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Wake Up and Smell the Reality: An Interview with Rirkrit Tiravanija

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Wake Up and Smell the Reality: An Interview with Rirkrit Tiravanija
"untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)" by Rirkrit Tiravanija for the Ng Teng Fong Rooftop Commission 2018 (Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore)

National Gallery Singapore collaborates with internationally renowned artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to present his largest bamboo maze installation at its Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden. An annual commission at the top of the National Gallery Singapore rooftop, Tiravanija is the second artist commissioned for this project.

"untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)", is an immersive installation which stands at a towering four metres high, drawing its inspiration from materials, craftwork and architecture from Asia. The maze references traditional hand-built bamboo scaffolding found across Asia, while the Japanese tea house evokes the rich culture of tea with its centuries-old ceremonies. Visitors are invited to navigate through the bamboo maze as they go in search of finding something special such as the wooden teahouse located at its centre, and along the way, encounter and interact with each other.

We had the chance to speak with the artist when he was in town to unveil the work earlier this year. Find out more about his process in creating the commission, what considerations he had, how he feels about art and 'selfie culture', as well as why he believes that having nothing is better for artists...

 

Portrait of Rirkrit Tiravanija
Image courtesy of the artist


Can you tell us about “untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)”? How did you come up with the idea of a teahouse in the centre of a maze? What sort of ideas did you contemplate when you imagined this piece?

I worked with tea for a long time and the first teahouse I made was actually a tent - like a fabric made from monks robes. In the Japanese kind of mythology, the teahouse is constructed around the sermon that the lord Buddha gave to a thousand monks and apparently is was in a space like this one, and that was kind of the starting point. For me, I wanted to think more about it as a kind of spiritual space, rather than a Japanese teahouse - and it’s actually a Japanese tearoom. For me, [“untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)” is] a kind of space that i’m interested in just using, and I do that with a lot of different architectural projects - I use architects like Corbusier and Philip Johnson - you know, modernist things, so I’ve always kind of used spaces. Spaces, for me, has its own kind of reference, but within that relationship it is also about that kind of space that I kind of feel would function towards my goal of like, say, that interaction with me. So, I don’t so much think about it as a Japanese thing, but I think about it more as a kind of spatial thing, and I’ve done it in different kinds of spaces and materials - we’ve done it in a glass room, in a mirrored room - and for me, it’s more about the expansion of maybe this kind of spiritual space.

A mirrored version of Rirkrit Tiravanija's teahouse "Untitled (Tilted teahouse with coffeemachine)" at Brodno Sculpture Park
Image courtesy of Pintrest

The bamboo scaffolding actually is a very old kind of structural thing that we use in Asia, actually for construction, and in Hong Kong they still have scaffolding made of bamboo when they are building skyscrapers.

Spaces, for me, has its own kind of reference, but within that relationship it is also about that kind of space that I kind of feel would function towards my goal of like, say, that interaction with me. So, I don’t so much think about it as a Japanese thing, but I think about it more as a kind of spatial thing...

So in a sense, it’s kind of like a material that I feel is like part of my own cultural structure and so it has a lot to do with [my use of it]. Of course, the material is very local as well as, and in Chiang Mai where I work and live, there are a lot of craftspeople who work with [bamboo, like the weaving of bamboo mats], and of course we use it for houses. So for me it’s a kind of local material ; a part of everyday life in which we use this material. You know, I also think the environment that it’s sitting in and what’s around it...also lends itself to this kind of material and construction.

The other point I would like to make is that when I visited [the National Gallery Singapore] - and I visited here, I guess, it was when the museum first opened - Eugene [Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore] and I kind of had the conversation about doing something up [on the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden] for a while and we had a different project that we thought could be brought up here, but it was too big and too heavy.

So, in a way, I thought a lot about how to kind of make a shelter, also; for people who were coming and who were going to be spending time [in the work].

So in way, you know, I’ve been looking and the space and thinking about it, and it’s not a very easy space to use and to work in, and let alone the weather; you know, the rain and the sun, the humidity and everything else. So, in a way, I thought a lot about how to kind of make a shelter, also; for people who were coming and who were going to be spending time [in the work]. I think part of the idea of this particular exhibition space, is that of a public space, right? And it needs to made in such a way that the public could actually have some time with it. So these are all kinds of little things that are in the back of my mind when I stand in the space and look at it and try and to think ‘what would i do here?’ you know?

 

A detail of the 2,500 bamboo poles used to create "untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)"
Image courtesy of national Gallery Singapore


When you were approached by the National Gallery Singapore for the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission, did they have a specific brief for you? Or were you given a lot of freedom? What interested you the most about this project?

When Eugene [Tan] was building the museum, he already approached me with this idea of doing something here, and as things became more clear - I had done a project in Basel, in Switzerland, that Eugene and curatorial team had seen and they were very interested in the idea of maybe transferring that to Singapore, actually even for the opening, but we realised that that space wasn’t big enough to take the weight...because it was a big architectural project - so then we realised, “oh, it’s not realisable”. But, you know, then there was this idea to do something [on the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden], so I think it’s been an ongoing process, at least in the back of my mind, for at least two or three years.

There was no brief - I mean of course, when the museum says, “Well, we’d like you to do something”, immediately, the first thing you do is come to look at what the space would be, and so I saw the space as I saw it when it first opened, and I saw it last year when Danh Vo has his commission. So, I was looking at like how the things work or didn’t work for me and then from there, you know, I tried to establish something that makes sense in a way, it terms of what could happen there.

Danh Vo's commission for the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission in 2017
Image courtesy of myartguides

However, I hope that once a month there would be a line around the block to [come for] tea - that would be amazing!

Now, I mean when I came here there was hardly anybody look at the art you know, because it is this hot space, it is like in between things, people are more likely going to the roof to look at the restaurants. So you know, that was of course something, I would consider: how many people are actually going to go look at this or how many people pass through the space. I mean, at this point, I don’t really know, but I know that of course, if three people go through [the commission], it’s fairly good. And in a way, maybe, we can make the space such that just three to four people would use it at a time. Of course, it has to be sheltered, it has to be away from the rain or the sun and it needs to be air-conditioned.

I would like to also just say that I have been working with the tea space, you know, for a while, so it’s something that kind of obvious to me that could happen there. But just how that would happen, would be different. And you know to have a work up for 10 months that’s outdoor is a very difficult thing and I know that one of the things, let’s say there was a kind of a request from the [National gallery Singapore], was the fact that they would like to engage the public. No, “engage the public”, what does that mean? For me, it’s like cooking them dinner, you know? But you can’t cook dinner for 10 months...I mean, we can barely make tea for 10 months, so in a way for me I would rather see tea being made every day, but of course with the budget or whatever, they can only do it once a month. However, I hope that once a month there would be a line around the block to [come for] tea - that would be amazing!

 

A teahouse lies in the middle of the bamboo maze
Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore


Your work has a very multidisciplinary nature. “untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)” combines performance and installation with disciplines like architecture, and some of your works even engage with the culinary arts. What do you think this act of combining these different fields achieves?

Well, I think it’s in a way become normal for artists to think and work that way, and I think it has to do with the fact that - well, in my interest - it’s about experience, so giving the audience a total experiential condition that they meet. So, it’s no longer just [about] looking right? You have to move through as you are looking, you have to listen to your movement. Also, you have to be aware of other people...so, it’s kind of about a total experience of being in a place and feeling...the world [and] the detail around you to see that are [for example], leaves fallen or petals of flowers here or you know, like the watermelon and the green tea and how that tastes. So you know, it’s about using all your senses, and in order to get people to be able to feel that, you have to use everything you can. Particularly, even today, because people are so...tuned to their little machines, how do you make a separation? I always kind of like [feel that]...I don’t want to make something that’s just going to be selfied to death, and it’s not as if I consciously try to think about that, but I do realise it’s very hard to photograph what I do in a complete sense… I mean, [like] when you stand in front of a bamboo box.

 

A contemporary tea ceremony performance by Mai Ueda at the unveiling of "untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)"
Image courtesy of national Gallery Singapore


I imagine that when you first showcased “Untitled (Free)”, the ‘selfie’ was not part of the viewer experience. Visitor participation is a huge part of your work which often requires activation, so what has the impact of the smartphone camera and social media been on your work? Do you think that this is a positive or negative thing? Why?

I think it’s the world today. It’s a world...that’s part of existence… but I hope that there are breaks in between that kind of existence to smell the reality.

 

Being the second work in the Ng Teng Fong Roof Garden Commission series after Danh Vo, what do you envision for the experience of visitors encountering “untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)”?

I want people to engage. I want people to just, you know, be themselves, and I like to make a work where I don’t have to tell people what to do. So, in certain ways I try to use, like say architecture or space or food or drink or sound that of course would kind of be something that people already semi-understand what it is… and with that little bit of sense of familiarity, they would already become more curious and more engaged...which is kind of like the difficulty of what we all think art is when we stand in front of it and we try to encounter it. And you know, I think the way we encounter it in different cultures is very different right? Like in Thailand, if I put the mats down on the floor and put some burners and woks and start cook, everyone just sits around it as if it was just a normal day - actually, everybody starts to help - but there’s no engagement about art at all. But I mean that’s...even better than people trying to think about it as art. Always, the context does have a lot of influence on what goes on and I think - and I hope - that what I try to put into place and play is also kind of a back-and-forth between that kind of two situations.

I had to come up with a way to continue to make art, and part of that continuation is to actually take it back and put it back into play and put it back into life.

I’m from Thailand and I have to deal with Marcel Duchamp: the man who, kind of in way, reinvented art and so in order to reinvent art over his [practice] I had to come up with a way to continue to make art, and part of that continuation is to actually take it back and put it back into play and put it back into life. If you look at how the Western artists have been trying to deal with this continuation, you know, they are looking to the East to find answers. So in a way, I always said, I already have the answer, I have to just keep going you know? I don’t need to try as hard as they do.

 

"untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)" is an immersive installation which stands at a towering four metres high, and draws its inspiration from materials, craftwork and architecture from Asia.
Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore


Historically, your work has often been discussed in tandem with Relational Aesthetics, because your works often deal with a sense of community and along with it, the complex negotiation and interaction between individuals that the work facilitates. In a world that is increasingly individualistic, what is the role of these works today? Does it seek to show us the possibility of an alternative reality or does it function almost as an escape? Or is it something else altogether?

What we formulate as reality is no longer reality, so yeah, maybe my work is an escape from the non-reality. I think a lot of artists have to think… I mean, because we are critical. We are...a little bit conscious, or we would like to be a little bit conscious right? [At least] I hope, because there’s a lot of art that doesn’t care right? But I hope the ones that are critical, are trying to make time and space for which we can reflect a bit more [about] the life we’re in. So, maybe that little break [makes the viewer think] “I don’t have to [engage in social media], I could put [my phone] away, and I could exist, actually; and smell things and see things and do do things.”

But I hope the ones that are critical, are trying to make time and space for which we can reflect a bit more [about] the life we’re in.

Yeah, we are recording everything and we have no more memory, [like] that funny idea of Total Recall is true: everything is in the machine. You don’t really remember your experience anymore, and I really wonder how often people go back to that memory to try to relive it again. So, it’s a matter of collecting, but not really using it.

 

Exhibition view "A Retrospective (tomorrow is another fine day)" by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Serpentine Gallery London 2005
Image courtesy of neugerriemschneider, Berlin


I think a lot of young Asian artists admire your career path, seeing that you’ve been collected and shown at major museums like MoMA and Serpentine Gallery, as well as participated in the Venice Biennale. Do you have any words of advice for these artists from your own challenges and experiences?

You know, I teach, and one of the biggest things I try to do is to try to get everyone to understand themselves; to look deep and find themselves first, as a kind of source of what will inspire them. I try to get them to understand that Googling an idea doesn’t [really work] - it’s not your idea and that history or source is distant - it’s something out there. So to start, from yourself.

...we’re all in the same place and we have to work with nothing, because we’re artists. It’s more interesting that way.

It’s very different, I think, you know, artists in the West and artists in the East. Artists in the East have to start with themselves, because we don’t have anything. We don’t have history...so in that sense, I feel like...we have to understand the East, because we have to be critical and existential towards our existence, because it’s not an easy life and I think art is coming, always, out of an interesting life; writing literature, poetry, music...you know, you have to live through things in order to express it.

I don’t have a studio, I don’t have a lot of things, I don’t have funding. I only make things when I have to make things, and I only make things when somebody is offering to pay for it. So, it’s not so difficult, you know? What’s more important is to have the right ideas, the good ideas and yeah, to continue to believe in it and work in the smallest way, to realise that idea. It’s not about being visible, in a way - I mean I’m only visible because I’ve been here for a long time - but, you know, we’re all in the same place and we have to work with nothing, because we’re artists. It’s more interesting that way.

 

Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

 

 

"untitled 2018 (the infinite dimensions of smallness)" by Rirkrit Tiravanija is on show at National Gallery Singapore Ng Teng Foong Roof Garden from now till 28 October 2018. For more information on programmes and opening hours, click here.


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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