Tearing Down the House

John Haber
in New York City

Rirkrit Tiravanija and Other Wall Busters

Every starving artist dreams of breaking into a gallery or museum. As the barriers to entry grow ever higher, the wish to tear through the walls grows more urgent, more plaintive, and yet perhaps more futile.

What, however, if the urge occurs within New York's fanciest walls? It could mean that an artist has learned to subvert the system the right way, from the inside. It could mean that an actual curator has accepted responsibility for the future. Then again, it could mean that very idea of rebellion has grown quaint. It could, in short, mean selling out. Katrin Sigurdardottir's High Plane V (MoMA PS1, 2007)

Which applies to Rirkrit Tiravanija? He has made a career of simulating artist collectives without other artists and an alternative space without a genuine alternative. He even reproduces his own past efforts in fancier and fancier environments, as if to ensure that artistic rebellion has become itself a global commodity. Yet in spring 2007 and, two years before, at the Guggenheim, he also works through in public his own impulses toward idealism and control. Last, two others burst right through a museum's plaster—or maybe glass—ceiling and into the clouds. Katrín Sigurdardóttir erects ladders to the sky, while Susan Hamburger gives up on art-world and real-world politics and builds her own museum. (You might continue reading beyond these dreams of unbuilding by turning to shows this same spring about building.)

Have a heart

No one could say that Rirkrit Tiravanija lacks a heart. He has served meals in the space of a gallery, recreated his apartment in public more lovingly than a recreated hotel by Mike Nelson, and invited visitors to partake of both, much as Andrea Zittel sets up her rather more faceless living quarters. As a Thai artist like Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook but born in Buenos Aires, perhaps he feels drawn to breaking borders and to restoring a sense of home. Perhaps he wishes he could have eaten lunch with Gordon Matta-Clark at the latter's fabled restaurant, Food. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that Matta-Clark made a career of physically, even violently, breaking through walls.

As a group show put it, he works "With Food in Mind." Now he is at it again, once more offering shelter and hot meals. Pointedly, his gallery physically opens access to the street, welcoming passers-by with curry and vegetable soup. Just climb through a window in the temporary wooden structure, grab a dish and a ladle, find a seat, and dig in. Do not even wait for him to set up an espresso bar at the Guggenheim.

Tiravanija wishes to break boundaries between the artist, the dealer, and their audience, just as when he celebrated political art by commissioning Demonstration Drawings. Here the ad hoc artist collective includes the fellow stirring the pot, not necessarily an artist or full-time gallery employee, and the one dishing it out, you. Visitors serve themselves and spill onto the sidewalk. Yet Tiravanija has a few peremptory gestures of his own, only starting with an act of charity. He erected the boundaries in the first place. In a sense, he reinforces those who know the price of everything—by repeating his best-known past work, working in art's most expensive real estate, and validating it by his act of good will.

The system may have him feeling trapped as well. He looks back to a happier age, when a collective could spawn a modernist movement. Only three blocks away, he joins Philippe Parreno on video, in a further backward glance. Ironically, boundaries and old memories alike have their comforting side as well. The small video monitor sits amid the velvet curtains of old movie houses, and its narrator mourns the loss of a kinder, gentler past. Ironically and, I think, knowingly, it also revels in the loss, right down to the choice of taping in China, now global capitalism's latest home.

Visually, the video has a handful of static, unrelated scenes, all of them warm and cuddly but just slightly askew. The woody landscape has no obvious ground. The bunny rabbit is albino, and the snowman is really a sandman—like the character who could alternatively enter a boy's dreams or bring death. An unseen hand wiggles two more bunny ears in silhouette against the moon.

All this suggests childhood memories, like Carsten Höller with his carousels and sliding ponds, and yet the soundtrack speaks with the voice of a plaintive child. The boy longs for the good old days, when snow covered London for weeks during Christmas time, before men walked on the moon, and before McDonald's served salad. As the lament continues, it seems more and more to marvel at the changes. In effect, the syntax points to loss, while the semantics speaks of wonders.

