“I moved here after I got back from Tangier, thinking that I was going to be here for a month, or at the most three months. I had no idea that I was going to spend the rest of my life here,” John Giorno once said of his home at 222 Bowery, where he has lived since 1966. The building is now a hallowed place within American culture: an artist cooperative that has been inhabited by generations including Fernand Léger, Mark Rothko, William Burroughs, and Lynda Benglis, and which is still in use today. It is with such a consideration of the arts community saturating the bones of this building—and, more pointedly, of how space both defines and is defined by what happens within—that Rirkrit Tiravanija made untitled 2008 (John Giorno reads), an artwork whose enclosed structure features a film of the artist and poet in a scale model of a portion of his Bowery home.
Tiravanija made the film over a series of days spent in Giorno’s loft, capturing him while performing poems, playing records by the John Giorno Band, and reading sections of his memoirs as published in You Got to Burn to Shine: New and Selected Writings (1993). These passages come together in the work as a series of edited clips (originally ten reels of 16mm film, now digitized to over ten hours of video) that evoke personal and art history, a powerfully intimate presence and a public persona. The documentation all shares the same frame, situating Giorno between his bed and his own paintings, with phrases such as LIFE IS A KILLER. These are fitting bookends for a meditation on Giorno’s life, and mortality itself. As Giorno recounts stories about his time with Warhol, what appears at first to be a performance reveals itself to be a personal exchange with Tiravanija—its sentiment confirmed as Giorno gives a small smile and almost bashfully says thank you at the conclusion of each poem, reminding the viewer of Tiravanija’s invisible presence behind the camera. The video is projected in the structure as it was filmed in the loft, so that the viewer sitting on Mark Handforth’s bench takes up Tiravanija’s place as Giorno’s intimate audience.
While untitled 2008 highlights the importance of Giorno’s relationships—showing how deeply his life has been interwoven with the lives of his friends throughout the arts— the sheer magnetism of Giorno in performance and among friends is documented in eighty-eight photographs by Françoise Janicot on view nearby; as well as in Joan Wallace’s sculptural portrait of Giorno, which recalls his appearance in Warhol’s 1963 film Sleep. In all of these works, one notes how Giorno is continually addressing others. As Tiravanija has remarked about his own work, “It is not what you see that is important, but what takes place between people.” This credo has been a guiding principle for Giorno as well, and it is an honor to be able to share it as part of I ♥ John Giorno.
KATY DAMMERS is Assistant Curator and Archive Manager at The Kitchen and also works as the General Manager for Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener. She is part of the inaugural Dance Writing Laboratory at the National Center for Choreography in Akron, Ohio.