Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’: Social Practice or Cultural Appropriation?

For his show at kurimanzutto in Mexico City, the artist collaborates with Indigenous potters Cooperativa 1050° to rediscover age-old arts and crafts

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BY Mebrak Tareke in Exhibition Reviews | 08 JUL 22

Back in late April, scores of people gathered at kurimanzutto gallery in Mexico City to visit a low, black wooden structure, known as a casita, and sample either mezcal or pulque straight out of small, handmade clay pots. These two agave-based alcoholic drinks were being served, unassumingly, by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija in what felt like a candle-lit cave up in the foothills of Mexico. Everyone was huddled around countless clay mugs perched on a modest dining table for the opening of Tiravanija’s new show, ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’. This thought-provoking exhibition is the result of a nearly two-year-long exchange between Tiravanija and Cooperativa 1050°, a collective of Indigenous potters from as far afield as Chiapas, Puebla and Oaxaca, with whom he rediscovered traditional pottery techniques from different regions of Oaxaca.

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Activation of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Cooperativa 1050°’s ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’ at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York; photograph: Jos Martin

Around the imposing casita, more clay pots of various sizes and textures were displayed on the gallery’s vast, glistening floor. Some were smooth, dark and shiny; others were rough, earthen and textured. There’s something quite jarring about placing the intimacy of age-old Indigenous arts and crafts within a commercial gallery. Even if, as stated by the gallery’s press team: ‘All the works in the exhibition made by the master potters were priced and paid for through a fair-trade system established by Cooperativa 1050°.’ Yet, the artist was still urging visitors to confront institutional taboos around touching art and the value of what are often viewed as artisanal objects in an industry that too often appears distant, staged and market-driven.

Still, the question remains: is this social practice or cultural appropriation? Produced between August 2021 and April 2022, these hand-moulded clay vessels – mugs, urns, jugs – seem to have resulted from a fair exchange: a gesture of pure reciprocity between Tiravanija and Margarita Cortés Cruz, Gregoria Cruz Peralta and Marisela Ortiz Cortés from Río Blanco Tonaltepec, and Silvia García Mateos and Leopoldo Barranco from San Bartolo Coyotepec. During the press conference, Tiravanija said that he intended to build a larger version of the original casita in Rio Blanco Tonaltepec that had inspired the gallery’s installation, to serve as a gathering place for both visitors and locals. These acts of reciprocity struck me as quite noble – a living experiment that seeks to ensure, in the artist’s own words, ‘that art becomes life and life becomes art’.

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Rirkrit Tiravanija, installation view of ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’ at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York; photograph: Gerardo Landa Rojano

Tiravanija’s conscious avoidance of othering the master potters can also be seen in two large collages (Untitled, January 10, 2022 and Untitled, February 16, 2021, both 2022) comprising pages taken from the Oaxacan newspaper La Jornada. Covered in bursts of clay, mezcal, ash and pulque, the two works – one showing the active, smoking volcano of Popocatépetl in Mexico; the other, a polluted beach in the artist’s native Thailand – depict realities that could affect Tiravanija and the Mexican potters. In addition, during the press preview, both parties described the process of working together as a form of rebirth and growth, an opportunity to share the makers’ traditional skills with the rest of the world and for Tiravanija to discover that he was also learning something new. In effect, there was little to no distinction between himself and the master potters, the self and other.

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Opening of ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’ by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Cooperativa 1050° at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York; photograph: Abigail Enzaldo

‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’ is a moving tribute to how relational aesthetics can bring us closer together, disrupting misconceptions around how people should interact differently with objects depending on whether they are in a gallery setting or not. Tiravanija quashes false narratives around the hierarchies of art, commerce and human experience in Mexico, calling into question how we think about seeing art in communion: an activity that’s constantly in flux, rather than an opportunity to make snap judgements.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’ is on view at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, until 27 August.

Main Image: Opening of ‘Mezcal vs. Pulque’ by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Cooperativa 1050° at kurimanzutto, Mexico City, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York; photograph: Abigail Enzaldo

Mebrak Tareke is the founder of TiMS Creative, a global consultancy on the future of storytelling. She has written for Arnet News, Hyperallergic and The Brooklyn Rail on art, politics and culture in the African diaspora.

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