New York

Rikrit Tiravanija

In two spaces separated by a long corridor, Rikrit Tiravanija executed two very different projects. In the main gallery space, the artist neatly stacked what is usually kept out of sight: paintings and artworks from the storage area, but also spare lightbulbs; kitchen appliances, including a microwave oven, minifridge, and water cooler; numerous cans of gallery-white paint; and personal items—from a box of tampons to a single enormous sneaker. Amidst this accumulation, which practically filled the room, sat the gallery owner at her desk (also displaced from the back room), doing business as usual.

For decades artists have carried out critiques of the hidden political agendas in museum programming and of the market-driven exhibitions in commercial galleries.

Ever since the Impressionists broke away from the official salons, avant-garde artists have repeatedly expressed their hostility/ambivalence to the practices of those upon whom they depend for survival. Tiravanija continued this tradition, exposing back room matter under the harsh down-lights usually focused only on artworks, forcing his dealer to make her deals in front of us, rather than behind closed doors. The concept suffered in this particular gallery, however, because the back room here typically doubles as an exhibition space, rendering Tiravanija’s breaking down of barriers somewhat redundant.

In the back room, something altogether different was going on. Surrounded by a refrigerator full of massive quantities of eggplant, broccoli, and beans, several portable cookers, and café tables and chairs, the artist daily prepared curry, which he then served gratis to whoever entered the gallery. Tiravanija, who grew up in Thailand but emigrated to Canada as a teenager, used Thai curry as a means of “cultural retrieval.” In a subtle critique of the Western tendency to stereotype ethnic products, he served both “authentic” curry made with Thai vegetables and a New York variant made with local produce.

Autobiography aside, cooking in a gallery office conveyed several messages: that cooking is “real” work as opposed to the highly lucrative exchange of cultural goods; that the art world—and Western culture in general—suppresses or denies physical needs (how obtrusive the kitchen items displayed in the front room seemed); and that the art world, with its incessant, obligatory socializing, is one big dinner party.

Tiravanija’s front room inversion, however, seemed conceptually half-baked. Earlier, more insightful examples of the genre include Chris Burden’s Working Artist, 1975, which took the form of a studio set up in a gallery, establishing a contrast between the photographs of past performances and the day-to-day tasks of the creative process, demystifying the notion of the artist as impulsive, impetuous, asocial genius. However, as a form of “cultural retrieval” Tiravanija’s cooking is both more personal and more vital than the current vogue for museological revisionism. Moreover, the quasi-anonymous offering of ephemeral work—the artist withheld his name from the press release and considered all who entered the gallery to be part of the piece—evoked a hospitality and generosity at odds with the art world’s typically hard-nosed exchange of merchandise. Still, in contrast to the intellectual curve balls and ironic twists of Western conceptual art, Tiravanija’s work seemed a little too direct, or perhaps it’s simply a little too late in the day to accept anything for what it is.

Lois Nesbitt