The Lives of Objects: Rirkrit Tiravanija in Conversation
Rirkrit Tiravanija developed his practice in 1990s New York, with works centring on the act of cooking, such as untitled 1989 ( ) (1989)—utensils set up to cook curry displayed on a pedestal—and untitled 1990 (pad thai) (1990), for which the artist cooked the popular Thai dish in Paula Allen Gallery. It was in the 1990s that Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term relational aesthetics to describe artistic practices that made use of art’s capacity to produce and mediate relations as a mode through which to challenge capitalist-induced alienation. Bourriaud’s ideas have been associated with Tiravanija’s practice, though critic Raimar Strange points out that, while relational aesthetics eventually came to be associated with compliant event culture, Tiravanija’s work has never fallen completely into that uncomfortable slot—a reflection, perhaps, of the artist’s engagement with institutional critique during the 1990s, when critique was brought into the space of the museum itself.
In 2015, Tiravanija staged DO WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY on the Messeplatz during Art Basel, with architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller and chef Antto Melasniemi. The installation, a modular bamboo structure, was essentially a large-scale, solar-powered open kitchen serving free food, which saw Tiravanija and his collaborators—including students from the FHNW Academy of Arts and Design in Basel in collaboration with students from the Städelschule in Frankfurt—cooking discarded produce salvaged from local grocery stores and wholesalers. The work has been described as an extension of The Land Foundation, an artist-community near Chiang Mai founded by Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert in 1998, which explores sustainable community practices. The structure built on the Messeplatz in Basel for DO WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY was dismantled at the end of Art Basel’s run and transported to Chiang Mai to be used as the basis to build the venue for the The Land’s planned studio residency. In 2019, the artist staged DO WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY at The Drawing Room in Manila with Tomas Vu, a collaborative performance and installation consisting of silkscreen prints, text-based interventions, and graffiti scrawled over portraits that pay homage to the histories of anti-U.S. resistance inscribed into the common term used in Latin America to describe a western foreigner, ‘Gringo’.
In this conversation, Tiravanija talks about the role of objects in his practice, from his beginnings as an artist to the present. Tiravanija touches on some of the key projects and exhibitions that he staged in New York in the 1990s, and reflects on how the concerns that he worked through back then continue to inform his approach to making art today.
PAULINE J. YAO: You are not an artist who is immediately thought of in terms of object-making, but in fact you were inspired to study art as a result of seeing two seminal art objects: a painting by Kazimir Malevich and Duchamp’s urinal. Could you tell me about these artworks and how you turned your interests towards art?
RIRKRIT TIRAVANIJA: In high school, I had ambitions to become a photojournalist. One day in class, a slide came on showing Malevich's painting White On White, a work that relates to constructivism and revolutionary ideas of spirituality, and this really interested me. A week later, a slide of Marcel Duchamp's urinal appeared. These works eventually became two poles that started my interest in art. These two very different ideas about art—almost like extremes, in a way—made me very curious, and allowed me to see something that I didn't see before.
Then, there was a moment in school when I was scheduled to have a meeting with a counsellor at the counsellor’s office. I was waiting in the waiting room, staring at a shelf of catalogues and books. I went up to one catalogue with a white spine and pulled it out, and it said: ‘Ontario College of Art’. I mean, this is out of hundreds of books, right? I just wrote down the address and left—I never met the counsellor. The next day, I applied to the college and I got in; so here we are.
PY: Following your studies at Ontario College of Art, you enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for your MFA. Being in Chicago, with proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago museum, was also quite pivotal in helping you form your ideas about art-making and the role of objects within your artistic practice, correct?
RT: Yes, The museum has very important Asian collections, and when I was a student there I went to look at the museum and came across a spectacular Southeast Asian collection all donated by one person. I was looking at all the objects, particularly the Thai artefacts displayed in the glass cases, and had this epiphany: that all those things that were collected and kept on display were basically everyday objects to me. There were Buddhas, porcelain bowls, and other items that were almost the same things that I would use in my house on a daily basis. Somehow, I felt that having the objects in this situation was kind of missing the point. It was as if the museum system and type of display I was seeing gave more value to the objects than to the people who lived with them. I thought that it was more important that we understood the object through how it was used—not by its aesthetics, quality, or craftsmanship per se.
