Rirkrit Tiravanija

The inspiration for this exhibition was a coal barge called the Louise-Catherine, which the Salvation Army in Paris commissioned Le Corbusier to transform into a floating shelter in 1929. Rirkrit Tiravanija reconstructed the 260-foot vessel in Thailand at about half scale, so that it would occupy the gallery from floor to ceiling (part of its length could not be accommodated and had to be left behind). Visitors climbed onto the barge by way of a small wooden staircase near the bow. Inside were rows of wooden cots with white pillows and folded orange linens. Between the cots stood dressmakers’ dummies, each sporting multiple T-shirts with political slogans: FREE CHINA FROM TIBET; ON NE PEUT PAS SIMULER LA LIBERTE; MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK: THE DREAM CAME TRUE; FREE-THINKER; and so on. On the hull’s interior just behind the cots hung a row of “Untitled (T-Shirt Demonstration Drawings)” (all 2010), which Tiravanija commissioned from young Thai students: These are reproductions in graphite of press images in which people wearing T-shirts with political slogans are seen at demonstrations. From the deck of the barge, one could discover and climb into another room, whose back wall was covered with more of these drawings: many framed and covered by a slightly lurid orange glass, like those on the boat, but many more appearing in the form of blue wallpaper against which the framed orange versions hung.

The exhibition lends itself to a political interpretation. In it the image of a certain political subject was put forth, most obviously by way of the slogans on the T-shirts. Moreover, the overlay of political and artistic participation and engagement (young Thai artists commissioned to make the drawings, the modeling of the T-shirts at the opening, etc.) implied that politics is automatic and inescapable, as in the old feminist phrase “the personal is political.” In a more theoretical register, one might also say that the subject in question here is defined by what philosopher Alain Badiou has called fidelity: There are no preexisting subjects who are then committed, secondarily, to various causes; rather, it is commitment that creates a subject to begin with. The demonstrators showed fidelity to the causes they fought for; the draftspeople showed fidelity by re-creating those images of political fidelity as drawings. Most crucially, Tiravanija himself reflects both artistic and political fidelity through his attachment to Le Corbusier’s Louise-Catherine, which did not lend itself to any one meaning or message, but rather registered as attachment.

What stood out most of all, though, was the intrusion of emotive darkness into what might otherwise have been just a well-executed game of reference and sociotheoretical modeling and speculation. The too-large barge uncomfortably filled the gallery space, leading to a sense of claustrophobia and dislocation. A similarly closed-in feeling prevailed inside the barge by way of the tiny cots, of the horrific reduction, under terrible circumstances, to what has been called “bare life.” The T-shirted mannequins figured as ghosts of the vagrants who may have taken refuge on the original barge. An apocalyptic note was sounded as well at the beginning of the press release, in which the element of water (on which the barge, and therefore the exhibition, must rest) was linked to a Thai prophecy foretelling ruinous flooding. Against this animus, the jauntiness of the T-shirts, as well as the drawings, registered either as mournful or naive; but the result, in either case, was the same: a further darkening of the overall tone.

David Lewis