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Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gridthiya Gaweewong in Conversation

Rirkrit Tiravanija spoke with curator and friend Gridthiya Gaweewong on the occasion of his participation in our Art Basel Hong Kong 2021 presentation. The two discussed life during Covid, current events and politics in Thailand, and his latest body of work referencing Philip Guston.

  • Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2020 (Rug 3, 1976), 2020


Gridthiya Gaweewong: How have you been spending your time this past year during Covid? 

Rirkrit Tiravanija: I came back from Thailand about one year ago, right after my mother passed away, and I thought I might be going back to teaching [at Columbia University] but then that never happened. 

GG: You have to do online teaching? 

RT: Yes, that's what we're doing now, but I didn't teach last year because I just pushed everything back to this summer because I thought by then we would be in person. No, it's definitely much better, especially in New York because everyone has been, at least the students I'm working with, have all been vaccinated. [Columbia] still has a very strong regulation about meeting. Other than that, we've just been living upstate. 

GG: Why did you decide to move upstate? 

RT: I decided to move out of New York since we moved back from Thailand. When Anette and I went to Thailand, my idea was to move away from New York. Anette and I had this house up here also. It's a very different kind of climate, and different kinds of plants, and different ways to grow things. I was also interested in just quietly doing my own “Land”* thing here. 

Gavin and I have this space up here, in a small town called Hancock, and it's called Unclebrother, which is like an old garage that we made into a kitchen, and we also have an exhibition space. It's only open in the summer. We open the kitchen, and we make food, and people come. 

I'm growing some things, and I'm going to plant some more things. I’m going to work with a farmer up here to try to grow some Thai vegetables. 

  • Tiravanija in the kitchen at Unclebrother in Hancock, New York; guests at Unclebrother

GG: Do you think of Unclebrother as an art project? How does it relate to or differ from The Land Foundation in Thailand? 

RT: We never thought of the land upstate as any kind of art project. In Thailand, we started off with many people around, and they're still around, and I hope they're still continuing to use it. Here, it's different. Participation and labor, and the idea of a community, or the idea of a commune is very different. 

In Thailand, The Land really developed out of our sense of what the younger people wanted. Because, of course as you know, in the Thai education system, it's always the younger people listening to and respecting the elder. In that way, let's say in the idea of art making, it's very counterproductive, counterintuitive. 

GG: Are you still collecting newspapers upstate? I know that you’ve been collecting newspapers for years, because we did one hundred years of demonstrations together at MUAC in the 2000s, in Mexico City. This kind of collection can be challenging because of the demise of the printed press, like The Nation, which no longer exists and is now a digital platform. 

RT: I have a huge collection of The Nation. I have a backorder of The Nation. All [my] drawers in Chiang Mai are full of The Nation. Bangkok Post is also only digital now. There isn’t an English newspaper [in print] in Thailand anymore. 

GG: The younger generation is all on social media, Facebook and Twitter now. Speaking of the younger generation, how closely have you followed the recent students’ movement in Thailand? What do you think about this movement, which calls for government restructuring and monarchy reform, amongst many other things? 

They're tweeting in Thai right? 

GG: No, both Thai, English. 

RT: Oh really? So, they translate what they write. 

GG: No, no, no. The kids tweet in both languages. That's why they have hashtags for what's happening in Thailand and the Milk Tea Alliance. That's why they can connect with Hong Kong and Taiwan. You can look at the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance. 

RT: Maybe you could speak a bit more about what's going on because in a way, because of Myanmar, we're not getting that much news from Thailand, actually. 

GG: I think what's happening in Thailand, it's never been as – I don't want to say less important or visible as the case in Myanmar, but I think before Myanmar happened, people paid attention to the Thai student led movement. Then later, it began pretty quiet because of COVID, and then when Myanmar happened, all the world turned their eyes there. 

But in Thailand, student leaders and political activists are being arrested too. In the last few days, they started to release some of the student leaders, and then they slowly invaded the art communities. People who are very actively involved in free arts movement in Bangkok – in order to arrest them, they were accused of not following Covid guidelines. The state is trying to use Covid as a way to discourage gathering and political protesting, and make arrests. Yesterday, while they released Penguin, the nickname of the student leaders, Parit Chiwarak, and two or three more student leaders, they also arrested three artists, but we can bail them out in the evening. That's why we start to do a campaign. 

  • Works from Tiravanija’s “Demonstration Drawings” series. The artist selected photographs of demonstrations from the International Herald Tribune and commissioned an array of Thai art school graduates to render them in a literal, illustrational style.

GG: Art students in Chiang Mai are protesting as well. Some protesters showed the sign invoking your name and work. Some showed your work, “Fear eats your soul.” What do you think about this? This is different context. They didn't wear t-shirt, but they flash the sign said, Rirkrirt is not here, in Bangkok’s protest site. 

RT: I asked them to make t-shirts and give it to the protesting students in Chiang Mai. They should all wear that t-shirt. It's interesting in the sense, let's say if you were an art student or art person in Thailand, to protest against – I don't know if it's a protest against, of course, it's a comment, but in a way to invoke “Rirkrit” is for sure. I think it's interesting. 

