Monday, September 29th, 2008

Rirkrit Tiravanija: Demonstration Drawings at the Drawing Center

September 12 to November 6, 2008
35 Wooster Street, between Grand and Broome
New York City, 212-219-2166

Rirkrit Tiravanija untitled (demonstration no. 145) 2007. Graphite on paper, 8-1/4 x 11-3/4 inches.  Collection of Craig Robins, Miami, FL
Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (demonstration no. 145) 2007. Graphite on paper, 8-1/4 x 11-3/4 inches. Collection of Craig Robins, Miami, FL

Rirkrit Tiravanija is an art world provocateur whose practice takes the central problem of conceptual art and runs wild with it. Conceptual art can mean different things, but whether seen historically, as an extension of Minimal art in its radical reduction of the art object for the sake of linguistically questioning art’s nature,  or understood, more generally, as art where the material manifestation is strictly subservient to bigger ideas, the aesthetic problem of such art remains the same.  What is there, sensually speaking, to enjoy? What kind of dynamic relationship with the object is there to be savored?

The best-known pieces by Mr. Tiravanija (pronounced Tira-VAN-it), a Buenos-Aires-born and North American trained artist of Thai descent, literalize the question of savoring — he stages cook-ins. These events raise questions about food production, developing and advanced economies, supply and demand — familiar leftist fare.

Within the tradition of avant garde “happenings,” this is art at its most ephemeral, in that the physical evidence is soon gone. But it is far from the least memorable, as Mr. Tiravanija is not a bad cook. Clearly, though, this kind of gesture is art that eschews the traditional means. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that Mr. Tiravanija is the subject of a large show at the Drawing Center, curated by Joao Ribas. This perennially hip institution often likes to stretch definitions of its remit, but Mr. Tiravanija’s “Demonstration Drawings” actually consist of more than 200 framed, small pencil-on-paper images, each of them depicting a scene of political protest, the most traditional show to be seen there in an age.

Or maybe not. For what is soon learned about this project is that Mr. Tiravanija’s hand has not touched a single image on view. Instead, these drawings have been commissioned from an array of unnamed Thai art school graduates. Mr. Tiravanija selects photographs of demonstrations from the International Herald Tribune, sends them to his cadre of draftsmen who are left to render them in a literal, illustrational style.

The drawings are presented in densely hung blocks that fill the Drawing Center’s fulsome, open-plan loft space. There is a deliberate avoidance of scheme or pattern in the arrangement — neither are specific draftsmen grouped together nor types of protest, which range across the gamut of sanctioned or spontaneous demonstration from anarchist agitations at global summits, traditional trade union marches, Labor Day parades, environmental protests, and from orderly, organized demonstrations of vast crowds to surging, near-riotous frenzied mobs, to lone gunmen, clenched-fisted and keffiyeh-clad.

As one scans this extensive body of collective effort, however, one inevitably tries to make sense both of the project and its results. First, there is a limited range of drawing styles, which tends to be competent enough but generally stilted, illustrative, and a bit nerdish. Some artists have a freer hand than others, and use hatching more expressively. All feel as if they have attempted fidelity to the photographic source, although the latter are not at hand for comparison. One wonders whether the difference in treatment is purely a matter of the individual draftsman’s hand or whether different speeds of movement in the scenes depicted — orderly placid drudging through dreary East European streets versus violent clashes with riot-geared police in some steamy tropical town — account for these differences.

This observation in turn start one thinking about a lexicon of gestures — in terms of body language, accoutrements of protest, rituals and improvisations — that would be less likely to occur simply from looking at a similar spread of photographs. This alone vindicates the decision to have the images drawn, as regardless of aesthetic quality, this has the effect of slowing down the viewer to notice such details, doing so as much thanks to the awkwardnesses of rendering as its fluency. As David Rieff observes in his catalog essay, it adds to the pathos of these drawings that many of the executants will have participated in the protests they are limning (a significant proportion of the photographs relate to Thai events.)

Leaving the viewer to construct his or her own index, so to speak, relates this project to a line of typological, indexical kinds of conceptual art, like Hilla and Bernd Becker’s photographs of industrial buildings or Gerhard Richter’s blow-ups of encyclopedia portraits of illustrious writers and scientists. With Mr. Tiravanija’s drawings, one is as likely to come away with a sense of the ubiquity of protest as of its distinctions, and this is a result of the deadpan dreariness of this, overall, uninspired spread. For, while there are individual sparks of draftsmanly flare, the combined effect of these dutifully executed images is enervating.

That in turn, however, is an available meaning to be construed from this whole enterprise. A sense of exploitation is palpable in a work where the sum is exponentially greater than the individual parts, and where the originating and organizing agent, Mr. Tiravanija, reaps infinitely greater reward — of attention, thought, and obviously financial, too — than the individual scrawlers. The somewhat pitiful, feeble, folkloristic nature of the cottage industry draftsmanship and the bland sameness rather than quirky individuality this produces, turns the indexing of protest into a model of the very globalization against which many of the protesters were reacting.

A version of this review first appeared in the New York Sun as “The Conceptual Provocateur” on Thursday, September 18, 2008