For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context.
Rirkrit Tiravanija is a Argentina born Thai artist. Here, we discuss one of his most iconic artworks.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, ‘Untitled (Free)’, (1992)
The exhibition opened on September 12, 1992 at 303 Gallery in New York. Even for the seasoned gallery visitor however, it was unlike any other.
Tiravanija had displayed the entire gallery space as his artwork. In the space, the artist had set up cooking pots, where he was making rice and two types of Thai curry to go with it. The food was distributed to everyone who came into the gallery, for free. Upon entering the gallery, visitors were immediately put at ease with a plate of food. All the physical furniture, the food, the people and the dialogue they engaged in became part of the artwork. The work was therefore being created live by the artist as well as the audience.
There are a few key themes Tiravanija explored through this historic piece.
Traditionally, an artwork is created by one artist. Said artist subsequently claims ownership and authorship of the work. In a legal framework, he owns the copyright. The market value of the work becomes directly proportionate to the value of the artist’s brand. In Untitled (Free) however, Tiravanija completely rejects this notion.
While Tiravanija has given his piece a loose set up – where he has hired a gallery, cooked food and invited people – he does not dictate the outcome of the work. Typically when an artist paints a picture, not only does she buy canvas and paints, but she also has a very clear picture of what to paint. She then goes on to give this idea physical dimensionality through the canvas. On the contrary, Tiravanija has simply arranged all the elements for his piece, without much thought for what the end product should be. He collaborated with his audience to complete the piece.
Social Engagement in the Gallery Space
Art galleries have traditionally nurtured a hush-hush atmosphere within their walls, where viewing and critiquing art is meant to be a solitary activity. Tiravanija challenged this notion. He successfully created an environment conducive to social engagement with complete strangers. The food he served also acted as social stimulant.
Another aspect of interest is that the food served was completely free, which is not only philatrophic, but also alludes to the varying socio-economic backgrounds of the audience.
Relational Aesthetics was a term coined by the French art curator and critic Nicholas Bourriaud in 1990s. The term is used to describe art that is inspired by the ‘realm of human interactions’. Characteristically, Instead of simply focussing on aesthetics, this type of art impacts and is impacted by society and relationships. Tiravanija’s work is often classified under this banner of creative practices.
A Point of Inspiration
In 2018, contemporary artist Subodh Gupta had his first solo exhibition in France. The show titled Adda / Rendez-vous was held at Monnaie de Paris. As part of his show, and arguably taking inspiration from Tiravanija, Gupta cooked and served a traditional Bihari meal to his audience.
To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.