When Is Free Lunch Art?
The answer is, when the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija tells you it is.
Courtesy Glenstone Museum, Photo Lance Brewe
Last month at the Glenstone museum’s sylvan grounds in Potomac, Maryland, the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija stood by as staff began disinterring a sizable steel case from the earth. It was the day of the youth climate protest, and Tiravanija was wearing a jacket onto which the words “On Strike” were silkscreened, but you got the impression he wasn’t about to pick up a shovel either way. Was it an environmental action? An ecological exorcism? No, it was lunch. Inside was a pig, wrapped in banana leaves and buried the night before to simmer so by the time it saw daylight it fell apart gladly. Exhumed, it was assembled into cochinita pibil tacos and offered to onlookers, free of charge, who ate them on the sort of long communal tables that were voguish in downtown dining a few years ago because they “forced you to meet people.”
Free lunch, and the shared experience of eating it, is the centerpiece of “Fear Eats the Soul,” Tiravanija’s work first mounted at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2011 and acquired here shortly after. The particulars of the meal will change over its run (burying a whole hog is, unsurprisingly, a lot of work), but the idea will remain the same: you’ve got to eat, so you may as well do it together.
How often can you eat the art? Since the early 90s, when he served curry to visitors of his solo show at 303 Gallery, Tiravanija’s practice has turned not just on food but feeding people, making porous the boundary between art and simply sustaining oneself, which we have, of course, managed to turn into an art form of its own. In 2015, Tiravanija and Brown took this conceit to its logical end: a commercial restaurant in Hancock, New York called Unclebrother, which, because of its intermittent operating hours and upstate location favored by a particular strain of urban exodus (Brown and Tiravanija both have summer homes in town), was both a site-specific conceptual artwork and a probably inadvertent commentary on class comforts.
Tiravanija’s practice is the prime example of what has been grouped as relational aesthetics, an art less focused on the object than shared experience—that is, you become the art by being there. There’s a bit of provocation involved, the idea that you’re doing something in a museum setting otherwise un-allowed, like talking, or having fun. Carsten Höller turning the New Museum or the Tate into a game of Chutes and Ladders figures in here, as does Vanessa Beecroft’s whole thing.
“Fear Eats the Soul” is named after the 1974 Fassbinder melodrama, in which the white German widow Emmi marries the younger Arab migrant worker Ali, a relationship which makes people alternatingly baffled and put out. Tiravanija extrapolates Fassbinder’s parable of humanism and the forces of post-war racism and suspicion that conspire against it, suggesting, correctly, that they’re still with us. Unfortunately, he can’t resist the pun.
For the exhibition’s first go-round in 2011, Tiravanija took out all the walls and windows of Gavin Brown’s West Village gallery, a highly literal gesture of openness (for his part, Brown took advantage of the newly accessible parking, leaving his Volvo inside the gallery with the keys in the ignition, an invitation that two visitors accepted by taking it for a joyride up the West Side Highway). This pose of goodwill doesn’t really translate at Glenstone, who agreed to remove the windows from the Charles Gwathmey-designed gallery in which Tiravanija’s work is staged, but, perhaps feeling less magnanimous, sealed up the gaps with cinder blocks. The excised window frames lean against a wall inside, near a cart ladling out free bowls of pumpkin soup. There are also conjoined plywood shacks, one which replicates Brown’s 1994 Broome Street gallery, complete with a facsimile of Tiravanija’s show from that time—a Warhol Mao and Brillo Box, Rolling Rock empties—all cast in silver-glazed ceramic, like eerie photo negatives of their originals. The other houses a gift shop, where white t-shirts can be silk screened to order (for a suggested donation to a local youth charity) with one of the artist’s pre-determined anti-capitalists koans (“RICH BASTARDS BEWARE,” “THE DAYS OF THIS SOCIETY ARE NUMBERED”). The shop and the gallery dupe are themselves replicated from the 2011 show, so effectively in fact, down to the “Fear Eats the Soul” graffiti sprayed along a wall, you can’t blame Tiravanija for looking bored and eventually wandering away.
The extent to which a free lunch is received as art depends largely on context (the hulking Jeff Koons topiary looming in the distance is an overbearing hint). It’s also a Duchampian taunt, that something is art because the artist says it is. Would Tiravanija’s gesture have as much thrust if he distributed Big Macs at a McDonald’s in the South Bronx? Doling out curry on the second floor of MoMa simply has a different flavor. The idea of a soup kitchen in suburban Potomac, where the median annual income hovers around $180,000, is perhaps more ironic than Glenstone has yet considered.
Tiravanija’s projects would like to propose an alternative way of being in the world, an antidote to the internet and mass media-addled version of modernity we’ve chosen for ourselves, siloed within our own private cones of social media affirmation and cable news reverberation. They’re not, of course, any more than casting a toilet in gold says something profound about America. Tiravanija’s work means to suggest you have been alienated from real feeling and that the remedy can be found here, at the bottom of a compostable paper cup of soup. It’s a medicine that’s hard to choke down. Inside the gallery, the proceeding remains forced, a close but ultimately unnatural bootleg of real experience, the art world equivalent of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. Perhaps the collector class benefits from a resensitization chamber, forced to mix with the hoi polloi, but the rest of us simply take the bus.
"Fear eats the soul,” Ali says to Emmi early on. Later he’ll go to the hospital with a stomach ulcer. We consume people like food, and both return the favor. In the film, Emmi and Ali are gawked at like pictures askew in a museum. Being looked at can be its own oppression. Seeing one another becomes redemption. It’s worth noting that when they first meet, it’s in a bar.