BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 JAN 95
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Issue 20

Rirkrit Tiravanija and Andy Warhol

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 JAN 95

For the opening of this exhibition, Rirkrit Tiravanija and a few other artists formed a pick-up band and played in the gallery's tiny office, just behind a wall onto which Warhol's film Sleep was projected. Film and music are art forms that glide along at the leading edge of experience, that are always 'of the moment', but while the band poured out psychedelic post-punk, it was starkly evident that the film was not of our time. Silent and black and white, Sleep seemed like a dream or memory, remote in time and place. Warhol's early films were always heard about, and rarely seen. This was their social function. And during the Tiravanija and Warhol opening, again no one watched the film, or for that matter the band. Instead, the crowd escaped the raging decibels inside the gallery to the street outside, where stray conversation ricocheted off the live music and dead Sleep.

Now suspicions naturally surface when an artist lashes himself to the bow of history paralleled by events like the Basquiat and Warhol debacle over at Tony Shafrazi's some years ago. But on the night of Tiravanija's opening, the transparent shadowing of history was beguiling. Ironically, it is precisely in the difference between Tiravanija's and Warhol's understanding of how the social is defined through consumption that made this exhibition satisfying. Like everyone else, my thoughts were carried back to the glasses that once clinked inside the Factory, and to the scenes of the stylish circulating with the near-famous beneath the psychedelic rhythms of the Velvet Underground. Warhol's Factory was the celebrity-dome of its era, an academy of insiders. But necessity, dictated by a modest size gallery and loud music, threw Tiravanija's opening onto the street. The street as a social venue, outside of the academy, blurred the official art world cadre into every passer-by who wanted a beer and a little music. To the undiscerning eye, this opening, nested in the bosom of high culture, functioned like a stack of Warhol Brillo boxes: it was easy enough to mistake it for what it was - a party. At least in spirit then, the opening was for everyone, without exception.

The morning after, when Sleep and the band were gone, various works by both artists took up their posts in the gallery shifting the focus back to business. An untitled electric Wok, still crusty with the food Tiravanija served during an exhibition four years before, sat on the floor beside a Warhol Brillo box. Tiravanija said in an interview that Duchamp's Fountain is his favourite sculpture because every time he sees it, it makes him piss. Presumably Warhol can make him hungry. But if Tiravanija owes something to Duchamp, he owes everything to Warhol. As Arthur C. Danto has judiciously pointed out, Warhol's early work, like Brillo Box, urged us to set aside connoisseurship, and take up philosophy, to set aside the 'good art, or bad,' query, and ponder the more substantial question: 'How it is art at all?' The way in which Tiravanija's work trips the light fantastic down this path, made level by Warhol, and paved by Danto, can here go without saying.

More revealing is that Tiravanija and Warhol share a peculiar passivity and a deft economy of means. They both quietly stir the issues around consumption and depletion to imagine an enlightened society. Part of Warhol's understanding of consumerism was as a levelling strategy, whereby consumer products deliver the same experience to everyone on the social ladder. But Warhol fails to acknowledge that drinking a Coke on a freezing sidewalk, huddled over an exhaust vent, is different than taking that refreshing sip before a cosy fireplace high above street level. Tiravanija, on the other hand, tries to minimise this difference by recasting the artist as a gentle tributary who metaphorically levels social iniquities, by offering food and tea to us all, without exception. In his work, the artist is re-positioned as a fountain of nourishment, beyond Warhol's indexed consumerism. Gazing down on the filthy Wok set next to the sleek Brillo Box, my thoughts are dispatched back in time, and skirting past the Factory parties, I conjure up Warhol working quietly every Christmas in New York City soup kitchens. It was something we all heard about, but of course never saw.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.