Through an act of serendipity, I happened to have some Thai food leftovers from the night before when I started to research this project. It's the orange stuff in the tub. The thought of eating Thai food while researching Relational Aesthetics and Rirkrit Tiravanija was suitably meta. This is because Tiravanija is most famous for serving up Thai food as the exhibition and letting the human interactions act as the artform. This fridge, while newish is a bit problematic. We can never shut the fridge door properly and every two months we have defrost the whole thing. Meanwhile, the little fridge light that should go on every time the door opens has been broken for as long as I can remember.
So I'm reading Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics by Claire Bishop and she's making pointed remarks about Bourriaud and his idea of Relational Aesthetics. She's focusing on Tiravanija and Liam Gillick, considering them emblematic of the focus on 'inter-subjective relations over detached opticality' or 'the sphere of inter-human relations.' She mentions that Tiravanija needs the viewer to be present at a particular space or situation at a specific point in time, alongside the other visitors. She continues by saying that Gillicks work, while it focuses more on an imagined or hypothetical situation, still needs the audience there as an essential part of his work. To emphasise this point, she quotes him:
My work is like the light in the fridge. It only works when there are people to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art – it’s something else – stuff in a room1
This essay will focus on one artist, whose work has been considered emblamatic of Relational Aesthetics, Rirkrit Tiravanija. His (Untitled) Free 1992 can almost be used as shorthand when describing the role, nature and activities of Relational Aesthetics. This essay will begin and end with two variants of this exhibition, charting the lifespan of the movement. This essay will look at four different exhibitions where the architectural, geographical and phenomenological notions of space play an important role. However, instead of focusing exclusively on the formal elements, the attention will be on how these spaces are used as backdrops to his ideas. A prism in which to view the work.
All examples share one aspect in common; one space has been transposed into another. The focus doesn’t rest solely between the two sites, but in the way it “functions in the process of meaning production”.2 Through this, Tiravanija explores what happens when two different sites interplay with each other and what the performative expectations are placed on the audience.
These expectations were ruptured when Tiravanija moved the storeroom and offices of 303 Gallery into the front, and created an informal cooking area in the back. By eroding the “distinction between institutional and social space”, the exhibition laid the groundwork for a certain discourse that would become prominent in his work.3 It was part of a shift in the domain of art away from deconstruction and representation and towards bringing art “into direct contact with life” and “act directly upon it”.4
It is worth noting that in discussing his works (and perhaps all works that start from the sphere of inter-human relations), there is a linguistic shortcoming in describing the nature and role of the viewer.5 Are they participants? Performers? Viewers? The audience? Collaborators? In some regards the issue relates to “authorial rights” while in others it relates to the nature of participation.6 This essay will try and delineate where possible and appropriate.
In 2002 Tiravanija installed a chrome replica of a wing of the famous Modernist Schindler house inside the Vienna Secession. Built in 1922 by Rudolf Schindler, the Shindler house is considered to be the first built in the Modernist style. Made from unfinished concrete, raw timber, steel, canvas and glass; an emphasis on natural materials and suited to the Californian environment. It was not built with one family in mind; instead, two L shaped apartments are connected in the centre by a joint utility and communal area.
The “flowing spatial structure” of the building highlights mobility and transparency, ideals consistent with that of the architect.7 These aspects were built with the aim of spontaneous sociability, an idea central to Tiravanija’s work. The utopian ideal of the original is recontextualised – not in a typically teleological manner consistent with Modernism – but as a possible model and suggestion for living.
Instead of the original building materials, Tiravanija used the reflective qualities of stainless steel and chrome. The use of these materials magnify the importance of the surrounding environment, reflecting not only the inside of the gallery but more importantly the participants as well. Thus dematerialising the building makes the house disappear and instead is filled by people. The real time processes of reflection and interaction allow different viewings from the same point in space, offering the participant multiple readings and multiple ways of inhabiting and interacting in the space.
Tiravanija has stated that his work is “about use, and through this use meaning is constructed”.8 This statement can be read in two ways. The first is through narrative: as a period and marker of time. The individual chrome pieces were shipped in through a period of ten weeks, with the building only completed two days before the end of the exhibition. One ticket could be used throughout the period, with visitors making repeat visits, experiencing the accumulation of the structure over time. It is in this aspect that the term ‘audience’ or ‘viewer’ can be used appropriately, as this hierarchy is a one way process.
The second and more important reading of his statement is through the act of participation. The installation served as a platform and stage for a range of activities: film presentations, readings, concerts and lectures. These structured activities differ from other works of his. While in other artworks the participatory nature allows for more open ended social exchanges, the focus here is on describing a framework for a possible way of living. But the attention in this exhibition (as with many other of his works), while sculptural, is the animation of the space by people.
