Ever since Sir Thomas More coined the term utopia in the 16th century, visions of the perfect society have included matching jumpsuits, glass-domed biospheres, or remote islands where harmonic living is realized by placidly grinning beings. But as history has jumped the rails of that idyllic path, if it was ever on it in the first place, can we even imagine today what utopia might look like? Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija can, but he doesn’t create the kind of dreamy art you might expect. He transforms galleries into kitchens that serve up free pad Thai. He turns museums into low-power radio stations, a replica of his New York apartment, a functioning mechanic’s shop, and a studio where “street TV” is broadcast to the neighborhood. He builds chrome-plated kitchen consoles, theatrical stages out of plywood and 2x4s, and replica modernist homes from glass and steel, then invites people in to do... whatever: rehearse with their band, sleep, eat, listen to a DJ, debate topics of the day, read. And he plays informal host at an off-the-grid rice farm in Thailand that’s art only insofar as it fits his definition of the genre as “a space for possibilities.” This kind of art – in which the artist cedes creative control to the people who “complete” the work – looks suspiciously like chaos. And what’s utopian about that?
Everything, says Tiravanija. “I think these previously modeled utopian conditions have always been in a kind of conformity of ideas, which is to say that somehow everyone should become one cohesive structure, one cohesive consciousness, and that would bring with it a sense of freedom,” he explains. Instead, he sees utopia as “understanding difference” and “being able to exist in chaos. To live within a chaotic structure.” He adds, “Chaos for me is life, is change, is moving, we are always living within it.” This sensibility comes as much from his family history – he’s Thai and was raised Buddhist – as from his geography: a diplomat’s son, he was born in Buenos Aires and has lived a nomadic life, making his home in Ethiopia, Canada, the US, Germany, and Thailand.
You could say his art is all about building “chaotic structures.” Then again, it’s about lots of things; his work is so open-ended and departs so radically from the art market’s orientation toward precious objects, that it’s earned many labels, many – like utopian or chaotic – that only tell part of the story. But one that’s stuck, for better or worse, is French theorist-critic Nicholas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics,” the idea of judging the social relationships sparked by an artwork instead of merely considering the object. A 1992 exhibition, one that first earned him international attention, exemplified this notion. It was a deceptively simple gesture: after moving the contents of the storeroom at a New York commercial gallery into the main exhibition hall, he turned the room into a social space where he cooked two pots of curry – white and red – for whomever showed up to eat. Echoing Marcel Duchamp’s sentiment that “It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap,” the only objects left to document the performance were plates dotted with remnant rice, leftover ingredients, a used cook stove, and dirty utensils. The gap between objects, where arguments ensued and bellies were filled, jokes were made and curry spilled, remains mysterious and un-ownable.
Such ethereal art can be understood through the lenses of Thai culture (where familial bonds are reinforced at mealtime) or Tiravanija’s memories (his grandmother had a cooking show on Thai TV), but it’s also informed by his study of Western avant-garde practices and its rich history of institutional critique by Dadaist trickster Duchamp, “social sculptor” Joseph Beuys, and others. By preparing food in a gallery, he inverts some of art’s revered standards. He converts an environment of white walls and whispers into a realm of scent, steam, and sometimes raucous dialogue.
He turns the venerated artist, a high priest of culture, into a humble, apron-wearing servant. And most remarkably, he creates art that, for the most part, can’t be bought or sold, punning with the very idea of the “art consumer.” (Even with these critiques, he remains an art-world favorite: his numerous accolades include the 2004 Hugo Boss Prize, a prestigious honor that comes with a $50,000 check and a solo show at the Guggenheim). As a result, his art is always alive and – because he’s not really controlling its outcomes – unpredictable. “I often work against ways of being museologized,” he says, “of becoming dead in a sense.”
Tiravanija’s most ambitious project is just such a living endeavor. In 1998, he and artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert purchased a rice farm in Sanpatong, a village 20 minutes outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. With no electricity or running water, it’s a clean slate on which to create a dynamic community for an ever-changing cast of farmers, local students, and international artists. It was founded “with anonymity and without the concept of ownership . . . to be cultivated as an open space, though with certain intentions towards community, towards discussions and towards experimentation in other fields of thought.”
The pair never intended "the land" as art, but given the vague nature of what it is – an open framework in which things can happen – and the involvement of well-known artists like Tiravanija, Tobias Rehberger, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Philippe Parreno and others, how could it not be viewed as such? Still, Tiravanija likens the land to something else, “an empty table top that people bring different projects to. They can bring [something] to it, use the top, leave things there or take them away, but it’s basically an empty table.”
Like Tiravanija’s work elsewhere, nearly all the projects to come off this table are functional. Several 2x4-meter stilt houses have been built, including one for Tiravanija that has levels dedicated to each of the “three spheres of human need”: community and sustenance, reading and meditation, and rest. The Danish art group Superflex has installed a system for collecting biogas for cooking fuel from the manure left by the land’s roving water buffalo. Artist Prachya Phintong has designed a fish farm to utilize the water sur- rounding two rice fields maintained by a farmer known as Professor Wei and area art students (rice not used by the community can’t be sold for profit, Lertchaiprasert insists, and is donated to village families living with AIDS). The Netherlands’ Atelier van Lieshout developed a composting toilet system, and artists Philippe Parreno and Francois Roche built a “battery house” called Hybrid Muscle. A futuristic hall for hosting community events, its exterior is covered with plastic “leaves” that hold 20-ton concrete blocks; as buffalo harnessed to a pulley system and a dynamo lift the counterweights, their muscle energy is converted into electrical power.
Vision and whimsy abound at the land – Rehberger’s house was inspired by his favorite German dish, lentil, noodles and broccoli, and Superflex’s biogas system stores fuel in eye-popping orange balloons – but they’re always intercut with both ethereal spirituality and pragmatic reality. As curator Karen Demavivas writes, it is an “ephemeral utopia of cracks, leaks, buffalo waste, termites, big red ants, rainy seasons and mold, a whirl of decay and renewal . . . Injected with a Buddhist sensibility, it strives to be a micro-utopia of conscious, daily acts that propagate an equanimous life in the present for the betterment of a community and, more broadly, society.”
While Tiravanija shies away from that last part – the saving the world bit – he reiterates that the land, like all his work, is ultimately social: “We’re not interested in making a sculpture park. We’re much more interested in conditions of living.”
Originally published in the Canadian magazine Geez, Issue 3, Summer 2006.