Arts & Culture

Rirkrit Tiravanija: His Art Practice and untitled 2018

Thoughts on architecture and using space in art

Words by
b-side staff

With decades worth of work presented at international museums, contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija had Rirkrit Day held at the National Gallery Singapore on 16 June. His work untitled 2018 was presented through the different perspectives of local artists, researchers, gallery curators and Rirkrit himself, bringing together his artistic practice and theory.

untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness) is the second showcase of the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission series. Site-specific and drawing upon regional materials, architecture and traditions, the installation is a large-scale bamboo maze with a Japanese tea house at its centre. Within the space, visitors may participate in tea ceremonies by local and international tea masters, as well as encounter one another.

Curator Silke Schmickl shares the reason behind choosing Rirkrit as the artist for the commission.

“The Gallery’s Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission series invites leading international artists to create new site-specific works that extend the conversation on art that is informed by the region. Rirkrit Tiravanija has been at the forefront of the international art scene since the late 1980s, with his influential practice combining elements of performance, installation art, architecture and video. As he has lived in various countries, we believe his works reflect the constant negotiation between diverse cultures, as elements of vernacular culture, architecture and craft are newly configured and reinterpreted in diverse settings.

Rirkrit’s generosity and interest in building (arts) communities are exceptional. His strong interest in renewing traditional forms of architecture, craft and culture by presenting them in contemporary settings where visitors are invited to use and interpret them in their own ways, distinguishes him from other artists of his generation. We believe that his installation at the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden will offer our visitors time for contemplation and encourage them to make time and space to experience something new and reexamine their perspective of art in Asia.”

Credit: National Gallery Singapore

Going beyond art, the commission provides a glimpse of how architecture may play a role in bringing people together and facilitate interactions — informed by its physical boundaries or not. This is interesting, considering that Singapore is a nation known for its small size, and a lot of our daily interactions are aided or impeded by our model of living in high-rise buildings, public transport and, of course, the various social classes and the neighbourhood in which one lives.

Schmickl gives her opinion on how architecture is significant to Singapore, and how Rirkrit’s work reflects that.

“Architecture as a mainly functional art form has the capacity to imagine, define or condition our lifestyles and behaviours. It translates the ideas of its creators and commissioners, and plays a central role in any country and certainly even more in a place like Singapore where land is scarce and meticulously managed. I am interested in architecture’s potential to expand its vision and impact beyond the physical space. Rirkrit’s installation is a good example of how architecture can encourage the formation of social environments and invite its users to imagine possible rooms and scenarios outside the work for themselves and others.

I also appreciate how Rirkrit’s installation positioned on the roof of National Gallery Singapore — housed in the historically significant City Hall and former Supreme Court buildings and surrounded by the new Supreme Court and Parliament House — initiates an intriguing dialogue with the city’s legal, civic and governmental institutions. The visible markers of these symbolic architectures form the subconscious foundation and backdrop for Rirkrit’s installation. They provide a larger context for the work and invite visitors to consider what constitutes a well-functioning inclusive society — the bonds between its citizens and their commitment to constructive social activities, and the complex relationship between the emancipated individual and harmonious group.”

B-Side directs some questions to Rirkrit to find out what he has to say about his art practice spanning several countries and the relationship between people and the environment.

Credit: National Gallery Singapore

Share with us more about your art practice, especially since you reside in so many countries.

I do not try to measure myself up to any particular art world. Perhaps, in that sense, I like to think of my practice as something that exists in the world. Maybe I look at life with a more holistic view, adopting a bigger picture of the histories of human culture. I believe that art belongs to everyone, and therefore as an artist, I practise my beliefs and my visions for a bigger sphere. I am not interested in being a Thai artist with a national character in my work; I exist in the world. I was brought up in a Buddhist culture, and in time and space culturally identifiable as Thai. Everything I do, how I live, think, eat and sleep can be identifiable as Thai. But that identity is a shifting condition. That identity is influenced, absorbent and malleable from life’s experiences.

I became an artist because I saw and believe in what art can do. I was touched by the artists’ ideas, visions, resistance to following a beaten path, and questions and doubts concerning life and its conventions. And because of that, I question many things. I question the construction of identity, styles, traditions and conventions.

I question the knowledge of Western hegemony and the mystical knowledge of the East. I question my own existence within all of that.

How do you imagine the use of architecture and space in your work? How has this inspired your work for untitled 2018?

I feel that the use of things, forms, architecture and space are platforms and models that we could use to advance ideas, to test the viability of models, and to both construct and deconstruct. I certainly see form as following function, but I also see function as following scenarios. I use architecture against itself since I am more concerned with the human condition and not the aesthetic condition.

Through the subtitle (the infinite dimensions of smallness), we could look at scale and the expansion of space in an oppositional way, that is, inwards rather than outwards. We (man, or perhaps more accurately, Western man) are constantly looking outwards, as if the answers to life can be found in that seemingly unreachable expanse. But perhaps there are answers everywhere.

The maze is a metaphor of space and within that space, I am focused on the passage we need to make, both inwards and outwards. We make our passage to find the centre, and perhaps ourselves, and we make a passage outwards to find otherness. Here, I find that space and architecture act as a platform upon which our interactions can play out. We react and interact within ourselves in response to all that is around us, and the forms of space and architecture within which this takes place can set the scene.

Do you think people shape the environment or does the environment shape people?

In my work, it is essential that I fully understand the context within which I am working, either to work with the situation or against it. I am interested in interactions between the work of art and the audience, so I try to set up a condition in which the work is dependent on its audience. Without the viewer (the viewer’s interactions), the work would not be complete. As a result, an awareness of the situation surrounding the work is rather important and how the work interacts within that sphere is also vital.

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