It felt to me that the life around the object was missing. So I began to think about how to retrieve the life around these objects. At that point, I referred to this approach as some kind of cultural retrieval or reanimation. This meant taking the crockery and pots out of the museum cases and reusing them somehow. I would say that the same approach exists in the idea of the readymade as an object that can be reused; this is already an extension of what one does after the readymade, which is basically to return it to usage.
PY: I am curious to hear more about this idea of reanimation—you mean bringing the object back to life?
RT: Well, for me, the question was: how does an artist continue to make things after the readymade? I began to think of living as an extension of that. This is partly made easier for me coming from ‘the East’, so to speak, since—at least from where I come from—one values the life around the object more than the object itself. The object is a kind of platform for living in a way. I mean we use it and it changes or falls apart, but the living continues. I think somewhere a little switch clicked inside of me and I felt like I found a gap whereby I could continue to make art from what already existed.
PY: This led to your first show that incorporated cooking in 1989, right? How did that exhibition come about?
RT: In 1989 I was invited to be a part of a group exhibition [Outside the Clock: Beyond Good and Elvis, 11–29 July 1989, Scott Hanson Gallery, New York] that was curated by an older artist, Robert Longo. He was curating an exhibition to support younger artists, so he invited all the young artists he knew who were working around his studio. When I was asked to be in this exhibition, I was at the point where I really was questioning the idea of making things. I was walking down the street and I was saying to myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ This was New York and I knew everyone was going see the show. I thought that I should do the most simple thing, the thing closest to me, and in a funny way that was cooking. Sometimes, as you drift through life and you accumulate things, an idea just comes to you one day, and so that was what happened.
The work I made for Longo’s show was untitled 1989 ( ). The ‘empty’ in the title is intentional. I was interested in the void of an idea, the void of the text. I was, like many others at the time, into critiquing cultural institutions around ideas of collecting; this was all related to a certain postcolonial critique that was coming up at that time, and included criticisms around ideas of naming, cataloguing, et cetera. So I found myself standing there, with all these questions around my own reason to be and to make art, and I decided to create a simple situation that is very much about the process of things. I was trying to reanimate things, so I started to make a display of curry being cooked and placed it on pedestals. At that point, I was still thinking about the display, about the museum structure, and how one saw that. I wasn’t yet focused around the activity of it. Then the opening happened, and everyone came in, got a drink, and started enjoying themselves; then they began to put their empty cups all over the sink. I realised that there was actually a kind of interaction going on that I wasn’t thinking about, which may be more interesting than just displaying the situation. So I thought that my next work would address that.
PY: It most certainly did! In fact, most people tend to overlook untitled empty parenthesis and go straight to the activity of cooking in your practice, which was first performed at Paula Allen Gallery in 1990, with untitled 1990 (pad thai). I am curious about why you chose Pad Thai of all Thai dishes? How did it become your dish of choice?
RT: Yes. untitled 1990 (pad thai) at Paula Allen Gallery was maybe the second work I made. After the show that Robert Longo curated, the director of Paula Allen Gallery asked me if I wanted to do an exhibition. Again, at this point I was not really making any work, but having done that last piece with the dishes on pedestals, untitled 1989 ( ), I realised that there is a kind of relationship to the audience that I was interested in exploring. So I said I’d do this project, and that ended up being untitled 1990 (pad thai). It was 1990 and Thai food was around and people knew it, but it wasn’t as common as it is today. People thought of it as something exotic and strange, even though now it is the dish that everyone commonly orders.
Pad Thai felt somehow particular to me. In fact, the dish itself was an invention. It was invented in post-war Thailand, when Thailand was starting to become a democracy. According to the story, a prominent general wanted to come up with a dish that would be identified as Thai. But since noodle dishes are generally Chinese by their roots, the identity around Pad Thai had to be formed from Thai elements, so it’s a stir fried rice noodle with peanuts, tamarind, and chili in it—basically all the things associated with Thai identity. In effect ‘Pad Thai’ is a kind of object that speaks to the idea of nationalistic identity.
PY: Considering that Pad Thai was something linked to your own background, was it your intention to cook it alone or did you want it to become an activity to do with others?
RT: Well, actually, on the day of the performance I arrived late; I came at 6 o’clock because I was shopping for all the food in Chinatown. When I got to the gallery the show was already opening. I struggled to make the noodles and people were coming in to see the show right away. Everyone came to see the big show in the big space and then they’d drift into to the smaller room where I was cooking, and I think they thought that I was just the caterer or something. They began lining up to get their noodles. Then some friends came and realised that I was struggling to make the noodles fast enough for all these people, so they started to help me—actually a lot of people started to help me. Then, in that moment, I started to realise there was this whole other interaction going on that I didn’t think about before.
