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Why Context is Everything: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) at the National Gallery of Victoria


Why Context is Everything: Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) at the National Gallery of Victoria
Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (lunch box), 1996. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (lunch box), NGV International, Ground Level, 12:15 daily, 7 June -7 October 2018  

From 7 June until 7 October, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has taken on the task of daily exhibiting Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) (1996). The temporary installation involves a random selection of four visitors at midday to eat a meal together at an allocated table in the gallery’s entrance hall. As curated by the NGV, Untitled (lunch box) serves as a representation of the renowned Thai contemporary artist’s conceptual practice where a meal in a gallery environment intentionally brings people together. Uniquely, however, the NGV presents Untitled (lunch box) while also actively intersecting Tiravanija’s heavy reliance on context.  

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) was first conceptualised by the artist in 1996. Whilst the work has pre-existing materials - ‘stainless steel, newspaper, takeaway food’ as acquisitioned by the NGV in 2012- its final composition is ephemeral, coming in and out of being through variable conditions hinged upon context. The conceptual platform of Untitled (lunch box), currently being exhibited at the NGV after two decades of global prominance, is activated and actualised through setting, materiality and participation.

While the work’s physical features remain the same wherever it is exhibited, the outcome is changeable by the contextualising setting. While Tiravanija’s meals are typically installed within gallery spaces –to disrupt their supposed tranquillity- the NGV's choice to place the work next to the institution's well-known water-wall within the busy entrance hall juxtaposes previous galleries’ choices of clean-cut white cube spaces, such as the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in 2014.   Within this gallery-non-gallery-setting, the work’s materiality inhibits the space for the duration of the four months: a plain white table with four accompanying chairs hosting stainless steel lunch boxes, menus detailing their daily stocking of chicken yellow curry, rice, pork satay, peanut sauce and green papaya salad and a Thai magazine. Near the table a panel details the artist’s intention, practice and history.

If the visitor is lucky enough to pass the NGV before opening hours, they will gain a serene viewing of Untitled (lunch box) with the table and its belongings glistening behind the water-wall, visually obscured into an impressionist-like painting. The viewer will feel as if they are peeking inside a welcoming home while in the rain pours outside, spying a dining table where friends and family will soon gather. Indeed, at this time of day, the table awaits people to fulfil its communal concept; however, the humble home is instead a vibrant gallery. 

​Rirkrit Tiravanija's Untitled (lunch box) (1996) obscured by the National Gallery of Victoria's water-wall. Photograph by Tahney Fosdike (2018)

Nevertheless, as crowds arrive, this antidote is lost as the entrance becomes crowded and the table is lost in the hurry.  It becomes unassuming; the crowds absorbed by countless stimuli, such as the gift-store, the intensely presented Salvador Dali Trilogy of the Desert: Mirage (1946) collection appeal and extensive queues to blockbuster exhibition, ‘MoMA at the NGV.’  Yet, the unaware crowds are crucial to Untitled (lunch box). They are required to engage with the work rather than focussing on being admitted to ‘MoMA at the NGV’ or buying a souvenir. Four visitors – during my visit, two younger and two older women - are randomly chosen by gallery staff to sit at the table to call Tiravanija’s artwork into its intended conceptual service. 

The viewer will feel as if they are peeking inside a welcoming home while in the rain pours outside, spying a dining table where friends and family will soon gather.

The scheduled participation prompts visitor interaction with the materials in the setting, ultimately creating a communal moment. Oblivious crowds bustle around and I am one of few standing still to watch the unfolding Untitled (lunch box) as it is compelled into its daily existence as the four women sit to eat together. They dine awkwardly with small bites and constant, polite napkin-dabs, their conversation hardly breaching a whisper. Whilst Tiravanija’s work has sprung into existence – as per its 12:15 daily schedule- it blends in amongst the NGV’s excessive stimuli. In its context, the climax of the work’s realisation is dubious. 

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s conceptual practice (often referred to as ‘relational aesthetics’, a term used to describe the tendency to make art based on or inspired by human relations and their social contexts) became prominent following his theorisation of Pad Thai (1990), in which he broke the conventional sanctity of the ‘white cube’ through cooking meals for visitors at Paula Allen Gallery, New York. For Tiravanija, shared meals are a medium which insinuate communal values – a cultural norm for the Chiang Mai, Thailand local whilst uncommon in the sometimes-hostile setting of a Western gallery. This ideology continues to be central to his work 28 years since Pad Thai and 22 years since the 1996 initiation of Untitled (lunch box). In 2016, he operated a Berlin restaurant pop-up and, a year earlier, collaborated on Art Basel installation Do We Dream Under the Same Sky where visitors enjoyed meals in the site’s dining room. In March, he collaborated with the National Gallery of Singapore to create an immersive installation Untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)​​, in which visitors partake in a tea ceremony on the gallery's rooftop. ​​

​ Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (lunch box), National Gallery of Victoria, July 2018. Photograph by Tahney Fosdike (2018).

For Tiravanija, meals are a default to prompt strangers to feel a familiarity with each other- the resulting relationship between public engagement and food his popularised oeuvre. As his meals grant visitors to reach the work’s conclusion, however, the artist merely instigates his idea before ceasing control and leaving outcomes open. After he creates a platform – like a meal within a gallery in Untitled (lunch box)  - he leaves it be within its context, entrusting participants to condition the work’s conclusion. This assumes the gallery is passive - but the NGV is not a dead space waiting to be activated.

For the four month display of Tiravanija's work, strategically aligning with the programming of ‘MoMA at the NGV’, the NGV has helped themselves to such malleable freedom of context. Through cunningly curating the work, Untitled (lunch box) is presented as a token of the globally acclaimed Thai contemporary artist rather than existing as an experimental, socially-engaged artwork.  The NGV have exhibited the work almost thirty years since Tiravanija first practised his globally renowned people-food framework and, unlike the artist's commissioned collaboration with the National Gallery of Singapore, Untitled (lunch box) was not created with regards to the NGV's specific environment nor is it representative of Tiravanija's current regard of architectural and textual forms. 

Even as a promotion tool, Untitled (lunch box) blends into the theatrics of the entrance hall. If context is imperative, the work pairs with the gallery’s energy rather than challenging it.

While displaying an artwork several decades since its inception is not problematic in itself, doing so can create an ingenuine spectacle of an artist’s prominent career rather than the underlying conceptuality of their practice. The NGV rely on Tiravanija’s persona rather than artistic intent. They calculatedly showcase Tiravanija Untitled (lunch box) to encapsulate his distinctive ingenuity to novice Australian audiences. This is evident as the panel with a lengthy description of Tiravanija looms at large over the selected visitors, negating the imperative value of the participant to the communal thesis and shifting focus to the artist’s brilliance. More so, the panel’s dominating presence dictates the work’s meaning rather than leaving it supposedly open-ended. Additionally, the said label along with printed and digital programming and marketing continue to amplify Tiravanija’s name - which, despite the hype, is actually facilitated by gallery staff like clockwork while the artist is absent. As a result, the artist’s reputation is more present than the conceptual underpinning of the work itself.

Another critical element is the placement of Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) within the NGV’s highest foot traffic area. Allegedly, Tiravanija’s food-based works are sensual disruptions against the still-object environment of the gallery. At the NGV, where his work is arguably posed to tokenise his fame rather than enforce the communal, it seamlessly correlates with the café, gift-shop, information desk and ticket queues and, as such, is counter-productive. It disrupts nothing. The devising of his fame within the entrance hall within metres of the ticketed ‘MoMa at the NGV’ comes as a free test-taster to other big names inside the blockbuster exhibition. Even as a promotion tool, Untitled (lunch box) blends into the theatrics of the entrance hall. If context is imperative, the work pairs with the gallery’s energy rather than challenging it.  

Tiravanija is known for his conceptual practice, creating platforms for visitors to actively finalise the artwork within the overtly passive gallery. Indeed, Melbourners can try their chance of being chosen from the crowds to participate, eat with new friends and judge the concept for themselves. However, in this presentation of  Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box), the gallery is not inattentive and the visitors are not the only influencers of the work. Within such an energetic, lively atmosphere, Tiravanija’s artwork can only join a pre-existing festive atmosphere without having the oppurtunity to grapple with overt gallery hostility. At the National Gallery of Victoria, Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) is not simply a nonconventional conversation between artwork and visitor- the gallery strategically contextualises the work to complement rather than resist the institution. 

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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