Even today, not many art shows can claim to have something in store for each of our five senses. An exception is “Ne Travaillez Jamals” (“Don’t Ever Work”), Rirkrit Tiravanija’s first solo show in China. The artist’s background is as eclectic as the sensual cornucopia he presents—born in Buenos Aires to Tai parents, studying in Bangkok, Toronto, Chicago, and New York, the artist now lives between New York, Berlin, and Chiangmai.
The exhibition includes five large-scale installations. In the main gallery space, Tiranvanija sets up a full-scale brick-making mechanism for the production of 14,068 bricks—the exact number said to be needed for a modest country home. Two twittering bamboo towers look on. They are filled with live singing birds, and are each modeled after the hyper-modern skyscrapers currently being erected in Shanghai and Beijing. The two installations provide a playfully aural dialogue on the hyper-productive contemporary culture that Tiranvanija observed upon his arrival to the capitol.
The olfactory and gustatory provocation of the exhibition lies in the remaining two works. In a smaller room adjacent to the bamboo towers and brick factory, Tiravanija covers a life-sized replica of a Mercedes entirely with milk powder. There is a double-reference here: first to the tainted milk scandal that broke out in China in 2008, and second to the gallery owner’s own Mercedes that confronted Tiravanija when he first came to the Tang contemporary space to prepare for his show. The final work consists of a fully operational tofu-soup serving station set up by the artist in the gallery space, where viewers will be graciously given steaming hot bowls of traditional Tai Tofu Nao breakfast soup. This last piece not only offers a coda of comfort to the otherwise unsettling implications of the complex exhibition, but also serves as sort of signature gesture from the artist—something like a personal seal. One of his best-known pieces/performances occurred back in 1992 when Tiravanija built a makeshift kitchen in the open 303 Gallery in SoHo, and served homemade Thai curry to any visitor who dropped by, for free. Since then, he has been serving up food-as-art for almost two decades around the world.
The exhibition’s title is a reference to Guy Debord’s famous quote from the French Situationist movement of the 1960’s, as well as earlier instances of Tiravanija’s own practice. Originally, the phrase was scrawled on the wall of the Rue de Seine in the 1953, and has been since traced back as an originating slogan for the 1968 student riots in Paris more than a decade later. The phrase’s influence continued to resonate in the 1980’s and 90’s as Tiravanija’s student work transitioned into an acclaimed international career.
The pieces, taken together, do provide a provocative if somewhat ambiguous comment on the production-obsessed culture of contemporary China. The ominous white luxury vehicle sits as still as the encaged songbirds fly frenzied, but is all for the best? In the case of the car, probably not. The birds however, seem happy enough—healthy, resilient, and singing in their handsome prison towers. Bricks enough for a small house are made, and everybody goes home sated with a belly full of warm soup.
-- Liang Pu
(Images from top to bottom: Untitled (14086), Untitled (no.1, jianguomenwaidajie, chaoyang district, Beijing; no.25, zhongshanbeilu, putuo district, shanghai), Untitled (milkpowder Mercedes), Untitled (tofu nao). Images courtesy of Tang Contemporary and the artist.