"Rirkrit Tiravanija is arguably the most influential artist of his generation," says Laura Hoptman, the organizer of the Carnegie International. He has transformed the notion of conceptual art by taking his environments out of the museum to the ends of the earth, literally. He has traveled extensively for the last decade and has been a great mentor and teacher to many students all over the world.
Best known for installations that invite the public to interact socially in museum or gallery environments, Tiravanija’s works have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale (1999) and the 1995 Carnegie International, to name but a few from an extensive list of invitational, group, and one-person shows in Asia, Europe, and North America.
We met Rirkrit Tiravanija at his East Village apartment in the spring of 2003.
Delia Bajo (Rail): What is your latest project, what are you most excited about now?
Rirkrit Tiravanija: [Laughs] Well, I am working on curating a show for the Venice Biennale. It is another role, but I am going through it in the same way that I do the rest of my work. I can say briefly because it is not finalized, that I am working with Hans Ulrich Obrist, a curator from Paris, and Molly Nesbit who is a writer and historian. We are working on an idea called Utopia Station which is trying to rediscuss the idea of utopia. We are thinking in this climate, to take this rather backward looking idea, to just discuss it. I am also working on some structures that they think relate to the idea of utopia. I think I like to work in a very hopeful way, so that is in a sense a discussion of utopic structure. That there is hope. I think hope is a kind of faith in the human race, to believe that humans are capable of more than just going to war in Iraq or something.
And that can be done through a relation or structure. In order for us to be able to continue we need to relate to each other. I think utopia is being able to exist in chaos. To live within a chaotic structure. I don’t think it is something that is planned. My utopia would be the opposite of what Western structures would be.
Brainard Carey (Rail): And what would your structure be?
Tiravanija: In my own terms it is about living in chaos and existing without a struggle.
Rail: New York City is an example of chaos?
Tiravanija: In some ways, this idea of "quality of life" has taken chaos away. This idea of a quality of life is a Western idea of utopia and for me it is not about the quality of life, it is about living. The quality of life is a way to impose a superstructure over living. And over many people.
Rail: How would you define chaos?
Tiravanija: Chaos for me is life, is change, is moving, we are always living within it.
It is everything in my daily life, drinking tea, breathing the air, the regeneration of my cells—changes happening all the time.
Rail: So you are in a utopia now.
Tiravanija: Right, so it is hard for me to discuss the idea of a model because I think that one is already capable of existing in it, so in that sense it is about how you think of life.
Rail: Do you think that is a non-Western point of view?
Tiravanija: I think it’s non-objective, a different kind of position in the way one looks at life.
Rail: Utopia to me is a biosphere, an escape, another world.
Tiravanija: Yes, that is the absolute Western model of utopias. And I would say that you could never achieve that because everyone would have to think the same, and that is wrong.
Rail: How would you describe what is a chaotic day for you, can you be removed from your utopia?
Tiravanija: The utopia is constant, I don’t have a chaotic day and I don’t see the difference, I don’t have good or bad, I don’t have expectations of what’s coming the next minute, anything can happen and you are just in it. So my personal structure is not to think of personal structure. So that perhaps is more Asian.
Rail: I understand that as more community-based with less of an interest in careerism.
Tiravanija: It is not that we are not individual, of course we are, but how you think about your individuality changes. I think that is the difference. It is also not about not thinking about yourself, of course you always are, but how you think of yourself in the larger picture; the community.
Rail: Where were you born?
Tiravanija: South America, Argentina. I lived there until I was three, then went to Thailand. My parents are Thai.
I was home three weeks ago and every time I go back I stay with my parents in Thailand. My parents who are quite old were sitting around telling stories about me as a child in Argentina, about our neighbors and friends and the things we did, etc. And I’m sitting there looking at my parents and thinking how I don’t actually remember a lot of what they are talking about or even what happened five years ago—the way they would. I think it has to do with the speed of travel you take and how much you decide to remember or not. I think for my parents, they have time to remember. I would say I don’t have time to remember which is alarming to me because I am always trying to make time.
Rail: That’s very interesting, why do you think that is?
Tiravanija: I think it is just the way I exist. And also I think that I am intentionally not keeping memory. Again as a part of living now, not in the future or past. I do remember things, but I don’t sit around telling stories, I am more in the now, that is my personal state.
Rail: What were you parents like?
Tiravanija: My mother was an oral surgeon and my father was a diplomat, retired.
Rail: Have their professions influenced your thinking?
Tiravanija: Yes and no. Yes because when my father would drive us to school every day, he would say to me, never take a job in the government, never become involved in the government institution, because it is so frustrating. As a civil servant in the Thai government, you see a type of corruption. At that point I remember feeling frustrated knowing what he was talking about. That was a kind of impetus to how I think about life. I didn’t grow up thinking about art or art ideas. Until I was about twenty, I didn’t think of it much, though I was interested in photography that I would see in magazines.
Rail: Your parents were encouraging?
Tiravanija: Not encouraging, but ambivalent to career positions: just do what makes you happy. My father’s idea of expectations was to have a better life than his, not to live with frustration. Encouragement but no expectations. That was important for me because I had no pressure to be anything or do anything.
