Friends with Benefits

Steven Henry Madoff on Rirkrit Tiravanija's new film

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Chew the Fat, 2008, still from a color film in digital video, 120 minutes. From left: Carsten Höller, Rirkrit Tiravanija.

MYSTERY, OF COURSE, is in the not-seen, in the unquantifiable. This not-visible suffuses the archaeology of knowledge, bolstering it like a flange supporting the weight of the seen. Evidence of the ineffable in the particular form of fellow feeling is everywhere present in the curiosity and affection that Rirkrit Tiravanija displays in Chew the Fat (2008), his loosely constructed film memoir of the working lives of his close circle of friends—a group of artists who rose to critical attention in the 1990s: Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno, Elizabeth Peyton, and Andrea Zittel. (In homage to Maurizio Cattelan’s signature tricksterism, he’s discussed by numerous others but never appears on-screen.) But memoir is likely too specific a genre to speak of in this instance. Part road trip, part diary of the pieces of their days, the film is improvisational and handheld, both in the camerawork and in the sense of an almost trembling tenderness on view as Tiravanija makes his rounds of their studios, kitchens, backyards, and habitual cafés.

Tiravanija’s docu-diary is much in keeping with his aesthetic, which seeks chance and dynamism in the milieu and invests in the frame rather than in the control of the active core of his projects. Here he is the interviewer and interlocutor, seen barely but heard as an amiable and not terribly pressing questioner, asking his friends where they went to school and why they became artists, and reminiscing. He is generally content with the minimal resources of cinema verité; what we learn about his friends we learn through the Flaubertian tendencies of his lens, with its slow capture of drifting minutiae that pool to form an image of time, place, and personality. The oddness of Höller’s fascination with birds and their food, the mixture of levity and gravity in Huyghe’s sense of himself and his practice, the characteristic incisiveness of Gillick’s intelligence caught in playful sentences, and Gonzalez-Foerster’s outsiderish will toward philosophical isolation give us small glimmers of their lives and personhoods, of their assumption by now of success and material ease, though not a great deal is gathered in any rigorous way about the intellectual foundations or feeling obsessions that have compelled them to make the work they do or to form the congress of filiations they have.

That, I suppose, is still left in part to Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which first rounded them up as sharing elective affinities in their cultural production. And though Gillick has argued vociferously in print against this theorized ghetto, there is nothing said in Chew the Fat’s two-hour running time to countermand or render problematic that discussion. Perhaps Nancy Spector’s exhibition catalogue for “theanyspacewhatever” will offer the retrospective gaze and analytic discipline required to balance Bourriaud’s pioneering claims. And while the desire to learn more about their net of commonalities and differences is piqued by the film, Tiravanija is still in the midst of finishing full-length films on each of the artists, produced over three years of shooting, which presumably will have the depth impossible to attain here. In any case, polemics and discursive argument have rarely been Tiravanija’s method. He often prefers, in a John Cage–like way, to be a knowing innocent. In fact, in this record of unrehearsed moments, what he is after is the luminous harvest of mystery, with its aperçus shuffling softly into view and disappearing. But to slightly rephrase Adorno, innocence and sophistication are concepts so endlessly intertwined that no good can come of playing one off against the other. That could be said of all of Tiravanija’s work, and it is surely the case here. Bring popcorn, and a joint.

Rirkrit Tiravanija's Chew the Fat screens on Sundays at 1 and 3 PM and on Mondays at 2 and 3:30 PM as part of the exhibition “theanyspacewhatever,” on view through January 7 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.