Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2020 (the odious smell of truth) (three flags, 1958), 2020, marble, 30 5/8 × 45 1/2 × 2 1/2".

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2020 (the odious smell of truth) (three flags, 1958), 2020, marble, 30 5/8 × 45 1/2 × 2 1/2".

Rirkrit Tiravanija

By the time Rirkrit Tiravanija moved to New York in 1982, Jasper Johns had been making his flag paintings for almost thirty years. For his new tapestries and marble works, Tiravanija has copied the elder artist’s maps and flags. Tiravanija produced his tapestries on the historic French looms of Pinton, manufacturers of works by such twentieth-century heavyweights as Calder and Picasso; his marble comes from the same veins of Carrara that supplied Michelangelo.

While Tiravanija gained visibility in the 1990s for modest installations that privileged socializing and shared meals—essential rituals of human life—the atmosphere of the artist’s exhibition in Paris this fall was sepulchral. A collection of polished and plush monuments, the timely show addressed the current social, political and medical moment. Visitors, following mandated guidelines for social distancing, moved alone through the exhibition; after the opening, there were no events or plans for any kind of gathering. As if in commemoration of Marcel Broodthaers’s Un jardin d’hiver (A Winter Garden), 1974, a decorative Kentia palm in a plastic pot sat next to nearly every work. “It could be more interesting if [these sculptures] were actually put out in a graveyard and used,” the artist has remarked, “for basically the marble slabs are tombstones.”

The exhibition was called “untitled 2020 (once upon a time) (after jasper johns),” and each sculpture or tapestry, made in direct citation of one of Johns’s works, bore the same main title as the show along with, in most cases, a pair of parenthetical subtitles—the first being a short phrase Tiravanija had pulled from literature or the press, the second indicating the title and date of the Johns work cited: for instance, untitled 2020 (the continuum of insidiousness) (map, 1963) (all works 2020). The words, in all-caps sans serif lettering, were carved into marble or woven into the tapestries, which were displayed as wall hangings and on the floor. Phrases such as THE ODIOUS SMELL OF TRUTH and A HURRICANE IN A DROP OF CUM (the latter a line from a poem-painting by John Giorno) entered the exhibition space with the aggressive ambiguity of oversize billboards. Strung together, phrases from different works offered an ominous poetry, a dark nostalgia for a country that on today’s world stage is both omnipresent and unknowable: ONCE UPON A TIME . . . THE AMBROSIAS OF EVIL . . . SHADOWS IN PROGRESS.

Like an afterimage of the American dream, Tiravanija’s neo-Dada flags and American maps are melancholic. But despite a latent pessimism, something hopeful remains. With his citations of Johns, Broodthaers, and Giorno and use of materials associated with Michelangelo and Picasso, Tiravanija operates far from the sinister metal flags pinned to the lapels of Brioni suits that have been drained of meaning by the actions and language of their most visible wearer. Working on a grand scale, Tiravanija traces a thread from Johns’s eight-figure auction records to the Stars and Stripes hung proudly on the front doors of homes ravaged by predatory mortgages, opioid addiction, and
Covid-19’s economic fallout. Tiravanija’s works evoke a history of the production of power and of dreams. In the quiet, one can hear nostalgic whispers of grandeur and intention. Tiravanija mines the roots of a symbol, testing its materiality, its force, and its resistance.