I think my grandmother was a big influence. I talk more about my grandmother than my parents because I spent so much time with her. Her attitude, her mentality, and the way she dealt with everything. I just got a book from my mother, and in Thailand when someone dies you make a book to give away. For my grandmother’s funeral, her students made a book. She studied cooking in France and taught nutrition and started a restaurant. The book was a recipe book made by her students from the recipes they were taught by her. But she has always been a very open, contemporary person, always curious and generous. I think that informs me about my attitude.
Rail: What was your first project. Was it serving food?
Tiravanija: No not really, but that has been focused upon …
Rail: Why do you think it was focused upon?
Tiravanija: Maybe there was a shift or change to an old structure. It is not so much what you do but how people use it. I think it was of the moment, not that it was particularly new, there were happenings involving food. I think it was the moment it appeared in the context at the time. I was doing it for a particular reason.
Rail: What was the particular reason?
Tiravanija: For other people in the mid-eighties it related to homelessness or for some people it was about generosity or a shift from a money-mongering selfish art world to something ephemeral. So that was how people began to focus on that.
Rail: Let’s talk about "use value" in your work, which is prevalent. Where did that type of thinking begin?
Tiravanija: That began through a social/anthropological concern. About coming from another culture and how the West uses what they know of the others. For example going to the Metropolitan and looking at the Ming vases or a nice pot, or all objects from a certain time. They are put in a position to be catalogued and understood in an order. For me that order of things basically neglects use.
I was looking at Thai objects because that is my reference. We have particular pots. So in the Metropolitan it is for aesthetic reasons that they are shown, like a Buddha. For me when I see Buddha I see something else, and what I see is missing in the museum display. There is a kind of misunderstanding of other cultures because you never know how it was used. So then I decided to find a way, to address this issue of use or misuse by reusing it. I would say that by reusing it basically means to take that antique bowl and put food in it—put life back into it. In that process I realized I can fill it and leave it there, but there is still no use, when you make a pot of tea, people have to drink it. So that is what I did.
Rail: Yet you are submerged in Western culture.
Tiravanija: I would say this: What I am doing is to take Duchamp’s urinal, put it back on the wall and piss into it. I am not making the urinal. But we are now living in a world of readymades and I am simply using it. To me it is not about the object, it is about pissing in it. It is natural; it functions and comments on the future of art after the readymade and the future of Western art.
Rail: At Gavin Brown’s Enterprises you have two objects, a framed piece in the back that looks like two blank sheets of paper with subtle embossing, and also the floor piece made out of plywood. Those are objects, no?
Tiravanija: I do not completely dismiss anything. I am always making something, but I try to make without making something. The floor that is there is about using memory, and most important, actually using the floor. The objects that I made are for living with, they are to be used and reused. It is not about fixing into a space but about use and wear, and not a fixed place.
Rail: Do you remember your first object?
Tiravanija: My second year in undergrad school. I made a drawing on corrugated cardboard and I found it and I started to make a drawing of the first alphabet of the Thai language. Then I made a Spirit House, which is a miniature house they build on a pole commonly in Thailand. Its use is for the spirits on the land. A shrine to them with food and water in it, a place to communicate. Then I made a small temple, which was similar to the house. The temple actually sat on the floor and had speakers inside with three different radios going on inside playing whatever was in the air.
Rail: Your intentions for the pieces?
Tiravanija: It was about figuring out why I was there. I was making art thinking about Thailand. Because when I was in Thailand I wasn’t exposed to art. So when I was making it I was thinking what does this mean to be making this here in the West and what would it mean to bring it back to Thailand. It was about language and identity. All work that I have ever made is about the position I am in the Western world, which I was trying to understand.
Rail: Your schooling?
Tiravanija: I grew up in an American Catholic school, not because I was American Catholic, but because it was an English school. So I went through high school with an American education. I left when I was 19. When I came out and I was in Canada, I realized I had been all this time in Thailand without knowing anything about it at all. I know about basketball, baseball, McDonald’s, and had desires for all things Western. But when I got to this side I realized I knew nothing about my own culture and what and where I was supposed to be. So I am growing up in this contemporary modern structure to be fragmented, influenced, and subconsciously colonized. So all the things I have been doing are about getting myself back. And getting myself back is just to relax and do what you would do, like breathe. It is not trying to make a Buddha painting, but this points to the contemporary Thai artist’s struggle, to be a Buddhist and an artist.
Rail: Are you a Buddhist?
Tiravanija: It is a practice, it is like breathing. You can do yoga, chant.
Rail: First memories from childhood?
Tiravanija: I would say it was being with my grandmother watching television, I must have been five. In Thai kindergarten when I was around four years old, my shoelace came off, and I have the impression that Thai teachers were very mean and strict. This one teacher came to me and saw I didn’t know how to tie my shoelace and he tied it for me and showed me how to tie it. He was the art teacher and I was always very impressed by that, by his kindness and generosity. So that was one experience.
