“Duchamp and Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers, all these figures are not like statues of Lenin or Saddam that need to be toppled, but are instead more like living spirits that [Rirkrit Tiravanija] communes with.”
– Doryun Chong, curator
In the recent Walker exhibition OPEN-ENDED (the art of engagement), curator Doryun Chong faced a challenge: how to present the Walker’s history of artist residencies and do it while engaging community in new ways. With a panel of Walker staff members from all departments, he set out to open up the gallery–literally and metaphorically–and who better to help than Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was a resident artist here in the mid-90s? Tiravanija recreated and modified Viennese architect Friedrich Kiesler‘s Raumbhne, a spiral stage–or “space stage”–that illustrated his idea of correalism, a “theory of the endless and multidimensional correlation between the human being, the arts and the space.” Tiravanija’s “demo station” was a launchpad for a variety of activities during the run of the exhibition, from karaoke battles and a teen fashion show to performances and music events. Chong recently discussed Tiravanija’s art and the stage that became the locus of activity in this unusual and free-form show.
Tiravanija’s untitled (demo station no. 5), during “a moment of stasis, in between moments of complete chaos.”
PS: Rirkrit once told me, “I often work against ways of being museologized, or being dead in a sense.” That’s a good starting point for discussing the installation in OPEN-ENDED. For a guy who doesn’t want to be museologized, going to an art museum is an interesting choice. The premise of this show seems to resonate with his work, which is to have work activated or “completed” by its users. How did this work?
DC: When I expressed the objectives of this show to Rirkrit, it was natural to him. After my long spiel [about residencies and audience engagement], he simply said, “So what you’re trying to do is create a community in your gallery?” The way the Walker has been interpreting civic engagement is: we need to go out and meet with all kinds of neighborhoods and work with people. Rirkrit simply inverted that idea and said that, well, what you want is communities to form inside the gallery and you want to create some kind of catalyst in the space.
He didn’t pull something completely new out of the hat to provide that catalyst. He immediately saw that what he was interested in at the moment could also serve the function we wanted, and that was Friedrich Kiesler’s Raumbhne. He wanted to re-embody it or re-enact it. He started with this very particular historical architecture, an icon of both modernist architecture and modernist theater, but he wasn’t fixated on the idea of recreation. Obviously, it’s been scaled down, and the materials are different. And when I proposed to him that another project within the exhibition–Spencer Nakasako’s video booth–be incorporated into the space, he had no qualms about it whatsoever. He was actually intrigued by it. He has a very loose–in a very positive sense–interpretation of it, and maybe that’s one way he skirts being museologized. That work isn’t meant to be a precious piece of art.
PS: The materials seem to play into that: it’s plywood 2 x 4’s, not marble.
DC: Or steel. The original Kiesler stage, its main scaffolding and trusses were made out of steel. We made changes to fit the space and the budget and to build in Spencer’s project. He was completely open to all those suggestions, and he was perfectly happy with it.
A scene from the un-Prom fashion show
PS: That openness matches Rirkrit’s definition of art as simply a “space for possibilities.” When I spoke to him about The Land (the sustainability community/art experiment he co-founded in 1998 outside of Chiang Mai), he used the metaphor of a table: that the land is an empty table top that people bring various projects to. They bring things to it, use the top, leave things there or take them away, but it’s basically an empty table. It seems like a fitting way to talk about his work in general, because even though this particular piece looks like a table, he creates structures, literal and metaphorical, for people to operate on.
DC: Another metaphor that lends itself is not just an empty table, but a messy table! That’s the sense you get at the land. Of course, it’s a “utopian” community and whatnot, but when you go there, things are now pretty decrepit in this subtropical climate. And some of the projects are specifically about that. Structures like Francois Roche’s Hybrid Muscle, which is on one hand architecture that generates power using water buffaloes that live on the premise, but on the other hand, the materials are now rotting and falling apart, just like organic beings. I think that’s an important notion in Roche’s theory of architecture, architecture that is not about permanence and monumentality, but growth and degeneration.
PS: It also fits Rirkrit’s idea of utopia as “ being able to exist in chaos, to live within a chaotic structure.” He says, “ Chaos is, for me, is life, is change, is moving. We’re always living within it.” In that way, this stage, with its fashion shows and activist displays, was pretty chaotic.
DC: Right. Some events were very quiet and orderly: one artist, Abinadi Meza, did a sound performance on top of the stage, and his response to the architecture’s circular structure. And Matt Bakkom’s project of teaching people how to play Anagram was a very simple and elegant response to the space and how people can experience it. Some of them were obviously much more dynamic and really challenged the space: Gulgun Kayim’s Skewed Visions project, and the fashion show where models ran up and down the round ramp with the band on top of the stage.
