Why Look at Art if You Can Eat It

Rirkrit Tiravanija's recent Israeli exhibition included catering for 500, served on iron 'Jewish agency beds.' In an interview the Thai-American artist discusses the sensation his early works stirred in New York and his decision to make ephemeral works.

The recent visit by Thai-American artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to Israel was decidedly out of the ordinary. He visited the Museum of Pioneer Settlement at Kibbutz Yifat, in the Jezreel Valley. He asked to eat in the communal dining hall of Kibbutz Ginegar. He tasted local foods and, last Monday, he and artist Rafram Chaddad, coordinator for the Slow Food movement in Israel, fed hundreds of people on the type of iron bedframes which generations of Israeli immigrants have slept on.

From 8 P.M. on April 22 around 500 visitors attended "Come Together," at Artport in south Tel Aviv. Several pingpong tables, a trademark of Tiravanija's installations, shared the exhibition space with the Jewish Agency beds on which lamb dishes from the popular northern Israeli restaurants Al Babour were served.

A bed of vegetables was available for vegetarians, and pots of mutton soup, green fava beans and couscous, prepared by Chaddad, dotted the gallery as well.

Such events are not rare for Tiravanija. Since the early 1990s he has warmed the hearts of hundreds of art-lovers around the world with traditional tea, pad thai and curry dishes in leading art galleries and museums, converting tony exhibition spaces as well as offices into steamy kitchens.

Art buyers who purchased these works in the belief that the artist would cook for them discovered that their acquisition consisted of a recipe and their agreement: If they want to display their new artwork they must follow the recipe and invite as many people as possible to share the meal, to recreate the magic.

What was new about the Artport event was its localization, which marked a departure from Tiravanija’s usual strict approach. In the past he was tougher and stricter about the character of the event.

In conversation Tiravanija says he was influenced by an apocryphal story he heard from Chaddad, about how Israeli immigrants from Argentina in the 1950s were delighted to discover that the Jewish Agency bedsteads were the perfect height for making asado, the traditional South American barbecue, and as a result chose to bed down on the floor.

No central point of focus
Visitors to last week's installation often lost their way in the Artport space; Tiravanija and Chaddad had intentionally avoided creating a central focal point. “Things began to happen spontaneously after two hours, when the food began to run out,” Chaddad says.

“People played pingpong with Rirkrit; each time he lost, he had to answer a question from the public. People wandered around and conversations developed," Chaddad says.

Towards the end of the evening a woman approached Chaddad and told him it had been the best opening she had ever attended. “That made me laugh,” he says, “because what is an opening? It’s a gallery term, after all.”

While this was Tiravanija’s first visit to Israel, he has met many Israel artists at New York's Columbia University, where he teaches. He was invited to Artport as part of the Tel Aviv institution's six-month residency program for three artists, including Chaddad.

He chose to call the master class he gave there last week “How not to work,” explaining that he wanted to create a space for thought and discussion for established artists.

Northern exposure
After a friend told Tiravanija about Kibbutz Yifat's Museum of Pioneer Settlement he took all the artists at Artport there. Inspired by what he called the romantic idea of the kibbutz as a social space, they had lunch at Kibbutz Ginegar, nearby. Tiravanija says he was shocked to learn that despite the abundance of fresh produce, only canned vegetables were served.

Tiravanija also visited Nazareth, East Jerusalem, Ramallah and the Dead Sea. “It’s important to me to meet people and feel people,” he says. “I think that part of what is complicated here is the matter of borders or their absence. When we went to East Jerusalem and visited the American Colony Hotel I didn’t understand this was already on the Palestinian side.”

He attributes his peripatetic lifestyle to being the son of a Thai diplomat. Tiravanija was born in Argentina in 1961 but also spent time as a child in Thailand, Ethiopia and Canada.

After studying history at Ottawa's Carleton University he went on to the Ontario College of Art and Design, the Banff Center School of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago and Whitney Independent Studies Program in New York.

He has lived in New York since his student days in the early 1980s. At the time, he says, he “wasn’t interested in being an artist in order to have exhibitions and earn a living from art. I was thinking in a more idealistic or romantic way – I am going to do what is important to me. In those years we didn’t ask about the market either – which compared to what is happening today was nonsense.”

It was during this period that Tiravanija developed an interesting in creating art works with a temporary aspect.

The audience is part of the art
For “Untitled 1992 (Free)," considered the work that made him famous, Tiravanija emptied out the office of Gallery 303 in New York's Soho and put in a kitchen, with refrigerator, hot plates, rice steamers and tables with benches. He cooked a Thai curry, which he served, free, to visitors.

Tiravanija's performances created a sensation in the art world. “The cooking started out as something specific and it took a while for it to develop into the open thing it is today,” he explains.

“At the time I was thinking a lot about life, I was influenced by the Fluxus movement and like them I tried to turn to certain traditions. At that point in time in New York, the post-colonial discourse and the rethinking of the institution of the museum – not only in the cultural sense but also in the political sense, was manifested in the work of artists like Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger and Martha Rosler.

"I realized I was coming from the other side of things. I started to look at things in a museum and to see how the exhibits work on the other, who is in fact myself.”

In works in which visitors drink tea from traditional vessels, Tiravanija says he tries to give life to objects most people see only in museums, behind glass, “to show it isn’t the object that’s important to preserve but rather what happens around it,” he says.
He says he realizes now that he does not have to focus on a particular tradition; the event is the meeting together in a shared interaction. And if in the past his works took place in a certain place and time, he realizes today the importance of recreating his installations in venues that will reach a broader audience than the gallery-going public.

You were born in Argentina and grew up in Western countries, and English is as much your native language as Thai. When did you discover your otherness?

“I think in my first assignment for art school in Ontario. But after, in the first year after my studies, I started to ask myself, who am I doing this for, who will see these works and what will it say to them? I started thinking about what would happen if I went back to Thailand, what my works would say to the people living in another culture.

"It was always in the back of my mind – what would happen when I returned home. The concept of home is also strange. After all, I was living in Thailand with a Western education and it’s a bit alienating and affects the shaping of identity. But realizing that I am the other was very important to me.”

Noa Yafeh