I remember drawing at an American friend’s house and we would just sit and draw. I remember he always had his tongue stuck out of his mouth wiggling when he was drawing, and he drew well and I thought, well maybe that is something you have to do to draw better so I did it too. That’s my memory of things.
I always felt that if I was good at something it would be natural, I never got obsessive. Now I like to do nothing, which is sometimes a lot of work!
Rail: Do you meditate?
Tiravanija: I don’t meditate, but I would say it is all the time, never. If there was a moment with a certain emotion then I realize I need to meditate. But generally not, because then you are always meditating.
Rail: Is that the case with all emotions?
Rail: So if you are feeling particularly loving would that apply?
Tiravanija: Well it depends whether it is good or bad emotions, [laughs]. Good emotions are fine; it is always good to be loving.
Rail: We are talking about meditation for anger?
Tiravanija: Yes, anger or ego coming out.
Rail: That is something you consciously work against?
Tiravanija: Not against, but you have to realize it’s coming and think a bit, because that is when you are not thinking.
Rail: So what do you do at that point?
Tiravanija: I think it is just like when the ego is challenged by ignorance, but that is a degree of being—the other person doesn’t want to think this way, you have to respect that and understand that. You can’t think for the other person or teach them to think. You have to let yourself go in an attempt to try and change someone else.
Rail: Is there a particular thought process—how do you "let go"?
Tiravanija: I think you just have to always realize that it is the other person, that they simply are the way they are and you cannot expect someone else to be something they are not. Or do something they wouldn’t do or think about you the way they would not.
Rail: I would think of the ego as a sense of superiority.
Tiravanija: I don’t have that kind of ego, but imposing any ideas on other people, there is ego involved.
Rail: How do you deal with the artworld and people not necessarily understanding what you do? Your work is known and you are written about and have a historical position, but do you feel people are really understanding your work to the extent that you are explaining yourself here?
Tiravanija: [Laughs.] No, because we don’t have time to sit around like this and talk with most people, but of course there are people who understand and there are people who think about it. But in the bigger wider sphere, perhaps not. And it is not that Artforum writers sit down and talk to you like this, in fact they don’t, they just go off and they look at things like the press release or an old interview. When someone wrote about me in Artforum they didn’t know the person, and that’s one way of looking at things. That is about "use" too. I am more interested in people using it in their own way with their own ideas, and keep using it. I don’t expect people to get it immediately, I would hope that they would keep using it to a point where they may come closer to the point of what I am trying to do, but it is not a fixed point, and I wouldn’t expect it to be.
Rail: It sounds like the art world would be a difficult world to navigate for you given all the egos and careerism. Your work runs counter to that to some degree.
Tiravanija: Yes and no. They use it when they want to and don’t when they don’t and I think that’s how they are, so I don’t think one has to navigate that. You just don’t have to do anything!
Rail: You teach at Columbia?
Tiravanija: I can’t really teach and I don’t agree in teaching art, but we can have a discussion, and I like to talk about different ideas. I think it is one way to get people to think more about what they are doing.
Rail: How do you see your work or person contributing to the social/political upheaval in our times, like the war?
Tiravanija: I think it is important, and there is the question of what to do, and I am thinking about it. About an exhibition, who knows? On a personal level, I am always dealing with that. Talking about utopia may help us to discuss that a bit, with the war going on and all. I like to think in hopeful terms. We have to ask questions daily about Israel and Palestine. It is important to talk to people and think about this.
Rail: If you were to do an exhibition?
Tiravanija: I would hope that it would work its way into this type of discussion. I would like to make something, which can confront this, moving toward another way of thinking. And that is a small thing in a small context. But I think in the small context we are in, I think there is not a lot of hope, not a lot of creativity in order to hope, to have the space for that. And I think in many ways—and let's just talk about us in the art world, because in the bigger world it is something else—but that New York is just kind of keeping its structures as stable as possible. It's like George Bush trying to maintain the stock market or something, and I don’t think that’s what art is about and I don’t think its existence is based on maintenance or status quo. But that’s what I mean by people not being creative, because they are not letting themselves free. It’s hard for me to think that there is a man and a group of people who are thinking for everyone, around the whole world, who really have no concerns for anybody, just themselves. That circle of thinking about themselves starts to grow. The hope is that everyone starts to realize you cannot think only for yourself.
Rail: I see it like little boys playing with soldiers.
Tiravanija: Yes, they don’t think about history. Someone said George Bush should ask his father why he didn’t go to the land of Iraq, why didn’t he stop Saddam Hussein? There was a good reason he didn’t do that. Clearly, I think that a lot of people do see that it isn’t about the World Trade Center being bombed anymore—
Rail: But it is!
Tiravanija: It’s a part of it, but I think it is wrong, it is not solving the problem. I think if they found Osama Bin Laden it might have been different, because they weren’t talking about Iraq back then. They couldn’t implicate Iraq. As Buddhists, we are standing on the side looking at this whole situation.
Rail: But you can have activist notions?
Tiravanija: We always think you have to resist without power, without action.
Rail: That is a difficult path: to resist without action.
Tiravanija: Just look at Tibet, look at how they dealt with terrorism and inhumanity and beatings and killings.