What better artist to inaugurate the Ontario College of Art and Design's new Nomadic Residents program than the globe-trotting Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija? He maintains studios in New York, Bangkok and Berlin, and spends the better part of his days circumnavigating the globe between biennials, exhibitions, commercial gallery shows of his art and the occasional visiting-lecturer gig.
But even nomads return to their old hunting grounds. Tiravanjia (pronounced Ti-ra-VAN-ik) is an OCAD alumnus, class of 1984, and his show and speaking engagement in Toronto mark a return to his roots, to the place where he had his first immersion in art. It's also the place where he learned how to cook -- making chicken, noodles and rice for his friends in his little apartment -- a skill that would end up at the centre of his artistic practice.
Tiravanija's cooking pieces have become legendary, sometimes feeding thousands of people over the course of a show -- usually pad thai or curry. On Coleman stoves. In art galleries. For free.
Since the late nineties, he has headed into new artistic territory. But the cooking pieces were what attracted international attention, securing him the Hugo Boss Prize in 2004 and making him a regular on the international exhibition circuit.
"It was kind of a natural thing," he said, remembering his subsistence lifestyle at art school. "I had to learn how to make food for myself because it was cheaper that way. So I would go to Chinatown and pick up a chicken, but a whole chicken is too much for one person to eat, so I would ask other people and it got to be this thing." He smiles one of his many, ready smiles, his eyes crinkling up behind his rose-tinted designer glasses -- the only trendy touch in his otherwise straightforward self-presentation. With his black, shaggy hair and his mildly dishevelled deportment, he has the look of someone who is a little surprised and amused at his fame, and not about to be thrown by it.
This must be tough, given his increasingly weighty reputation. The New York art critic Calvin Tomkins has described him as a global paradigm-shifter and as a "post-studio" artist -- a reference to the way he works on site, making situations, not objects, as his art. As well, he has been described as the exemplar of "relational aesthetics" (his work was on the cover of an influential book by that name by Nicolas Bourriaud) or "service-based art" -- work that intends to provoke new social relations in response to conditions set up by the artist.
It's tempting to think of his dinners and how they bring people together as a metaphorical re-enactment of his father's calling. The son of a Thai diplomat, Tiravanija was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in Ethiopia, Thailand, Malaysia and Ottawa. There, while hanging out in the guidance office at Carleton University, where he was studying history, he spied the OCA handbook (it was before 'Design' was incorporated into the college's title). "I had heard about this thing called art college," he says laconically, "and I thought I should look into it. I sent away for the application form."
Once he was in, he had more decisions to make. "I signed up for something called Experimental Art," he says. "I didn't know what that term meant, but now I know. It means they leave you alone."
The idea of making meals began here in Toronto, he says, in his apartment on Darcy Street near the college, where he routinely prepared dinners for his friends. "It became part of my daily structure," he says. After he left Toronto -- first for OCAD's New York studio, where he spent two years, then for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and for the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York -- he continued making the works he had started at OCAD: small architectural pieces with kinetic elements. In Chicago he turned toward a more political art, receiving a student prize for a work in which he demanded the return of ancient Thai treasures to their homeland, via a series of photo and text works which he installed in the basement, underneath the Asian galleries.
His first cooking performances came out of that experience. "I felt there was a kind of gap between the display and the reality of those objects," he says, looking back on that moment. "I think the cooking performances were kind of a way of taking back the pot and cooking in it," conjuring the meals that would have once been made using these utensils and vessels.
The first cooking performance was in 1989 at Scott Hanson Gallery in New York, and it gave rise to many more, always mounted with the provisional look of the refugee camp or temporary soup kitchen, implying a state of emergency and transience. The works, he said, were developed in response to the problem of homelessness in New York. "Watching all these art collectors lining up for a bowl of curry was attractive to me," he remembers. Asked about the Judeo-Christian reading of his bread-breaking happenings (evocative, too, of the Biblical story of the loaves and the fishes), he counters that the work had much more to do with the Thai traditions of hospitality, where openness and generosity are part of the Buddhist way of life.
Along the way, Tiravanija learned a bit about the vicissitudes of art in the North American context. "In a museum in the Third World you can pretty much do what you want," he says. "But anywhere, say, west of the Nile, there are just so many rules. At the Geffen Contemporary museum in Los Angeles, for example -- it's just a big warehouse -- at first they wanted me to set up to serve food inside. Then they thought I should be nearer the door. Then they told me I should maybe be outside. Finally, they thought I needed to be up on a stage, so that the people wouldn't get burned by the oil in the woks. In the end, I told them that they should build me a wooden crate to cook in and I could pass the food out through the slits."
Since the end of the cooking work, Tiravanija has taken up a variety of projects. He has set up broadcasting stations inside museums. He's written radio plays. Then there's The Land, a six-hectare property with rice fields in northern Thailand that he bought 10 years ago with a friend, which has been home base for an unfolding commune and cross-cultural think-tank. And he is making a new documentary film "about going to visit people and spending time with them." Finally, there are his walls, stubborn obstructions that he has erected in high traffic zones to provocative effect, like the new piece he unveiled this week at OCAD.
The Toronto show marks the opening of the college's new Professional Gallery. Responding to the occasion, Tiravanija has bricked up the entrance and exit to the gallery with grey cinderblocks and grout, rendering the space impenetrable for the duration. The work is an apparent contradiction to his generous, open cooking pieces, yet it's similar in that it sets up a reaction in the social sphere. Confounded, the audience must decide how to respond. On one of the two walls, he has painted the words " Ne Travaillez Jamais," a phrase lifted from the May, 1968, protest riots in Paris.
Talking with students in the classroom on the morning after his public talk, he clarified his intentions. Tiravanija is not advocating a collective end-of-term bailout. On the contrary, he says, he's trying to provoke people to think about their relationship to their work, encouraging them to proceed authentically. "It's about stopping being in a certain mode, of just doing things because you are supposed to," he says. "I'm saying: Stop and rethink."
This is not the first wall Tiravanija has built. An earlier piece in Berlin separated a commercial gallery's more public exhibition space from its private business offices, transforming the gallery into an extension of the sidewalk outside.
Not even the art fair is immune to his insurrections. "My German dealers wanted me to make a piece for the Basel Art Fair a few years ago," he recalls. "They wanted me to block up the entrance to their booth. But they also wanted to have access to the booth from behind, so they could still show some work and sell things. I said that we couldn't do that. I told them they should brick up the entrance and then go on vacation."
They took his advice. It turns out sometimes the best way to steal the show is to not show up at all.
Rirkrit Tiravanija's exhibition at the Ontario College of Art and Design will continue until September.