Anyway, we cooked everything—every single bit of food that was there was consumed. And then I threw everything into that display case. At the same time, I wanted people to understand that something had happened in this place. I guess I wanted to leave traces behind, so that’s why I left everything a little bit undone, with the garbage there, so that through the month of the exhibition people could still see some traces of what could have happened.
PY: With untitled 1990 (pad thai), you left the instruments of the act on display after the act, so even then the idea of objects as the remnants of activity and as modes of display was still quite integral to your thinking. Would you agree?
RT: I was quite interested in letting there be a kind of evidence of activity, so things are almost archaeologically placed in a sense. I was interested in how people would come to the show and see the situation that had happened there, and then they would have to resurrect an image of what had taken place in their own mind. From the time when I was making untitled 1989 ( ) to untitled 1990 (pad thai), I remained interested in the structure of the museological display, so untitled 1990 (pad thai) was made to go into a Beuysian steel case. Of course, as you know, Beuys would perform his rituals, and at some point at the end of a performance, all of the things he used—the relics—would end up in a steel and glass display case. So I was also commenting on that idea.
PY: Except in your case, the ‘ritual objects’ were ordinary cookware.
RT: In my work there were stacks of woks, some with red lids and some black ones. These were electric woks that came from the brand West Bend—I think they were invented in the 1970s, and they still make them. I knew about this wok because at some point during my residency in Banff in 1984, I watched a video by Martha Rosler, who was kind of a mentor to me at this point. She was going through her semiotics of the kitchen and using this semi-oriental, semi-commercial object. The video is called The East is Red, The West Is Bending (1977), and she’s using a West Bend wok—so all these layers of signs are built into an average consumer object. My choice in using the wok comes with its own kind of internalised myth and layers of complication.
PY: After untitled 1990 (pad thai), your next project at Randy Alexander Gallery in New York, untitled 1991 (blind), went a whole different direction: instead of presence it was founded on absence—your absence specifically. What made you want to remove yourself from the space? And how would you describe the objects that replaced you?
RT: After untitled 1990 (pad thai), I knew that people were expecting me to cook, so I didn’t cook. I basically said, ‘I’m not going to come to the gallery, I’m going to make the work outside, and you’ll just get something in the mail.’ At that time, I had a day job as an art mover so I was frequently driving a truck around and moving art for people. I said to Randy [the gallery owner], ‘The mail will show up and you decide what you want to do.’ The mailman would come with an envelope, and the gallerist said to him or her, ‘Look there’s this space and there’s this grid, you decide where you want to put the envelope.’ Every day the mailman came and he’d put the envelope in the gallery space, wherever he wanted—it was like this kind of deferred way of making things, and I was quite interested already in how to question the authorship or the movement behind making things.
People came to the opening of that show and there was just one little square envelope. I guess they were surprised that there was nothing there. I was actually outside working every day and sending things to the gallery, but I never came into the gallery. I never saw the space, and I never saw the show—I was just going on with my daily work and driving the truck. The bar we would go to and have a drink was just down the street from the gallery, so I sent binoculars to the gallery so that people could stand by the windows and use them to maybe see me walking around. There was this whole thing about there being activity happening, but it was just happening somewhere else.
PY: What was inside the envelopes that you sent to the gallery?
RT: The envelopes mainly contained micro tapes. I was carrying a recorder with me every day, 24 hours a day, recording. At the end of the day or in the morning, I’d pack up the tape and send it to the gallery. The envelopes came every day with 24 hours of recordings sealed inside. I had no idea what was on the tape; there were people who’d come and see me and intentionally have a conversation with me because they wanted to be recorded. There were artists who came and did that. The title of the show was Blind—it was about seeing but not seeing, or not hearing or knowing, yet everything is there. It was kind of the opposite to everything else I was doing. Everyone came to the show but it was empty, no activity was happening; there was nothing there, just these envelopes.
PY: Eventually you did return to cooking, though, when you presented untitled 1992 (free) at 303 Gallery, right?