The mid-career retrospective Tomorrow is Another Fine Day employed a novel yet brave method of reproducing some of his key works. The exploration of time and participation are central to Tiravanija’s way of working; this poses a problem when considering the nature of a retrospective.
The spatial dimensions in which the original artworks occured were reconstructed in two different museums; the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam and at the Couvent des Cordeliers Paris. None of the original materials or artefacts were present, only the proportions of the original rooms constructed out of plywood. It is in this empty place that the logic of the exhibition comes to light. At it’s heart TIAFD is about memory and reflection, creating a “homage to half truth”.9
TIAFD circumvents the subjectivity of memory through three different audio routes, each creating a different context in which to understand the space. Guided tours, providing a traditional institutional perspective, were available. Talking from a script, these tours provided an account and description of the exhibitions as well as his career. These were partially detailing the contents and architectural settings: we enter to find an exhibition space which is full to the brim with an eclectic mix of objects.10 The tour would also attempt to illuminate more experiential aspects of his works
We can smell the scent of jasmine rice, with it’s very distinct combination of water and the perfume of jasmine. It’s enough to make one curious with hunger.11
The science fiction author Bruce Sterling provided a fictional piece about a man who died in an art gallery. The third piece was provided by Philippe Pareno, a friend of Tiravanija. This piece imparted a different aspect of his work, the recent history and social context in which the works were created. It is through these works that the nature of memory and truth is explored. The three different texts provided commentary on the exhibition, illuminating the empty rooms while exploring the historical and temporal aspect of the works. However, the nature of text and audio transcripts work in a linear manner: the participatory nature of his works do not.
Thus the problem remains: how to reproduce works that begin from the “sphere of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an autonomous private symbolic place”.12 The answer can be found in the closing lines of the guided tour: in this void of representation we hope you have heard and imagined a picture of your own, a memory of your own.13
TIAFD forced an imaginative shift in the viewer, forcing them to imagine the social relations unfolding around them, either through members of the tour guide, highlighting the “collaborative nature of the work” or through imagination alone, more akin to the autonomous and private symbolic space.14
In Untitled (Free) 2007 he tried a different method of presenting an old work. The spatial dimensions of 303 Gallery (where Free 1992 occured) were reconstructed inside David Zwirner Gallery. Also included were the original cooking utensils, tables, stools and fridges that were part of the earlier work. The leftover food waste was also present, safely contained on shipping pallets. Presented alongside a recreation of Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1972 work “Open House”. The original works explored ideas of food, shelter and comfort. By comparing these works in the same place it is evident that the two artists share an affinity in these issues.
Instead of the abstract emptiness of TIAFD, Free 2007 employs a different reasoning in presenting old works. One that which asks questions about not only the nature of inter-human relations, but on authenticity. By only including the spatial dimensions of his earlier works in TIAFD, it lessens the importance of the original objects. By forcing the viewer to imagine the objects, they are reduced to generic objects which have no inherent aesthetic qualities. In Free 2007, special care is made to highlight the importance of the original objects. Does the inclusion of the original objects signal a recreation of the early work, allowing for open ended social relations? Or are the participants akin to performers, acting out a simulation?
By moving back towards the realm of representation, it would appear that Relational Aesthetics in it’s purest form has finished as an art movement. While it remains an important contribution to the discourse of contemporary it’s dissolve into spectacle illustrates it’s demise.
Colophon: This text began as a talk I gave, thus the informal tone at the beginning, which then became the backbone of an essay on the topic.
In case you don't feel like reading this in this format, you can read it in pdf: Untitled (Leftovers)
1. Gillick, Liam, Bishop, Claire, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ (OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004), 61
2. Föll , Heike-Karin ‘Rirkrit Tiravanija - Building as frame: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Architectural Impulse’ ((theanyspacewhatever, 2008-09) Guggenheim Museum Publications, New York 2008), 110
4. Papastergiadis, Nikos, ‘Everything that Surrounds: Art, Politics and the Everyday’ (The 11th Biennale of Sydney: Everyday exh. cat. (Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 1988)), 22
6. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. (France, Les Presses du Reel, 2002) 14
7. Browne, Sarah ‘Crowd Theory Lite ‘The Crowd’ in Participatory Art and Pop Economics’ ( Circa, No. 126 Winter, 2008), 33
8. Tiravanija at the Secession
9. Dan Gleadall, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Parenthesis
10. Fox, Dan. Welcome to the Real World (Frieze, 90 April 2005)
11. Tiravanija, Rirkrit, ‘No Ghosts in the Wall’ (Participation, Documents of Contemporary Art, London, Whitechapel Gallery & Massachusetts, MIT Press 2006) 149
15. e-flux, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen