried around materialized as “a playful return to the question asked many years back!”7 The manner in which he uses multiples in relation to his ephemeral, often cerebral art resonates yet again with Beuys, for whom such objects functioned as “props for the memory” and “kernel[s] of condensation upon which many things may accumulate.”8Young man, if my wife makes it … also contains Tiravanija’s idiosyncratic idea of what art is and what its social meaning is, and conveys it from the time and place of its origin to the present. The “playful” object—a pair of chopsticks picking up strands of sweet noodles from a plate—jogs viewers’ minds with the philosophical questions and idle thoughts that had occupied the artist’s mind. Or, it tells them simply that life is a banquet.

  1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition (Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1994), 254.

  2. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Presses du Réel, 2002).

  3. Jerry Saltz makes a comparison between Asher and Tiravanija in “A Short History of Rirkrit Tiravanija,” Art in America 84, no. 2 (February 1996): 84–85.

  4. See the World Bank’s Web site: http://www1.worldbank.org/prem/poverty/scapital/index.htm (accessed January 18, 2005).

  5. Tiravanija, e-mail correspondence with Walker curatorial intern Aimee Chang, December 27, 2001 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  6. Junko Shimada, director, Gallery Side 2, Tokyo, e-mail correspondence with the author, April 25, 2004.

  7. Tiravanija, e-mail correspondence with Chang.

  8. Quoted in Jörg Schellmann and Bernd Klüser, “Questions to Joseph Beuys,” in Jörg Schellmann, ed., Joseph Beuys, The Multiples (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums; Minneapolis: Walker Art Center; Munich and New York: Edition Schellmann, 1997), 9.

Chong, Doryun. “Rirkrit Tiravanija.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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