RT: Yes, in 1992, after a year or so, I returned to cooking. But I never really thought about it as cooking; I thought of it more like a social object. I was using this social object as a kind of space for things to happen. With tons of people coming and friends helping to cook, the situation was more than just the idea of making the food—there was a kind of interaction going on around it. So in 1992, when the show at 303 came up, I came to them and I said, ‘Alright, I’d like to empty everything out, the total contents of the gallery, and put it into the exhibition space.’ This included the gallerist and all her employees. I took all the doors off the hinges so that when you entered the space, besides seeing all the contents of the gallery, you could also look through every space that they had—the storage space with an empty storage rack, the kitchen, and the toilet—and you’d see everything when normally you would only see the exhibition area, since those functional spaces are always hidden out of sight. Then we cooked. Everything was free; people came to the gallery and they could eat and stay there all day—it returned to my idea of wanting to be free of everything.
PY: Following this idea of being free, I am curious to ask: are there any limits to a ‘work of art’?
RT: I don't put a limit on anything because I believe in using everything or living with everything. So therefore there is no limit on any of it. But I think if you say a ‘work of art’ in that way, then just saying that already implies a kind of limit to it. I don't think that is necessarily bad, but I guess what I mean is that I don't have a limit. I still believe that there is still a need to experience it, and one has to understand the experience.
PY: Going back to ideas around object-making parallel to the numerous cooking performances you have organised—you have also produced multiples in the vein of Fluxus. Can you say more about this dimension of your work?
RT: Indeed. I have always liked making multiples—it follows the Fluxus idea of creating things that everyone can have and use. This started with making rice installations, but instead of real rice I made rice cast from silver. That was a play on ideas of value, and also the weight of things, since rice has a certain kind of weight. We measured it by the cup, based on what people eat.
I don’t draw or write, so usually I make models or multiples. I have been making them since the beginning and they are sometimes the study or the map of the work. I also like making prints and T-shirts. Recently, I did a T-shirt project using clay and silkscreens so it was like printing T shirts with clay. There was this sense of impermanence—if you wash the T-shirt enough times the print may gradually disappear.
PY: It occurs to me that the use-value aspect associated with multiples may also have a link to the cultural context of Thailand where, as you said before, objects are thought of in terms of usage and the life around them. What was it like when you first brought your work ‘home’, so to speak, when you staged Nothing: A Retrospective with Kamin Lertchaiprasert at Chiang Mai University Art Museum in 2004?
RT: Well, whatever I was doing—cooking and all those things—it was always about finding my way back home. Then when I had a retrospective and I found myself in Thailand, I realised everything I was doing was just like everything else that existed there in the street. I didn’t have to do it, it was already there. People there already had this kind of experience of being communal: they ate together, they cooked on the floor, they ate on the floor. It wasn’t really so relevant for me to cook again, so I did other things. But of course, the show was in Chiang Mai and the idea of a retrospective—to re-present things that have been done in the past—would have meant borrowing works and shipping works from around the world, and that was just impossible. So what we did was just remake the work, so the whole thing was a kind of remake—it echoed what we always do in Thailand, which is just remake whatever we need.
It’s interesting because we don’t have to look at art in the same way everywhere, right? In the western art world there is this need to have things contextualised—put in places and understood and explained. It has to become a knowledge. Whereas in the eastern context, it can be more open. Art is integrated into everything and doesn’t always have to be explained. I feel it is more like living in it. With my work, I always feel like it comes from a certain kind of spirit that doesn’t have to be separated out from living. It doesn’t have to become art.
PY: I happen to be quite fond of your multiples, especially your series of chrome cooking corners, which involve placing three mirrors in the corner of a room as backdrops for chrome cooking utensils, or 3D printed forms that recall pieces of coral or scholar’s rocks. They remind me of Robert Smithson’s sculptures. How did you land on chrome as your chosen material?
RT: There is an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants in which Spongebob gets stuck in the refrigerator, and when he wakes up in the future he looks out of the window and everything is chrome. I found this idea that everything in the future will be chrome quite interesting. Especially given the way a chrome surface, a very liquid surface in a way, could be seen as an object that is disappearing, because chrome absorbs the environment around it—it reflects everything and disappears itself. I became interested in the idea of making something that in a sense would disappear, and that led me to start making a whole series of works based on this surface and material. At some point, I started to make a Smithson corner, which was akin to what he was doing to actually expand space. I also made a building at the Secession in Vienna, which is now in the Guggenheim's collection: it’s a whole building that is reflective so it basically disappears in the middle of the white cube.
PY: You are referring to untitled 2002 (he promised) (2002): a structure that you based on architect Rudolf Schindler’s home in Los Angeles. Architecture, specifically modernist architecture and design, does play a significant role in your work. Has that always been the case?
