Rirkrit Tiravanija Doesn’t Want to Be the Centre of Attention
A closer look at the transgressive artist who brought cooking into the gallery
A closer look at the transgressive artist who brought cooking into the gallery
The story goes, he was running late. As Rirkrit Tiravanija tells it, he was going to cook the pad thai, transfer it into sealed containers and allow the visitors to his exhibition at Paula Allen Gallery in New York to help themselves. But gathering the groceries around Chinatown took so long that he had no choice but to cook throughout the entire opening. Friends, seeing him stressed, helped, while others, confused, thought he was the caterer. Tiravanija and friends then served the food to a lot of people. Thus was untitled (pad thai) (1990).
So, I appreciate the irony when, in July, I drive two-and-a-half hours to Hancock, New York, to meet Tiravanija at his and gallerist Gavin Brown’s restaurant-cum-gallery Unclebrother, and he is running late. It’s a balmy afternoon: artist Precious Okoyomon is in the kitchen with a few helpers preparing a spicy whole roast lamb with peaches and roses, while Tiravanija will be outside overseeing two curries (green and massaman) and cooking two kinds of paella (one vegetarian, the other seafood and sausage). Mr. Fingers’s ‘Mystery of Love’ (1985) bumps inside the eatery, a former car dealership (‘DaBrescia Motors Inc’ still adorns the seafoam facade). Two signs from the neighbouring shop face Unclebrother: ‘Fuck Biden and fuck you for voting for him’ and ‘Trump 2024: Fuck Your Feelings’.
While waiting for Tiravanija, I offer myself as a line cook and I am tasked with peeling shrimp. When we speak later, Tiravanija is insistent that Unclebrother is not a restaurant but a kitchen – an apt term to define the space in-between the propriety of a restaurant and the very DIY nature of his cooking pieces. Okoyomon’s lamb sits in two smoking buckets outside; beside it are two paella pans resting atop propane-fuelled burners. When Tiravanija arrives one hour before opening, he immediately gets to work preparing the curries, before moving to his paella station where he’ll be for the rest of the evening. His salt-and-pepper hair is up in a bun; he’s wearing sweats, chefs’ clogs and a shirt he got at a Berlin golf tournament organized by friend and fellow artist Olafur Eliasson.
When I ask him about his decision to set up a more permanent kitchen, compared to his itinerant cooking pieces, he reminds me of Passerby, the bar opened by Brown in 1999 that attached to his then-gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, on West 15th Street. The disco-styled venue played watering hole to both the arts and fashion crowds, as well as to the neighbourhood’s blue-collar community, until its closure eight years later. Just before the bar opened, Tiravanija staged untitled 1999 (tomorrow can shut up and go away) (1999) in the gallery. Originally presented at Kölnischer Kunstverein as untitled 1996 (tomorrow is another day) (1996), this recreation comprised a condensed plywood replica of Tiravanija’s apartment in New York’s East Village, complete with running water and a working gas stove. Unlike in Cologne – where labour restrictions meant the gallery could only operate six days a week – Gavin Brown’s Enterprise remained open 24 hours per day for the duration of the three-and-a-half-month run. As in Cologne, Tiravanija left town shortly after the opening: the idea being that he didn’t need to be present for the work to be activated – a sentiment he also relays to me about his cooking pieces. In its first iteration, the apartment was relatively tame: visitors would cook, nap, celebrate birthdays; the second, however, found visitors fucking and fighting. Still, nothing truly bad happened, as Brown explained to The New Yorker in 2004. ‘The art world is very polite.’
Born in 1961 in Buenos Aires – where his father, a diplomat, was working at the Thai embassy – Tiravanija moved around a lot as a child: Bangkok when he was three, Addis Ababa at seven and back to Bangkok by 1970. He attended university in Ottawa, where he enrolled to study photojournalism but soon switched to fine art after encountering the work of Marcel Duchamp and Kazimir Malevich on an art history course. He moved to New York shortly thereafter to attend the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program.
