The New Yorker's recent Art & Architecture issue includes a profile of the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. In Calvin Tompkins' "Shall We Dance?," the artist comes off as a thoughtful, sensitive man, but I struggle to appreciate Tiravanija's artwork.
Tiravanija rightly champions direct action/interaction as a way of "making a difference" in the world. Most of his work deals with community or shared experience, and performative aspects are simultaneously highlighted and dismissed. While I grasp the conceptual underpinning and moral imperative of his projects, they are almost devoid of aesthetic appeal. More problematically (for a post-aesthetics artist like Tiravanija), judged alongside the heroic efforts of citizen activists or humanitarian lobbyists, his projects are superficial and uninspiring.
Although I run the risk of constructing a straw man by focusing on an artwork some readers will deem uncharacteristic of Tiravanija, I'll highlight an early installation described in the Tompkins' article.
"[Randy] Alexander served Rolling Rock beer at the opening, because he could get it at a discount. 'Rirkrit liked the bottles,' he remembers. 'I stacked them up in their original cartons and we made a piece out of it.' The effect that Rirkrit and his work have on some people is not easily explicable. Gavin Brown, who came in one day, was working then for Lisa Spellman at the increasingly influential 303 Gallery, but he thought of himself as an artist - he had gone to art school in London. Something about the four cases of stacked green bottles pierced his soul. 'It irritated me so much!' he remembers. 'Beer bottles in their cardboard cases, all empty, tops off. It wasn't like a found object - there was so much more to it than that. I could feel this in waves, even though there almost nothing to it. It was an object that seemed to say, 'You don't realize how little everything else matters.' I couldn't get it out of my head.'"I laughed when I read the above, finding the beer bottle enterprise absurd, s revelation of head-up-ass art world pretensions. To be fair, Tiravanija might have intended to at once skewer the art world's skeptical nature and the art world's credulousness, two seemingly contradictory, but inextricably linked impulses. Many art viewers harbor an unfortunate closed-mindedness that results in their thinking, "Hey, a beer bottle is a beer bottle and art is art," while others are readily willing to accept any work in a gallery as "high art."
But I don't think that way, and I don't believe that most people do. Like the laconic photographer in "American Beauty," I'm often overwhelmed by the mundane (even if plastic bags are now considered terribly passe!). As hackneyed a notion as it may be, it's no less true that the smallest of gestures can offer profound epiphanies; nothing should be easily dismissed.
Reminding myself of this, I try to imagine my own, unbiased reaction to Tiravanija's beer bottle stack. I enter the gallery and stand before the Rolling Rocks "in their cardboard cases, all empty, tops off," and I feel......very little, excepting a formal appreciation (and some fond recollections of college binge drinking). This viewer needs more substance.
Formalism alone is never enough to satisfy a hungry mind. Minimalism, the "movement" most art historians consider the very pinnacle of formalism, is associated with transcendence. Consider the accepted criticism on Mark Rothko, for example. Purely aesthetic or formal experience can more easily allow for a turning off of the brain machine, a halting of the buzzing undercurrent. A convincing argument can therefore be made that formalism is pragmatic in the same way that advanced meditation is.
Surely this explains the quiet pleasure I experience when contemplating a good Barnett Newman painting. When conscious consideration is applied to the same Newman, however, I'm no longer wholly satisfied. After all, I can achieve the same sort of bliss, if it's fair to call it that, staring at a tree, an etched subway window or, occasionally, practicing yoga; more importantly, all of these non-art activities are more enjoyable ways for me to "transcend."
Complicating matters further, Tiravanija's beer bottle piece, like all readymades, relies on the context provided by a gallery or museum. Once Duchamp reminded us that "anything" could be art, we, as a culture, should have learned that lesson.
Honest artists will agree that the construction site across the street from the Chelsea warehouse is no less exciting, beautiful or intellectually stimulating than the objects on display inside. The whole world is a web of intricate artworks, from the used urinal to the non-coding protein. Why should Tiravanija's Rolling Rock bottles be more significant, or more beautiful, when stacked in the gallery than they are when stacked in the corner of a frat house? How many Sunday mornings have you spent long minutes watching the play of light off an empty beer bottle on the coffee table, following the refracted beam to the wall, colored now a pale brown, lime green or urine yellow? Tiravanija's bottles don't say, "You don't realize how little everything else matters" any more than do innumerable other objects and moments!
It strikes me as curious that Gavin Brown used the word "irritated" to describe his reaction to the Rolling Rock stack. Have we reached a point where we need to be reminded how to look at things from outside of ourselves, how to exist in the moment, whether via contextualized readymades or horrible natural disasters?
The Rolling Rock bottles are, in the end, impotent; the same can be said of most of Tiravanija's work. His gesture and intent are pure enough, but outside of the insulated - some would say "padded" - walls of the art community, his work communicates little of substance. Tiravanija succeeds, in my mind, only when he removes himself from such a context, as he does in Thailand, by working with the existing, local structures to build better safety nets and generate support for the arts and education. This localized, less celebrated effort is certain to be his legacy.