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SAME RIVER TWICE
by Jerry Saltz
 
Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gordon Matta-Clark, Mar. 21-May 19, 2007, at David Zwirner Gallery, 519 West 19th St., New York, N.Y. 10001

For Rirkrit Tiravanija, art is what you eat. This Thai born, New York-Chang Mai-and-Berlin based artist became famous, starting in 1992, when he made "Untitled 1992 (Free)." This sculptural-performance consisted of Tiravanija (pronounced Tea-rah-vah-nit) removing all the contents of the office of the 303 Gallery on Greene Street in SoHo -- including its intrepid dealer, Lisa Spellman -- and setting up a makeshift kitchen complete with a refrigerator, pots, hot plates, rice steamers, folding tables and stools. He then cooked Thai curry; anyone who happened by could serve themselves, sit down and eat. For free.

Back then it was disconcerting and thrilling to be this casual in an art gallery, to go from being a passive viewer to an active participant, and doing it all for free. With this simple, almost metaphysical gesture, Tiravanija transformed the transaction of being in a gallery as viewers came to realize that the art was in them, not just because they ate it, but because all the relations they had there were theirs. In this very tangible, immediate way, Tiravanija seemed to bridge a mind-body gap that often exists in Western art; he was a medicine man artist who literalized art’s primitive functions as sustenance, healing and communion.

Tiravanija subsequently repeated this cooking-as-art sculpture all over the world. So much that by the late 1990s he was in danger of branding himself as the happy Thai guy who cooks. This obscured the latent identity-politics prickliness in his work. Often, Tiravanija prepares food the first day of an event then substitutes a Thai cook thereafter. All this is not only reminiscent of the cagy ways Andy Warhol sent surrogates to give lectures for him and let himself be thought of as a village idiot, the disordered highly social situations Tiravanija sets up also mimic Warhol’s Factory in that they provide unstable, clubby environments where people can act out, and every kind of behavior is sanctioned.

Well almost every behavior. There’s never been the out-of-control self-destruction and exploration of sexual mores in Tiravanija’s art that always existed in the Factory. Although, in 1999, inside the Gavin Brown Gallery, Tiravanija built a full-scale wooden replica of his East Village apartment that included a working kitchen, bedroom and bathroom that was open 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to anyone. All that hot summer people lived, ate and partied there. Some said they had sex there; one person told me they had group sex there. I went dozens of times and only had lunch there. Regardless, a lot of Eros emanates from within Tiravanija’s chaos.

If you want to feel the love, as well as eat some great food, meet people and possibly spot Matt Dillon, David Byrne, Cindy Sherman and Rufus Wainwritght -- all who’ve dined here -- go to David Zwirner’s West 19th Street gallery, where for the next week you can partake-in or just gawk at others in an exact life-sized wooden replica of Tiravanija’s original 303 Gallery potlatch-piece. It’s still called "Untitled 1992 (Free)." The original tables, stools and fridge are even here, as is the detritus from 15 years ago (wrapped, natch). It’s all inside an exact replica of the old 303 Gallery. This karaoke ghost-sculpture is Tiravanija asking what happens when we try to step into the same river twice.

"Untitled" can transport you back to 1992, a time when the art world was crumbling, money was scarce, the audience was disappearing and artists like Tiravanija were in the nascent stages of developing sculptural practices that combined Happenings, Conceptual Art, Performance, Fluxus, Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Gordon Matta-Clark and the do-it-yourself ethos of punk. Meanwhile, a new art world was coming into being. Many in this world met or got to know one another in Tiravanija’s early feed-pieces.

This makes Tiravanija a sort of Johnny Appleseed artist, someone who spread the seeds of a new art. Unfortunately, this is where the rub comes in. Many of the people who met back then, and who were figuring out ways to create a new system, have by now become the system. Not only is Tiravanija one of this system’s most prominent members, the ism he and many others evolved -- and that came to be known as "Relational Esthetics" -- currently dominates international biennials and triennials. These artists are now flown to far-flung locations; they collaborate with, and curate one another into exhibitions. The low point of all this was "Utopia Station," a sprawling be-in curated by Tiravanija and two bigwig curators (Molly Nesbit and Hans Ulrich Obrist) for the 2003 Venice Biennial. This show quickly devolved into little more than a hippie hangout where people congratulated themselves for being cool enough to sit around and do nothing. What began in 1992 as a heroic way to change the system not only became the system; now it’s the academy.

None of this negates what’s going on at Zwirner’s. Indeed, seeing "Untitled" here adds gripping new layers to the original work and attests to the strengths and complexity in Tiravanija’s work. In 1992, I met the just-starting-out David Zwirner in Tiravanija’s piece. He’s still the same person, although he’s one of New York’s super-galleries and has three huge spaces next to one another. Thus, it’s hard not to think about the enormous shift in scale, stature and money when you’re in his new super sized mega-garage across the street from the new Frank Gehry building. But what could be mistaken for one gallery absorbing another and a successful artist allowing himself to be eaten alive is actually an exquisite symbiosis. Zwirner reveals his scrappy roots, and Gavin Brown, who still represents Tiravanija, ups his ante. As for Tiravanija; obviously, he’s getting exposure, but he no longer owns "Untitled." In a way he’s like you: He’s just "acting" here.

Tiravanija has never been able to make a convincing object -- unless you count the recreation a sculpture, in which case he’s a good sculptor. His last outing at Brown was terrible and featured a room in which you looked in through a peep hole at a mannequin of Tiravanija in bed. Worse were his paintings with words on them. This inability to make an object, however, is crucial to understanding Tiravanija’s work. At Zwirner, it’s a huge relief not to have to size-up objects or think about sales. Life takes over; commerce fades. Moreover, the idea of waste, of taking up all this space and not having anything to sell is an excellent thing these days when the opposite of wasted-space in a gallery is the norm. There isn’t much product at Zwirner, but the process is deeply rich.

A recreation too far
Tiravanija’s redux of Untitled 1992 (Free) acts as a kind of invading organism that usurps the function of the gallery, displacing it with real life. All this is underscored by another recreation at Zwirner’s, next to Tiravanija’s. It is a signature piece of post-minimalist sculpture by the late Gordon Matta-Clark, made exactly 20 years before the Tiravanija, and as fate would have it, at the exact same address on Greene Street in SoHo where Tiravanija originally made Untitled 1992 (Free).

Titled Open House, it is a dumpster that Matta-Clark, converted into a makeshift living environment for the homeless, or for anyone who wanted to hang out there. Made to exist outside of the commercial gallery system, Open House shows the ways Matta-Clark excelled at architectural interventions, and evinces his concerns with altering the functions of galleries, while creating social-spaces for interacting with art and people.

Sadly, even though Matta-Clark is a clear antecedent to and influence on Tiravanija, it turns out that two recreations is one too many. Open House is the one that suffers. You wander through Matta-Clark’s rabbit-warren of rooms within this dumpster but none of the original radicalism comes through. Where Tiravanija’s work is reanimated by redoing it, the Matta-Clark feels wistful at best, theme-park-ish at worst. The gallery should be admired for going to the trouble and the expense to present this lost bit of art world lore. However, stepping in the same river twice in one work of art is hard enough; doing it in another at the same time, courts trouble.


JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York magazine. He can be contacted at Jerry_Saltz@Newyorkmag.com.