Rirkrit Tiravanija – Contemplative Contemporary

Untitled 2008-11 (the map of the land of feeling). Photo: museum.cornell.edu
Untitled 2008-11 (the map of the land of feeling). Photo: museum.cornell.edu

Rirkrit Tiravanija is a contemporary artist known for his performance style, which aims to involve the viewer as much as possible. 

His conceptual pieces encourage social engagement and interaction. Tiravanija tries to provoke a deeper understanding of how backgrounds can impact on the way we perceive each other.

Tiravanija is well known for his conceptual pieces which focus more on the idea than the object itself. For instance, in his exhibition “Pad Thai 1990” we see him serve traditional Thai food and drink as a part of his show encouraging social interaction between people. The smell of cooking and feeding the public are two vital elements for his installations.

Growing up in his grandmother’s Thai restaurant made a significant impact on Tiravanija and something he would reference in his work for his entire career.

Early Life

Born in 1961 in Buenos Aires to a Thai diplomat and an oral surgeon, he spent the majority of his childhood moving around: living in Thailand, Ethiopia and Canada and studying at various well-known art institutes along the way. 

Rirkrit Tiravanija. Photo: hirshhorn.si.edu

Tiravanija began his journey studying History at the Carleton University in Canada and later moved on to Ontario College of Art in Toronto in 1980. He then continued his education at the Banff Center School of Fine Arts in 1984 and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago through to 1986.

Tiravanija finished his education at the Whitney Independent Studies Program in New York in 1986. 

His innate ability to relate to people and their backgrounds may be due to his multicultural background; and this has allowed him to have successful exhibitions across the world, gaining recognition in Canada, Chicago, Europe, Asia, North America and South Africa.

The Past Impacts the Present

Tiravanija is the living proof of his theory that our backgrounds have a substantial impact on our perception of each other and the world itself. His history has shaped him into the artist he is today, and gives him the ability to relate to so many people; maybe because he has had to adjust and familiarise himself with various cultures throughout his life. 

His artworks provide a more in-depth insight into this by encouraging the viewers to interact and by doing so, points out the differences between various cultures. 

His Pad Thai exhibition 1990 is one of his most successful installations. The exhibition was displayed at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York and later recreated in 2007 at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, renamed as Untitled. 

Ignoring the boundaries of what is considered art he created a banquet. In this case he served the viewers with bowls of Pad Thai and covered the walls of the exhibition with the recipe for this South-east Asian dish. Often using the attending crowd to activate his artwork.

Role of the public

Untitled 2014 (Come Together). Photo: ArtBasel.com

Similar to cooking, travel plays a significant role in Rirkrit’s process: and he says,

“It is an essential part of my work to get driven around [in different places] and feel things out and listen to what people say. When they’re driving, they often tell you everything.” 

In one piece he rode his bicycle for five consecutive days, accompanied by various pieces of kitchen equipment, recording everything. Camping, cooking, collecting items and people along the way before he reached his final destination. The point of the exercise was to gather a big group of followers together: and this is a point well made.

But is it art?

It’s not just cooking and travel which inspires Tiravanija. Buddhism shapes his attitude towards his art. The Buddhist tradition of celebrating and appreciating the present is undeniable in all his work. Forcing the boundaries between art and everyday tasks to blur, and by doing this, he encourages the viewer to question what is art? And what is its relationship to regular activities? 

By provoking this thought process, he uses the audience to contemplate his work on a more spiritual level.  This installation has been recreated in various galleries such as MoMa as part of their Contemporary Galleries exhibition. Tiravanija asks the viewer to attend and eat and talk, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green? 

Untitled 2017 (fear eats the soul). Photo: Artsy

His latest culinary exhibition took place in May 2019 at the Hirshhorn Museum Washington. The title of the piece “who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green” refers to the colors worn in the recent Thai protests by the different factions. He uses lowercase letters and parentheses to make the viewer consider the question that is in the title. 

It is a collaborative piece with various other artists sketching on the walls surrounding the tables where food is served. The installation uses all 5 senses to engage the viewer in a conversation about their beliefs, and the impact that their background, surroundings and environment have had on them. 

His artworks have earned him various awards including the Absolut Art Award (2010), the Hugo Boss Prize (2004), the Lucelia Artist Award (2003) and the Gordon Matta Clark Foundation Award (1993). 

Rirkrit Tiravanija is a Professor of Professional Practical Visual Art at Columbia University and resides and works in New York, Berlin, and Chiang Mai.

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