Tiravanija now lives between New York, Berlin and Chiang Mai, with itinerancy a key, albeit often-overlooked, aspect of his practice. The early work untitled 1994 (from barajas to paracuellos de jarama to torrejon de ardoz to san fernando or coslada to reina sofia) (1994), made for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, featured the bicycle that Tiravanija walked 17 kilometres from Madrid airport to the museum, the supplies that sustained him during the trip, as well as a video documenting the experience. ‘It’s always been about the position of the self in the place,’ he says. ‘And that’s because I’m always displaced. I’m never not at home because everywhere is home.’
A common criticism of Tiravanija’s practice is that it promotes a woo-woo utopian vision of the world without much of a coherent politics to back it. Nearly 20 years ago in this magazine, Dan Fox wrote: ‘[U]ndoubtedly there’s something New Age about Tiravanija’s neo-hippie positivity’. There’s been a focus by critics from Claire Bishop to Nicolas Bourriaud on the dubious claims to a democratic interactivity these works seem to promote. But, as Brown tells me jocundly, Tiravanija is ‘a little bit of a sadist’. In addition to running Unclebrother with Tiravanija, Brown is the artist’s close friend, collaborator and gallerist of nearly 30 years. ‘It’s not only about bringing people together: it’s also about making people feel a bit itchy in their skin,’ he tells me about those early relational works. Brown was working at 303 Gallery in New York when Tiravanija staged untitled (free) (1992), in which he moved the contents of the gallery’s office – desks, filing cabinets, works by other artists – into the exhibition space and cooked Thai curry in the back. ‘There was a palpable tension. People saying, “What has he done to our gallery?”’ Brown reflects. ‘Rirkrit was describing his own discomfort, his own otherness to all of these, essentially white, middle-class art makers, art lovers, art goers.’
Tiravanija was a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago when he visited the museum’s Asian wing – specifically, the artefacts from Thailand. They were ‘Asian objects’, he tells me, ‘like Buddhas and bowls’. There was a dissonance, though, between the aesthetic value for which the museum presented these objects and the use value that Tiravanija had attributed to them. ‘For us, they’re important because we use them. A Buddha is a used object, not a sculpture; it’s not an idle thing,’ he says. ‘It’s there to remind you of the philosophy you have.’
In 1996, after his participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale and the 1995 Whitney Biennial, Tiravanija returned to Thailand an international star. ‘You know,’ he tells me, ‘Tiger Woods is half-Thai, so everyone always claims him as Thai. But, even though I’m really Thai, they all thought that I was this kind of fake Thai, from the West.’ During a conference organized by Toshiba Thailand, artist Chalermchai Kositpipat asked Tiravanija: ‘If my wife cooks pad thai at home, does that make it art?’ To this, Tiravanija responded facetiously: ‘Well, if I were invited to that dinner.’ It’s an anecdote that demonstrates a common misinterpretation of Tiravanija’s work: that it requires the artist’s presence.
A few weeks later, we’re walking with his dog, Blue, through Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. It’s early morning, and Tiravanija is in town to prepare for his survey exhibition, ‘A Lot of People’, which opens this month at MoMA PS1. A problem has arisen: one of the electric woks Tiravanija used for pad thai isn’t working and the curators had been planning on recreating the piece with the original appliances. ‘I told them to just get a new one,’ he tells me. ‘That same wok doesn’t mean anything. It’s actually the people who came that meant more.’ The show at PS1 – in addition to presenting works across sculpture, film and painting from the late 1980s to the present – will feature five ‘plays’ of Tiravanija’s relational pieces, including pad thai and free/still, performed by actors from a ‘score’ written by the artist. While visitors will be able to eat ‘pre-cooked’ pad thai or curry, dance with the actors (untitled 1993/2008 (shall we dance), 1993/2008) and make a graphic t-shirt (untitled 2011 (t-shirt, no t-shirt), 2011), Tiravanija insists: ‘You’re not looking at the original; there is no original. It’s being reframed into an institutional structure as education.’ He’s smiling when he tells me that his show ‘JOUEZ/PLAY’ at PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art in Montreal, to open concurrently with the PS1 survey, will feature two works that will simultaneously be on display in New York. ‘It’s not like a sunflower in a vase that sits in one place,’ he explains. ‘The work could be the same in really different places and be doing completely different things.’ There’s always been this inherent tension between Tiravanija’s practice and the institutional expectations for artworks. When we speak, he emphasizes the increasing limits to how a person can experience art in a museum.
