We don't touch the art. Held up like holy reliquaries, Fine Art, we have been led to believe, is to be gazed upon, revered and contemplated but certainly never pawed. This rule has become so ingrained that we know instinctively that we must keep our hands in our pockets for fear of retribution from the fashionably gray-clad guard or shrill-voiced Brahmin docent.

While others have come before in challenging this fundamental artworld paradigm, Rirkrit Titavanija is driven not so much by political agenda but more simply the impetus to encourage his audience to get down with the art and become an integral part of it in the process. His work dissolves the tenuous boundaries between viewer and participant, inviting the audience to interact, engage and enjoy--as if it weren't a formal exhibition at all, but a gathering of friends, sharing stories and temporarily escaping the pervasively isolated nature of contemporary life.

An international nomad, Tiravanija thrives off the interactions between himself and strangers, friends new and old that he encounters on his travels. His work embodies this lifestyle, allowing for chance interactions and fraying of the seams between art and life. In a piece titled Untitled (Bon Voyage), he and artist Hans Accola equipped a car with a stove, water and three video cameras that rolled continuously during their drive from Berlin to Lyon, France, where they featured their real time video footage and installed the car in a the Bienniale D'Art Contemporain De Lyon. In its final resting place, the car and footage became markers for the process, but hardly the sum of the journey. Revealing the difficulty in making conceptual artwork tangible, this installation was hardly object-oriented taking to task the imagination of an uninitiated audience. Nodding towards Fluxus, the conceptualists of the '60s and such mainstays as Andy Warhol, Tiravanija discards the pristine object for real-time experiences and the Buddhist notion of non-attachment.

Pad Thai, Vegetable Curry and Cup O' Noodles are among the various dishes Tiravanija has fed his participants/audience, in galleries and museums from SoHo to Venice. He grew up, amongst other international locations including Ethiopia and Argentina, in his grandmother's Bangkok garden restaurant. Here Tiravanija developed his taste for the culture of dining and casual interaction, coalescing into much of his adult artmaking, which has more to do with good company than investment value. In constructed spaces, whether his tiny East Village apartment recreated in a gallery in Cologne Germany and open to the public 24 hours a day for the duration of the exhibition, or a house made to children's scale in Malmo, Sweden, he invites his audience to participate in the art. Besides an occasional cooking pot, sleeping cot or dash of curry, the art is really fabricated by the participants' interaction with the space and the other visitors. It is in this frission and fusion that he subtly, almost as an aside, poses the question where is the art here? And why as an audience are we so unlikely to touch, engage with and become the artwork. What systems have been constructed as boundaries, preventing personal experiences with art? How does it feel to eat a Cup O' Noodles in a Museum and what do you do with the empties?

Tiravanija motions for the authentic experience, engagement as art. In a world of lives dictated by the flicker of a computer monitor and the rapid reply of email, he strives to break down these introverted, often self-imposed boundaries. "There are things that are made to be looked at, and then there are other things that require more than just looking and walking around them," he explains. "There are still drinks to be had at the bar, and people to get drunk with, which is an experience you can't get on the Internet." Whether creating a water bar in the front window of Metro Pictures, while it was still located in its pedestrian SoHo location, or cooking food for the visitors to various galleries around the world, his offerings are free to the public, for any and all who come to enjoy it. But wrapped up with this gift of nourishment is the opportunity for creating community, dialogue among strangers and a rethinking of the untouchability of art with a capital A.*

Amy Stafford © 1998
Surface Magazine issue no. 15