New York

View of “Rirkrit Tiravanija.” Wall text: untitled 2011. Plywood structure: untitled 2011.

View of “Rirkrit Tiravanija.” Wall text: untitled 2011. Plywood structure: untitled 2011.

Rirkrit Tiravanija

Gavin Brown's enterprise | 620 Greenwich Street

View of “Rirkrit Tiravanija.” Wall text: untitled 2011. Plywood structure: untitled 2011.

Rirkrit Tiravanija has always understood, intuitively and intellectually, that a gallery is a social frame, at once quasi-private and quasi-public, wherein a diverse range of encounters and frictions connected to rituals of making, displaying, and consuming art are staged. I vividly recall his exhibition “Untitled, 1992 (Free)” at 303 Gallery, for which structural elements and appurtenances from the space’s back office were displayed in the front of the gallery, and the office was converted into a rudimentary cooking and eating area, with free curries offered daily. I saw this as a deftly materialized symbolic intervention, playfully utopic and post-utopic, but probably not an attempt to subvert or reinvent the fundamental economics of the commercial art system. Early on, Tiravanija recognized the inherent contradictions and the intrinsic limits of his art—that any actuality or notion of “free” is embedded within a complex matrix. By staging quotidian social processes—cooking, eating, and cleaning up—within the gallery space, he exchanged a post-commodity ethos of generosity and humility for the normative small entrepreneurial codes of a commercial gallery, while acknowledging that such activities, occurring within the frame, are codified as an expanded art condition.

In “Fear Eats the Soul,” Tiravanija glanced back at—and reconfigured—his own history. The artist created an operational soup kitchen (which he called Soup No Soup) that prepared and distributed soup on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the duration of the show; located right next to the gallery space proper, it maintained a delicate autonomy. Tiravanija’s gesture was characteristically unassuming, humble, and, finally, symbolic—i.e., it was either a place just for soup, just for art, for both, or something beyond—and, as with his earlier ad hoc kitchens, he seemed to be asking whether the sociocultural ritual of eating, framed by the gallery as art, is substantially different than any other experience that one might have in the dense urban environment.

In this spirit, Tiravanija sought to make Brown’s space as coextensive with the street as possible. The show’s title was prominently spray-painted across various gallery walls in huge, oversize black letters, and one could see it from outside, since the gallery’s windows, doorframes, and related utilitarian hardware had been removed; moreover, the space itself was open to the public twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (though with a security guard on-site). Transformed into a space more or less “transparent” to the outside world, the gallery invited in those who might not ordinarily trespass into the white cube. The theme of transparency continued inside, where one encountered a pile of brown earth next to a large industrial steel plate (with two machined holes, two small viewing portals into the excavated part of the gallery below); nearby, leaning against the wall, were tools—shovels, brooms, wooden planks, etc.—apparently utilized in this site-displacement. This gesture suggested a way for Tiravanija to make visible or unpack his own process.

Reflecting further on the tropes of his own artistic production, Tiravanija constructed a pair of plywood rooms that replicated the dimensions of Gavin Brown’s original diminutive gallery space at 558 Broome Street in 1994–97, and one contained replicas of artifacts first displayed within the context of a 1994 exhibition that Tiravanija produced and curated there. In this quasi-retrospective look back at his own history, Tiravanija rendered the gallery a platform upon which to reenact recognizable tropes, and to propose new moves. A second plywood room housed a functional T-shirt factory and shop, open the same days and hours as the soup kitchen, where one could purchase T-shirts at twenty dollars a pop. Turning out shirts printed with such playfully activist slogans as THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY IS NUMBERED, ASIANS MUST EAT RICE, FREE CHINA FROM TIBET, RICH BASTARDS BEWARE, AND FEAR EATS THE SOUL, the factory served as an archive of Tiravanija’s previous T-shirt projects, which have always suggested, perhaps ironically, the conflation of everyday fashion, politics, and identity. In the end, though, this show might be understood as a testimony to the gallery as a platform for cultural production—but also to its enduring limits as a frame.

Joshua Decter