RT: There was a moment when I was sitting with friends discussing this and we all just sort of said, ‘I guess we are just modernists.’ I mean that we are still thinking about building a kind of future, in a way, or building things for the future. If you look at people like Liam Gillick or Jorge Pardo or Olaf Eliasson, it's about trying to build a kind of future or a possibility of using structures as possibilities. And there is also the idea of creating a kind of frame for living in. But when I say living in, it could also mean a certain kind of disruption to this very clean form. I have always been interested in Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino House, which is a kind of beginning of prefab building, and the idea that all structures are now dominos—you just stack them up. Naturally, Le Corbusier thinks of this in terms of human relationships to space and form, whereas I think of it more as the human disrupting the form.
PY: Throughout your work there is the sense that you are continually trying to add an element of disruption or disorder. But at the same time there is also this sense of ritual that comes through, at least in the idea of cooking as a daily habit. Would you agree?
RT: I would say that I am always trying to set things up so that they do not become precious or important in a certain way, so it’s not really a stage and a set. When you talk about the significance of the object and the ritualistic aspect, I am not really sure. It’s like when people say I am performing. I often say it's not actually a performance; I think it’s a kind of slippage of the meaning. Probably my generation of artists are always trying to undo things because we saw so many problems created by definitions or certain constraints, and by becoming too dogmatic.
PY: These days I have noticed a slight shift away from cooking in your practice and, dare I say, a renewed interest in making objects. I am speaking here of your recent ceramic works and teahouse projects, such as the rooftop tea house you created as part of the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission Series at the National Gallery Singapore in 2018, untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness) (2018), or the project you mentioned of printing T-shirts with clay, which you’ve staged in different cities, from Miami to Manila. How did this shift come about?
RT: I became interested in the activity of throwing clay and throwing pots in a physical and meditative way. I went to Greenwich pottery house in the West Village and took lessons. There has always been something in the back of my head—like, if I am going to cook I might as well make the pot that I eat out of. In my artistic practice I don’t really make anything, but I have found myself making tea bowls. I started with tea and mostly ritual and ceremonial objects. Making these things feels different to making an art object. But when people learn that I am making these objects, they immediately ask how they will become an art object or part of my art practice. Of course people want to show them in an exhibition, or even sell them. But I only want to give them away so that they can be used, and also to challenge that aspect of them becoming art objects.
I also visited Japan and met with some master craftsmen; I was interested in knowing more about the spirit of things. Theoretically, a master can throw the clay and make the perfect bowl each time, but real masters are not trying to make the perfect bowl. You know the wabi-sabi concept, which is about losing control, and trying to embrace nature and imperfection? There is always a tension between nature and the man-made. I find making ceramics is like this: a resistance to the digital and to everything in our world becoming about numbers. As humans we have an instinct for making or building; but as much as we can build a computer we can also approach making in a less controlled way. Creativity goes both ways: one way is logical and built, and another way comes out of a place that is unknown.
PY: Which totally connects with how you began as an artist.
RT: Right. The extension of the readymade is to use it, to take it off the pedestal, and bring it back to function; and by using the object new meanings and new relationships can be formed. The tea bowl is similar. It goes back to when I was at the Art Institute of Chicago looking at those Thai Buddhas, which were just used in an aesthetic way, and thinking about how I wanted to retrieve the life around those objects. Now I am kind of making those objects. It is like a full circle, so why not just keep going? One is totally aware of how all these objects can become fragmented, taken out of context, or taken out of time and space, and how it can be set up as if one could know or understand the context from which an object was plucked. For me, it is crucial not to succumb to that condition. I much prefer a bowl sitting on the side of the road for the taking.
Image at top: Rirkrit Tiravanija. untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness), 2018. Installation view: National Gallery Singapore (24 January–28 October 2018). Courtesy of the artist
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is widely recognised as one of the most influential artists of his generation. His work defies media-based description, as his practice combines traditional object making, public and private performances, teaching, and other forms of public service and social action. Winner of the 2005 Hugo Boss Prize awarded by the Guggenheim Museum, Tiravanija has also been awarded the Benesse by the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Japan and the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Lucelia Artist Award. He has had exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Guggenheim Museum of New York; the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Luma Foundation in Arles; as well as a show at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, which travelled to Paris and London. Tiravanija is on the faculty of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, and is a founding member and curator of Utopia Station, a collective project of artists, art historians, and curators. Tiravanija is also president of an educational-ecological project known as The Land Foundation, located in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he maintains his primary residence and studio.