by carl wilson

Turning Around on Rirkrit Tiravanija

A Tiravanija installation, with the artist at the far right of the pic.

I went to hear the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija speak tonight at the Ontario College of Art & Design, of which, by the way, he's an alumnus: He moved to Canada with his Thai diplomat parents when he was 19, started as a history student at Carleton in Ottawa and as his interest in art was stirring, happened to notice an OCAD (or OCA as it was then) calendar on a counsellor's office shelf, pulled together a portfolio and applied. This was in the early '80s, an especially dynamic time in the Toronto art scene, which spilled over into the school. (He moved on from there to study at the Chicago Institute of Art and the Whitney program, and is now based in Thailand, Berlin and New York.) On his return visit, Rirkrit (as everyone seems to call him) is the first of OCAD's "Nomadic Residents," a program of the school's new Professional Gallery, which is meant to "inspire and influence the OCAD community by featuring artists from around the world whose work questions issues such as travel, mobility, displacement, dislocation, and homelessness, as well as the speed or instability of modern life. ... [to] to join here to there, the local to the global and the provisional and the permanent." He had a low-key chat with OCAD prof and gallery curator Charles Reeve, sometimes so low-key it was boring, and yet I walked away feeling inspired.

Tiravanija is a bit of a pet of the "relational aesthetics" scene, enough so that a picture of one of his installations formed the cover of Parisian critic/curator Nicolas Bourriaud's book of that name. He's best known for installations he's been doing since the early 1990s in which he cooks Thai food for gallerygoers, making the social interaction his material. Another is a meticulous reconstruction of his New York apartment, installed in various galleries in other cities, open 24 hours with an invitation for people to just come hang out and use the place as they pleased. I've always been a bit mystified by the acclaim, from descriptions of his work, feeling that aside from the obvious desire to subvert the inertia of museum/gallery space (an old theme by now), it sounded rather thin. And when he started talking about his student days, when he said his work was always very well-received, I thought, "Aha, maybe he's just, like, the perpetual 'A' student of the art world."

But as he spoke, in gentle tones and small whorls and spirals, around his work, of how he concentrates on the details of the spaces he works in and, particularly, how his projects are always in contention with the physical and legal and institutional barriers and limits of those spaces, and how he changes his work in relation to those limits, I started to get a sense of the energy and chargedness that those who attend his shows seem to experience. It was also striking how much of his work is really to create instructions (or "recipes" if you will) that other people interpret and carry out, and how unnarcissistically open he is to the inevitability of those instructions being altered and improvised upon by the participants, in a flux and flow. For two "retrospectives" of his work in Europe, for instance, he simply left museum spaces totally empty and wrote a script for their docents to use (and elaborate on) to guide audiences around the room while pointing out and describing the "works" that weren't actually there. It's a beautiful concept, a game of let's-pretend that at the same time elegantly answers the absurd problem of how to gather together a body of work that consists mainly of ephemeral experiences. (Very cagey.) And it doesn't involve Tiravanija's presence at all, except as absent referent, as source of initial chain of reaction, reinforcing the quiet rebuke to individualism in his approach. Likewise, I was moved by the idea of "The Land," a collaborative project he's undertaken on a large former rice field in Thailand, which is simply open for artists to use as a site - including architectural investigations of sustainable development. He described the recent "One Year" project, in which a group of artists just spent a year there, getting some work done, but mainly getting to know and talk with one another - it made me think about relationship versus work, in the way some of the best "relational" projects I've seen or been involved with have done, whether all this business of producing artifacts and documents and art is, in the end, as important as the human connections that arise in the process.

His responses to audience questions that drew on the art-world rhetoric around his work were also nice to see - when people asked about "the social as the new modernism" or "open-source art" he would shrug them off, a bit embarrassed, though respectful, conveying that his role as an artist was to explore and expose the territory, not to be the one to map it. I often feel that it's unseemly when artists get too excited about the critical vocabularies around their own work, as though their works really were reducible to a journal article on issues in politics or philosophy or aesthetics, in which case maybe they'd be better off just writing journal articles. (This isn't meant to be a slam against artists who do have a precise intellectual armature for what they're doing, as many of the greatest have, and certainly not against journal articles; but with the re-academicization of the art world, sometimes the critical discourse has become the cart drawing the horse; by distancing himself from the hype other people use to sell his work on the intellectual market, Rirkrit seemed to avoid becoming their product.)

