Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Bracing MoMA PS1 Survey Is One of the Year’s Best Museum Shows

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s lively MoMA PS1 show, a strong candidate for the year’s finest New York museum exhibition, is a challenging experience. This is not because the art included is tough—although it does offer plenty of food for thought (and, in a few cases, for digestion, too)—but because the work on hand calls on viewers to do more than merely see it.

On at least three occasions, visitors are asked to lie down to experience the works. On two, they are given the opportunity to play music—including their own, made via guitars and a drum set, in one installation resembling a recording studio, minus a soundproofed wall. And, for one centrally placed artwork, visitors are even given the opportunity to perform a game of ping-pong; paddles, balls, and a table await players.

The table tennis piece, titled untitled 2021 (mañana es la cuestión), 2021, isn’t all that exciting when no one is activating it. But if you walk by at the right moment, you might hear plonks and cries of excitement emanating from the gallery that holds it. This added soundtrack, which disturbs the quietude of most museum spaces, is a reminder that Tiravanija’s art only comes alive in the presence of others.

That is one reason why curators Ruba Katrib and Yasmil Raymond have subtitled their excellent show “A LOT OF PEOPLE,” which also doubles as a reference to that phrase’s appearance in the medium lines for certain pieces by Tiravanija. “Four chairs, one table, metal shelves, stacked books, mixed media, Turkish coffee, and a lot of people” are the materials listed for a 1993 piece that functions like an artsy coffeehouse. (Not inventoried: the optional şekerli vanilla sugar that can be added to the delicious beverages upon request.) Notice the “a lot.” This is not just some people, or even a few, but many—an entire functioning community.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ping-pong tables, as installed at Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Canada, in 2019.

Photo Blaine Campbell/Courtesy Remai Modern

Tiravanija’s tendency is in the air right now. It was also on display at last year’s Documenta 15, where a network of interwoven collectives and artists’ groups, many hailing from the Global South, produced a show of work that only sometimes looked like art. A functional half-pipe for skating, a day-care center, and a Bengali kitchen garden were among the offerings there. Yet it is hard to imagine most in the West accepting all that as art were it not for Tiravanija, who effectively defined that paradigm—and a generation of art-making—when he initiated a series of performances that involved cooking pad Thai during the ’90s.

The pad Thai performances, which will be enacted throughout the PS1 show’s run, are simple in execution and complex in concept. They involve the cooking of noodles before a live audience, whose members are also invited to eat the resulting dishes gratis. The awkward conversations strangers might have while munching away are part of the artwork, as are all the used packaging and cookware, which sometimes later get reformulated into sculptures in their own right.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 1990 (pad thai), 1990.

Courtesy the Rirkrit Tiravanija Archive

These sculptures appear in a dedicated section of the PS1 show that resembles a traditional museum retrospective. Chipped bowls, chili pastes, and dirtied woks figure in one gallery whose contents recall the remains of a forgotten feast; other adjacent spaces hold paintings, sculptures, videos, and more. This may all seem like the output of a more conventional talent.

But would an average artist stuff everything from one of his exhibitions into a crate and seal it shut? This is exactly what Tiravanija did for all that appeared in a 1991 solo show—all its cassettes featuring the sounds of New York streets and the pair of binoculars, here exhibited in a box called untitled 1991 (blind). The work’s title alludes to the fact that no one is allowed to see inside the wooden container, which, per Tiravanija’s instructions, must remain shut until he dies. Ironically, this means that its contents can only be exhumed once Tiravanija enters a coffin himself.

Yet it barely even seems possible to pin down Tiravanija, who has spent much of his life on the go. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1961 to a diplomat father and raised between Thailand, Ethiopia, and Canada; he attended college in Ottawa and Toronto. He landed in New York during the ’80s, and now spends his time between that city, Berlin, and Chiang Mai.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 1991 (bottles from the opening of untitled 1990 (blind)), 1991.

Courtesy Rirkrit Tiravanija Archive, Berlin

The PS1 exhibition portrays Tiravanija as a restless traveler. Take one 1994 piece in which Tiravanija trekked from Madrid’s airport to the Museo Reina Sofía. The ten-and-a-half-mile journey takes a little under four hours to complete by foot, but Tiravanija’s route ended up spanning multiple days. It quickly became serpentine as he interacted with locals and, naturally, cooked for them. At PS1, this walk is represented as a ramshackle assemblage composed of a felled bike, buckets, camping gear, and a video playing footage of what he witnessed along the way. “A lot of people” isn’t listed in the materials for this piece, but it might as well be.

That voyage was a short one compared to the thousands and thousands of miles traversed by Tiravanija, whose various movements are tracked in one scroll-like work occupying a sizable corner. Its imagery is a web of intersecting lines, spirals, and illegible scrawls that hardly resemble a map, however. A migrant in permanent motion, Tiravanija seems to suggest that an atlas could not possibly record all that he has seen across the years.

Ours is an art world that is still obsessed with borders. (Witness all the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, whose relevancy is now being tested by those who argue that the model fails artists from the Global South.) As a result, it may be tempting to call Tiravanija a Thai artist—perhaps even the Thai artist, considering no other is quite as famous internationally. Yet the PS1 show, in arguing for Tiravanija as a multinational figure, persuasively destabilizes that kind of thinking, which is too limited, anyway, for an artist whose practice is so liberated.

On the one hand, as writer David Teh points out in the informative catalogue, there are aspects of Tiravanija’s art that are unmistakably Thai—his titles, for example, are left lowercase, in keeping with the grammar of his mother tongue, even though they are written in English. On the other, as Katrib and Raymond elucidate, there are many references to Western artists ranging from Robert Morris to John Cage.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 2014 (the days of this society is numbered / December 7, 2012), 2014.

©2023 Rirkrit Tiravanija/Photo Thomas Grisel/Museum of Modern Art, New York

More often than not, cultures mash together. In one work, Tiravanija pays homage to Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, a totem-like arrangement of doubled pyramids. His take on this sculpture is a stack of clear pails that contain the refuse of his pad Thai performances—a winking embrace of modernist aesthetics that also treats them like trash.

Because Tiravanija splits his time on three continents, he is prone to commenting on issues pertinent to all of them. Here, a piece commenting on 2021 anti-government protests in Bangkok shares space with paintings that include New York Times pages broadcasting updates about the outcry over Trump’s election. Those paintings, with their Philip Guston–like floppy legs and brick walls, can be boiled down to easy statements about the necessity of protest and the abuse of power. So, too, can other recent works at PS1.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2017 (fear eats the soul) (white flag), 2017.

Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli/Courtesy Creative Time

I much prefer Tiravanija in a scrappier mode. After all, he’s best at indulging the in-between and the unclassifiable—everything that does not conform.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the PS1 exhibition’s finest pieces is untitled 1998 (cinéma de ville), an understated installation about the people who inhabit a connective space near the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Tiravanija photographed skateboarders performing ollies and other tricks on this esplanade. Their images are being shown slideshow-style via a projector that is tucked away inside a camping tent.

Notably, Tiravanija’s camera never ventures indoors to show us a single artwork. That’s because untitled 1998 (cinéma de ville) is a celebration of what exists at the fringes at the museums, whose collections are often prized more highly than the people who help them run. Seeking to disrupt the way art is consumed at institutions like the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville, Tiravanija invites his viewers to change their perspective to see this piece. Go ahead, and plop down on one of the mats. It turns out the floor is a pretty comfortable place for seeing art.