Deregulating digital art

Tiravanija places even video in a distant past, before the Web challenged media consolidation more effectively than he ever dares or ever could. He simulates warmer, more open communities that real-world politics, economics, and society keep chilly and shut. To gain more insight, it helps to look back in a different way, to his last foray into digital art. Two years earlier, he turned the Guggenheim into a TV channel, as a populist challenge to mass media.

Perhaps no one would willingly break the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright walls. Instead, Tiravanija turned a tower gallery into a global communications network—so self-contained that it includes its receiver as well as its transmitter. All he needs is the globe.

Rirkrit Tiravanija's Untitled (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2005)Tiravanija must have seemed a natural for something as open-ended as the biennial Hugo Boss Prize, given in 2006 to Tacita Dean and in 2008 to Emily Jacir. With the 2004 award came the chance to display not work that earned him attention, but a new installation. A plywood chamber—the kind that makes one suspect he kept the box and threw the art away—held two television sets, plus benches on which to get with the program. An adjacent, sealed-off metal structure held the transmitter, connected by wires to a source on DVD just outside. He calls it all "the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel." Like Cory Arcangel or Tim Hawkinson, too, he suggests how men can act like boys playing with their toys, especially when they indulge in new media.

As always, Tiravanija serves up layered boundaries. His transmission led one first to the frame and the gallery, then to the museum institution as a whole, and at last to New York and the world beyond—or at least the mile or two that such a low-power broadcast could reach. In reality, however, the signal never left the museum. The FCC insisted on limits so as to protect other New Yorkers from interference, including interference from unused frequencies.

If one needs more detail, the FCC regulations covered the tower gallery walls. For good measure, a free handout threw in the correspondence that led to the work and instructions to build one's own. I cannot vouch personally for their efficacy, but I bet you can still take the text home with you and let me know. Whose responsibility is it to break boundaries in an overheated art market? Maybe I can place it all on you.

The work's history, like the plywood box, no doubt demystifies the museum a bit. But does it really bring government power and the corporate ideals of globalization down to earth? Can it burst out of the museum, any more than the 2006 Whitney Biennial shattered boundaries by opening with gaping holes in a Sheetrock wall? Ironically, those holes alone allowed access, for the gallery there had no doors. Can doors or walls remain open for long? When it comes to art, as with any other market, is there such a thing as a free lunch?

Hot curry and hot air

Artists before at the Guggenheim have linked new media and artistic freedom. They have called digital art a blow against art's commercial empire, allowing dissemination everywhere. Does that promise remain? I have my doubts. I wish that I could rent some of those fabulously priced art videos for a few bucks, instead of sitting through them in galleries.

Tiravanija uses sophisticated means, but to curiously quixotic ends. His simulated home and kitchen could not really house or feed the homeless, and I have trouble deciding whether he means to call attention to the disjunction. After Reagan's elimination of the fairness doctrine and the growth of Clear Channel's media empire, I have trouble seeing deregulation as synonymous with free expression, local providers, and community. I have trouble even seeing those three as at peace with one another outside of a commune—or a steel and plywood box.

Moreover, the artist wields his means of control as sternly as Rupert Murdoch determines fairness and balance. Whether with his box at the Guggenheim, his open wood frame at one posh gallery, or his imagined narrative at another, he erects the very boundaries that he disturbs. His broadcast TV channel demanded an enclosed space, protected access, predetermined content, and a fixed place from which to watch—all within museum walls. The signal, with barely intelligible chatter from the FCC, talked at the visitor, and wall text added to the didacticism.

Perhaps the work, as a curator put it, invites visitors to perform. But to put visitors on stage is to put them on the spot, too, without the power actually to shape the work. Tiravanija's restoration of a powerful museum's traditional role could stand as further irony, like the copy of Marcel Duchamp's bicycle wheel atop the plywood. At least he is daring enough to risk—in more ways than one—a signal failure. And that brings me back to his latest perplexity.

As the title of his and Parreno's video explains, Stories Are Propaganda, presumably even an artist's. Some stories are also poetic, meandering, and disconnected. Think of someone with a gift for words and all that they can mean, but who cannot resist savoring whatever comes off the top of his head. Tiravanija's whole career could stand editing, while he works out what he can share and how much that sharing can truly dismantle walls. However, one has a hard time complaining over a free lunch. It improves considerably, too, with hot sauce.

For once, then, idealism is again running rampant in Chelsea. Spencer Finch wants to take art back to its glory days—and back to nature. A wall of museum postcards creates the world's most expansive Impressionist landscape, if not by any means its most luminous. More prominently, stacked box fans fill a gallery for once with something other than hot air. Reputedly, the assembly reproduces in real time the breeze at Walden Pond, although actual air currents compressed spatially to this extent would probably produce a storm front. At least Finch can call a top gallery one of his biggest fans.

China syndrome

Of course, artists in more idealistic days played with museum and gallery architecture, too. When John Lennon climbed a ladder to read the word Yes, he and Yoko Ono began more stories than most artists get to tell in a lifetime. Oddly enough, none of them belong exactly to Modernism, Postmodernism, or contemporary art. Right there, high on a gallery wall, one has a still young performance scene, a rock star still looking beyond the spotlight, a love story, and the bitter end of the 1960s. One may start to imagine that art can matter too much for a change.

An installation at P.S. 1 recalls that same psychic landscape, with almost the exact same device, but twice over. High Plane V leaves one aware that something really has changed since the breakup of the Beatles. With two ladders, Katrín Sigurdardóttir presents not a casual appropriation but a formal restructuring of the small, second-floor corner gallery. One hesitates to climb, and it takes work. As a reward, one gets to have one's head in the clouds. Even that brings the spare promise of an answered Yes back to earth.

The ladders lead to holes in the ceiling, just large enough for one's head, and Sigurdardóttir has landscaped the floor above with sculpted clouds. They have a comical solidity, more like the frozen seas of her native Iceland than a silk-sack dreamland. Two holes mean that one may face off against another disembodied head, and you get to decide whether to feel superior or embarrassed. Could Ono really have had word small enough to compel surprise at the end but large enough to read? Maybe or maybe not, but do watch your step coming down.

At the Frick, one has fewer physical outlets, and I often rush through the actual Rococo period rooms as fast as Enlightenment decorum permits. Should one wish instead to linger on them even after a visit, however, just a mile north Susan Hamburger converts a gallery into the Met's Croome Court tapestry room. She does not actually borrow the Robert Adam architecture, Gobelin tapestries, François Boucher medallions, and Spode china. How eighteenth century. No, she prefers her own oil and canvas, plus some deft ink sketches on paper and foam-board plates mounted in pretend Edwardian china cabinets. Think of it as not a truthful recreation but artistic truthiness.

Indeed, she pays tribute to the Old Masters of truthiness. The china cabinet features the smiling faces of quite another cabinet, the one appointed by the president, plus other senior Bush appointees. With her study of a bad war on pretend china, she gives new meaning to Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule. Dick Cheney also puts in an appearance across the room, along with Bush himself, as tapestry cherubs, and wall medallions depict scenes from Iraq. In deference to the feelings of both sets of courtiers, well over two hundred years apart, the scenes show no damage from war. She probably did not paint the VP's butt from life either.

It's Not Just a Job, It's an Occupation plays a nice trick on the fad for gallery-size installations. Hamburger's "china" drawings owe something to both trompe l'oeil and a graphic novel. Her brushwork on the wall has as much to do with a stylish present as with the elegance of tapestry in art. She also makes one pause over what one might mean by the art of empire. Perhaps the evident skill and wonderful sense of humor did not deepen all that much on me once I had settled in. Meanwhile however, she might be terrific company when I next get lost in the gloomier corners of the Met, the market, or Baghdad.

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Rirkrit Tiravanija's food festival was extended twice, to run through May 19, 2007, at David Zwirner and his video with Philippe Parreno at Friedrich Petzel through April 21. His Hugo Boss Prize installation ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through May 11, 2005. Spencer Finch ran at Postmasters through April 28, 2007, Katrín Sigurdardóttir at MoMA PS1 through May 7, 2007, and Susan Hamburger at Cheryl McGinnis through October 20, 2006.


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