I was also stirred by the video that was projected while he and Reeve talked, a gorgeously simple documentary of a meal he cooked with a group of people in Singapore, which gave a bit of a taste (sorry) of his work for those of us who haven't encountered it first-hand. And then there's his exhibition in the OCAD gallery, which opens today, and which he avoided addressing directly but explained by means of several stories about dealing with those aforementioned institutional limits in other places. The background (at least as rumoured in the audience) is that he wanted to have something cooking, but that was deemed a fire hazard; other proposals ran up against other OCAD rules. So what he did, as a few of us found out by slipping upstairs for a peek, was to wall up the entrance to the gallery - and again, remember, this is its first exhibit, as well as Tiravanija's first Canadian solo show - with, I think, cinderblock bricks, and sealed with mortar. So no one can enter it. He said this was also a "time-based" work, hinting broadly that it wouldn't stay in the same condition over the coming months. I'm very curious to see how it develops.

You can view a video of a conversation a year ago between Tiravanija and science-fiction writer and conceptual gadabout Bruce Sterling at the Walker Center in Minneapolis online. It's more animated than tonight's talk was, but be warned, Sterling is rather overbearing in relation to the softspoken Tiravanija. Still worth watching, though.

Plus, for some music content: the Rirkrit Tiravanija song (er, not a keeper).

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 04 at 11:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)



I really like the post and the comments here.
Nice to have the reflections from someone in the scene Erella. This is part of what I like about Zoilus, various observations on a theme. These are perspectives that I don't see elsewhere. As I think about it, that is an increasingly rare occurance.

Keep it up.


Posted by kim on April 9, 2007 8:50 PM



Really enjoyed that post, Carl. You should do more art writing...or, if you already do, tell me where to read it.
Love to you,
Lisa Mark

Posted by Lisa on April 8, 2007 4:58 AM



Thanks for the nice post Carl. It speaks to the hippie in me -- happenings, festival, Grotowski's beehives (as described by Andre in "My Dinner With . . . "). In music, creating an atmosphere in which everybody present takes part in the music-making, where the distinction between participant and observer breaks down, is tricky but exciting to pull off. Gospel churches where the congregants are welcome possesse to bring tambourines (and/or shriek in ecstasy, possessed by the Holy Spirit) achieve it. Coerced-sing-along folk concerts a la Pete Seeger don't really achieve it, or they do at a low level of distinction-break-down.

Once at an open mic in college two friends jumped onstage without warning and wrapped me in string while I sang. I really enjoyed that. Just right now my 4-year-old is grabbing my arms and "making them dance" while he sings, which is slow=ing m y typ[inbg and crakcing m e up.

A couple of times I got it into my head to invite a dozen musicians and non-musicians over to the house to record a brand new song. Your post inspired mne to pofst 2 ov 'em. thanks! ( & t,.hank Nat for the typiows._ )

Posted by john on April 7, 2007 9:41 AM



Hey, nice to see you went to Rirkrit's lecture. I really wanted to attend but was unable to twist my schedule into a workable state in order to make it possible. Wishing, really doesn't make things happen.

Rirkrit and I were close friends in the early 80's in new York. The group of us art students was a tight one, pooling resources and inspiring imaginations in one another.

I think the first 10 or 20 times I ate Thai food was when he cooked it in his little NY apartment. It was before Thai restaurants appeared on every block, before anyone I knew had ever heard of Pad Thai. At the time, there were no Thai restaurants in New York or Toronto. None.
I loved learning how to cook with nam pla, lemongrass, galangal and other ingredients that my "artist friend, Rirkrit, with Thai diplomat parents" taught me. I looked up Thailand on the map 26 years ago, after first meeting him. His heritage/background was fascinating, but his ability to combine that with his artistic concepts made for the best kind of person to spend time with. Haha, that, and he's an amazingly skilful cook. Nice to see a photo of him posted with a fantastic array of colourful delicacies. Still regularly using some of his recipes as a part of my repertoire, I hadn't seen him in years. I do think of him often and taste his influence on my culinary vocabulary.

It was wonderful to relax with him last night. I told him about your zoilus post and about you in general. Carl, you are one of my favourite writers. He was thrilled to hear about the Celine Dion book, looking forward to reading what an intelligent mind makes of her. Sincerely curious and excited, he wants to know about it when the book is launched.

We talked recipes, about sharing food with large numbers of people and about the story of Stone Soup. He said there was a Stone Soup video showing in the background at his lecture . It is one of my very favourite stories, and his too. He puts a stone at the bottom of every shared pot as a kind of reminder of the story. After all these years, and pretty much no time sharing oxygen, I was glad to connect so completely with this friend and the group again, when given the chance.

Wonderful. One of the privileges of living a long time is being able to reconnect with people that mean a lot to us. Seeing how their ideas resonate with new friends is an added bonus.


Posted by Erella Ganon on April 6, 2007 1:00 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson