What does it mean that art-culture continues to focus our attention on the display of exotic objects in near-empty rooms when most of the world does not have enough to eat? To what extent does the art community's discourse of values and meanings function as a mere shield, protecting against the realisation that we have constructed a microcosm that keeps itself arrogantly positioned beyond the issues of the general populace? Although this waning century has been full of autocriticality, such questions never seemed to bother earlier generations of 20th century artists in quite the same way as they bother us today, perhaps because they had something called 'art' that they could rail against. Or, perhaps more accurately, when such issues did arise, they were responded to with a gesture of futility, or else by the rare decision to leave the art world behind in order to devote one's energies to making life more bearable for at least a handful of others.
As art in the postmodern era has struggled to break down the cycle of its own objectification through style, what has replaced the exclusive code of an aesthetics based on historically-derived models is the license to link one's production to virtually any form of social ritual or exchange. However, this loosening of art's bonds to its own past has not prevented art historical references (including those to very recent art history) from cropping up within the work itself. If anything it heightens the possibility that such allusions might be freely mixed with sources and materials that bear no relationship to the history of art, but do lend themselves easily to a polymorphic mix of gestures and partial forms that allow the work to perpetually slip back and forth across the already amorphous boundary between art and daily practice.
Somewhere between these two separate lines of inquiry, a cultural space has opened up to allow Rirkrit Tiravanija's work to occupy an important role within the evolution of these ideas in their physical form. His art, while appearing to be essentially formless, is in fact based on very precise calibrations of social perceptions outside the art world as much as within. The environments that he creates are conceived in order to mingle with their surroundings, even if that means that they are frequently mistaken for situations that take place between or instead of 'art' experiences. His 1992 installation, Untitled (Free) at 303 Gallery, New York, was the first time his work was seen by a larger gallery-going public, and in it there were essentially two different activities taking place. The main event consisted of the transformation of the gallery's exhibition and storage spaces, so that the art being stored was placed on display in the centre of the space, while the racks, supply closet and bathroom were literally stripped clean. At regularly scheduled intervals during the exhibition, Tiravanija would also prepare a large curry to be freely shared with anyone who happened to be passing by, thus disrupting the social space of art in a second distinct way. The switching of private and public spaces within an art gallery did suggest a kind of excavation of a site. But the more lasting effect of both activities was as an analysis and comparison of the ways in which human energy and resources become concealed behind the seamless apparatus that constitutes an exhibition in a contemporary art gallery.
Food is central to Tiravanija's investigation because it occupies a critical symbolic position in the way humans categorise their experience. Because we no longer live as hunters and gatherers, the extent to which we distance ourselves from the social processes involved in the production of food - not cuisine or cooking, but production in its most basic sense - acts as a way of measuring the ways in which we are uncomfortable with our nature as animals. Most recent art that has dealt with food in an interactive way has chosen to focus either on the pageantry of the event surrounding the meal (MiraIda), or else on playing with the aura of participation attached to the consumption of food (Gonzalez-Torres). In Tiravanija's case, the act of serving the viewer becomes vital to the effectiveness of the piece, since it allows the distinctions between art and non-art to break down of their own accord, without having to be forced.
A good example of this socio-aesthetic transformation was with the work Untitled (Artificial Flavoring) which constituted Tiravanija's participation in the 1991 group show 'Wealth of Nations' in Warsaw. Filling two large suitcases with a particularly irresistible flavour of American potato chip (bacon yoghurt), Tiravanija arranged that the suitcases would be opened as the public arrived, the predictable result being that the chips were eaten in a blur and the empty suitcases left behind as a form of sculptural afterthought. By exposing the notion of American consumption for a few moments in the form of a brief public snack in Poland, the artist is also subtly addressing the inequalities that exist between the two economic systems. The reason the chips taste even better in Poland is that they cannot be as easily replaced by more of the same. Tiravanija's piece for the 1993 'Aperto', Untitled (Twelve Seventy-One) explored similarly charged socio-historic ground, at least insofar as the title refers to the year that Marco Polo set off from Venice to explore the world. Making sly reference to the fact that one of the things Polo brought back from Asia was the now ubiquitous noodle, the artist showed a canoe; a set of propane burners boiling large vessels of water; tables and stools; and a seemingly endless supply of cups of instant noodles, now recycled back to the Venetian public. Most recently, in a group show at Metro Pictures organised by Friedrich Petzel, Tiravanija set up a free water bar in front of the gallery's Greene Street picture-window, allowing viewers a chance to enjoy the same kind of sitting privileges which at other Soho windows would have cost them at least the price of a cappuccino.
Giving art away is, of course, a utopian prospect that has existed in one form or another since the earliest days of the century. But it is not a Marxist proposition because it cannot be maintained as part of a coherent social structure without a lot of hidden economic machinery (galleries, collectors, etc.) Nor can Tiravanija's practice be correctly called utopian in the concrete sense of acting as a model for some larger activity that might be applied to any of the world's problems, in the way that Gordon Matta-Clark's 'Food' restaurant, which opened in Soho in 1971, provided an operating system for an art/business principle that has since spawned numerous variants over the years, each based on a different localised set of conditions. By comparison, Tiravanija's situations are much more ephemeral, less contained by the intricate relationships found in community infrastructures and more attached to the idea of portability, of ease and simplicity in presentation. Their particular nature as events arises from the placement of the spectator at the centre of the piece, allowing each one to determine the duration and nature of their interaction with the work at hand.
In the 1992 work Untitled (Lure), which was produced for the exhibition 'Poverty Pop' at Exit Art, Tiravanija delved much deeper into some of the social issues that inform his work. Providing the viewer with a loosely flapped orange tent that permitted a sensorial escape from the visually overfilled exhibition outside, the piece literally produced a break in the flow of the group exhibition. Tiravanija effectively captured the idea that defining culture in too exclusive a way - as in the exhibition's premise - can veer towards redundancy, whereas leaving definitions open often leads one to question the context from which such ideas emerge. Because this relaxation of two seemingly opposed principles is not intrinsically a Western concept, the artist is also directing us back to an awareness of our own expectations about what we get from the act of contemplating a work of art. Tiravanija seems to imply that the nature of the meditation does not change that much, whether we contemplate the artwork itself or simply the nature of our own contemplation.
Because of the elusive nature of the issues in which he is involved, it seems misleading to succumb to the critical fashion of referring to Tiravanija's work as 'real' art. Although he is certainly questioning the process by which ideas are institutionalised into form, he is not doing so from the pragmatic basis that such a term might imply. There should be no doubt either that Tiravanija wishes his work to be experienced as art, or that he is involved in consciously adapting the definition of art to whatever conditions seem most pertinent to the situation in which it is encountered. If we could limit ourselves strictly to the opinion that as a body of work it is grounded in its author's observations about the world and its inhabitants, then the epithet 'real' might indeed apply. But in the last analysis, the only thing that remains truly real about Tiravanija's art is his desire that we experience it in the form of a pause that helps us to forget the distinctions between the artwork and the world to which it must eventually return.