In 2004–05, Tiravanija’s ‘A Retrospective (tomorrow is another fine day)’ toured from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam to the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ARC. Notably, the only objects on display were empty plywood structures resembling the works’ initial locales; his practice was described in voiceovers written by Tiravanija and fellow artist Philippe Parreno as well as in a story by sci-fi author Bruce Sterling, recited by the voice of a ‘ghost’. Impermanence is built into Tiravanija’s practice. When a cooking piece is completed, he always packs up the waste, telling me: ‘I don’t want to leave anything behind.’
Brown tells me that he thinks ‘the work is obsessed with death’. When Tiravanija came to North America, he had to be the charming, smiling guy, the one who is now projected to be behind these ‘utopian’ works, Brown emphasizes. But he was stateless in many ways, being the son of a diplomat, and there is something unfriendly in all the friendliness. In ‘We Don’t Recognise What We Don’t See’, held earlier this year at STPI in Singapore and curated by another long-time collaborator Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artist presented untitled 2020 nature morte (2023), a series of 20 aluminium plates dedicated to extinct species. On the occasion of the show, Obrist recalled in a conversation with the artist that, when playing a game in which he had to choose to be an animal, Tiravanija opted to be a fruit fly. During our meeting, I asked him to explain this choice and, without skipping a beat, he responded ‘short lifespan’.
I’m always displaced. I’m never not at home because everywhere is home
When Unclebrother opens, a queue quickly forms of local Hancock residents and art-world types visiting from the city. People mill about, sipping on wine or spicy palomas, waiting for their ticket to be called by the kitchen. Tiravanija is standing at his paella station with a helper now, handing off orders as they come in. The food is delicious; the curry nasal-drip spicy. As the night goes on, most locals filter out, the out-of-towners straggle behind. Someone brings out Jell-O shots, another is serving pre-rolled joints at the bar. A few people cross the border into Pennsylvania and bring back cheap fireworks. The crowd congregates down by the Delaware River below Unclebrother. ‘People think I have to be at the centre of things,’ Tiravanija explains while we sit over glasses of wine, scraping crispy rice off the bottom of the paella pan. ‘But I’ve tried not to be.’ Out here, you sense that. You walk into Unclebrother questioning who has a stake in what; by the time you leave, everyone seems to been a part of it.
Hancock is an overwhelmingly republican, Donald Trump-voting, economically depressed part of the state: it doesn’t have a readymade audience for a contemporary art gallery and pop-up kitchen. Yet, the picnic benches are crowded and locals are waiting in line for Thai curry. ‘I don’t understand how, at this point in the existence of humanity, we don’t understand each other better,’ Tiravanija tells me. ‘People are afraid that, if they encounter difference, it’ll change them. It’s all because they don’t understand themselves. For me, to be aware of yourself is to be aware that you can be in the chaos and can still sustain yourself.’
This article first appeared in frieze issue 238 with the headline ‘Profile: Rirkrit Tiravanija’
Rirkrit Tiravanija, ‘A LOT OF PEOPLE’ is on view at MoMA PS1, New York from 12 October until 4 March 2024
Main image: Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 1999 (caravan), 1999. Courtesy: Rirkrit Tiravanija Archive, Berlin