His stage, when there’s nothing happening in it, looks impressive and beautiful and structured and ordered. But that’s a moment of stasis, in between moments of complete chaos. And I was really nervous each time as these large events were happening or about to happen. I kept trying to have control over the crowd and people’s behavior, but then realized I can’t really control them. When people get together, somehow they create a structure within that. Structure is always built into chaos and vice versa. Through the realization of this project as part of the larger exhibition, it taught me something about curatorial practice. It’s not about complete control, but sometimes it’s about letting go of the control and impart your faith and confidence in people, your audience. Still, because of habit and inertia, every time we held an event I would think, “What would Rirkrit think about the craziness happening on stage?” In the end I realized he doesn’t really mind.
Karaoke battle, with replica amp and inflatable guitars
PS: I’m never sure what Rirkrit’s intent is, but I think the result is that he subverts some of our sacred cows of the art world. When I spoke to him about this idea, he said: in a culture where everyone rigidly holds onto everything so much, letting go is subversive.
DC: For me, subversiveness is a problematic term because it’s one of those kinds of words we use habitually. I think that’s just the legacy of modernism. Impressionists were the first generation of modernists. Before them, the Realists, like Courbet, were completely subversive. In a sense, Modernism is a history of successive subversions: Impressionists followed by Fauvists and then Dada and Fluxus. It’s also a kind of a patricidal, Oedipal kind of struggle, that you always have to subvert what comes before you. As this history of subversion accumulates like geological strata, at which point can you not subvert any more? At which point do you come back to the original point? I like to think that Rirkrit’s work is completely aware of all the subversions that have happened and tries, perhaps, to swim in it. There’s an incredible amount of respect and admiration in it, but it’s on a very personal and intimate level. Duchamp and Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers, all these figures are, in a sense for him, not like statues of Lenin or Saddam that need to be toppled, but are instead more like living spirits that he communes with.
PS: So, maybe subversion isn’t the word, but his work does seem to have the effect of giving us a little pinch–“Well, why can’t we cook in the galleries? Why can’t we have plywood in the gallery? Yeah we can!” It’s a tweak rather than a toppling.
DC: On the one hand it really kind of awakens you, but on the other, it’s a gentle reminder that all these actions have already happened. It’s a reminder of history, of our shared heritage and tradition.
Gulgun Kayim’s Skewed Visions project
PS: There’s that Buddhist idea that you can never step in the same stream twice, that it’s a flow. He said that about his work; he could revisit his earlier projects today and they’d be totally different. In one interview, he touched on this idea that there are a lot of great ideas out there that need to be explored. Maybe we don’t need new ideas all the time. Maybe we need to bring back Kiesler’s stage. With the land, maybe we need to see which ideas are good ideas, and rather than just coming up with new ideas, perhaps we need to test and develop.
DC: Just as the history of the avant-garde is a succession of subversions, we can’t forget that what drove that history was originality and authorship. We’re still so caught up in that idea. “Where’s the originality? Oh, that’s been done!” That’s the most dismissive comment you can make, right? But just to calmly realize that there are no more new ideas, but not in a pessimistic or self-defeatist kind of way, but that all the good ideas are already there, just as the bad ideas are all there.
PS: As a culture, how did we get so entranced with “the new”? Is it just a product of a consumerist mindset ? We don’t seem to ask what “new” means to me, but it’s marketed as inherently better.
DC: That’s what capitalism does, but in a larger sense, that’s what modernity does. By definition, modernity is the new. It’s always relational. I don’t want romanticize Rirkrit’s Buddhist background, but there is a different understanding of time as nonlinear. It’s circular, it’s karmic, and nothing is new in a sense. It regenerates itself, but it’s already been there.
PS: Critics often speak of Rirkrit’s work in terms of the concept of “ relational aesthetics” (the relationships that are sparked by the art) or the work’s of “use-value”–both ideas that predate Rirkrit’s work.
DC: Perhaps that idea of art for use, art that has functional purposes, needs reinforcement and needs to be returned to periodically. From Duchamp’s readymades to Beuys’ conception of art as conversations and teaching, there have been various iterations of the idea of art forming relations throughout history. But maybe it disintegrates a bit or becomes precious. It turns into objects and becomes “museumized.” Each generation of artists needs to reinvent that idea with a slightly different terminology. And, in a sense, the museum’s role is to preserve those lessons. We’re still an object- and image-based society, and that’s what a museum is, ultimately. All of these radical notions and practices become objectified and archived and collected. So each generation has to reinvent that a bit. It’s not an antagonistic relationship. It’s a complementary relationship that the museum and artists have. In a sense, again, there are no new ideas. There’s one idea and multiple iterations of it. And in the process, museums evolve and artists’ practice evolves. But when I say evolution, I don’t really like to think of it like we continue to reach higher and higher to this final utopian point. It’s a more circular process.