GG: I think they might want you to play more active role in politics as someone like Ai Wei Wei because people feel like you are the big guy, right? 

RT: Yes, and I think that's what's important. I think they should protest the big guy. It doesn't matter whether they understand what I do or don't do, or I'm there or not there. I think it's about protesting the authority, and I think they should use it as the protest. 

GG: That leads us well into discussing your work further. When the pandemic began, the first question that hit me was, "Oh, my God. What's going to happen with Relational Aesthetics?" Because that is all about people gathering together, but Covid is all about social distancing. The nature of your previous works demanded that people participate, but now the world is focused on social distancing. What is your current thinking about this practice? 

RT: I think, forget Covid. When YouTube started and social media became the norm, I spoke out against the Internet. Not against the Internet itself, but the idea that the world is connected through this thing. I said, "No, I’d rather meet my friend at the bar, and sit there, and have a drink." You had to rethink what was relational when social media started anyway, in that sense. 

GG: And now, it's platforms like Zoom. 

RT: Yes. I'm not saying it's all bad. It has its uses, but it's not the only thing you should do in life. I've always said, "I'm for the relation. Aesthetics is a Western idea. It's not for me." It's a way to categorize a kind of activity or something, and relational is just relational. It exists in everything. I would say, in order to really understand what it means, is to understand that in order for you to be relational, you have to understand yourself first. You have to work from yourself. 

It doesn’t mean, because I put my image on Instagram or TikTok, and people like it, it means I'm relational. The relational part is to understand yourself enough so that you can relate and connect to everyone who is different from you. It means you can exist in the same room with people who have different ideas, eat different food, and dress differently than how you do. That you can still be yourself without having the fear that somebody else is taking anything away from you. 

I must say, at this moment, I think what's really interesting is when we're by ourselves, we have to think a lot more about the details in our life and the details in our environment. 

And in terms of newer work, I saw the sample of works that the gallery sent and was surprised to see the strong presence of Philip Guston’s works in your recent newspaper series. Why did you choose to work with Guston’s later works after he turned away from abstract expressionism and his peers? How did you find that Guston resonates with your works and life as an artist? 

RT: I was interested in Guston because as I think Mark [Godfrey] would say, "I'm interested in that question or that doubt." When one starts to look deeply at the work, one better understands where it comes from and in exploring that, it really interested me. [Guston’s] imagery, can [also] work in many different ways. I was interested in this strange space between pain and humor in his work. I’ve had moments in time just looking at the works, and I think in that extension of time itself, those images started to say to me, "Oh, you could use it this way." 

GG: The work, as you say, it's kind of comical. But I don’t think his work is very funny, it’s so dark. It can be so violent… but he used pink. He said pink represents death. I didn't see pink as death at all. 

There was one point when he spoke on how people asked him about what was happening in the '60s. He said, "No, my time is still in the '30s and in the '40s." It's interesting because of the way that he combined simple everyday objects [and] his memory to create something which was relevant in the '60s. Now, the world is moving circular, like he said. I think we can relate to that, because of the Buddhist idea that time is very much cyclical instead of linear. 

RT: I guess it's that cyclical idea of what good art is. It always comes back. You [always] see it [in a] different time with a different perspective. It will give you something else that’s relevant to that moment. 

Of course, at the same time, the big [Guston] exhibition got postponed. Because, there's a lot of questions about the Klan imagery and how that affects society now, with the Black Lives Matter movement. I think it’s better for the art to be shown than for it to just be sitting on its ass and not be discussed. [chuckles] It's not like there is no contention. 
  • Four years, ago, in response to the rise of the Trump administration, Tiravanija turned to the work of Philip Guston, recreating the visual signatures of his work on fields of newspaper and magazine pages.

GG: When did you start to incorporate his work in your paintings? 

RT: We’ve been working on it for like three or four years. Of course, in a way, it was first provoked by Donald Trump. I made a whole other series. I made two series. One is more about Thailand. It's very time-specific. The motive that went into how I used it related to that. The other set went to New York. It was a lot more about Trump and his wall and immigration and migration, which I think Mark wrote about too. 

It's interesting because, in a lot of [Guston’s] imagery, there's always this brick red wall, this wall that comes in. It could be the wall of the concentration camp. It could be the wall of the ghetto. It could be the wall of many things, but of course, it's the wall. In a way, I saw the relationship between his work and the present moment. We made those works at a time when Trump was closing things up and shutting people out. I think what I do is create in a way that is a reaction to what is going on around me. Just like what you do when you read the newspaper. 

It's not that I believe everything I read, but at the same time, one does form some opinion or one does need to ask questions of oneself, when one sees all these things going on in the world. 

To learn more about Tiravanija’s new body of work mentioned here, explore our Art Basel Hong Kong online viewing room here

*Referring to The Land Foundation in Ban Mae, Thailand 


Gridthiya Gaweewong co-founded the Bangkok-based independent art organization Project 304 in 1996. Her curatorial projects have addressed issues of social transformation confronting artists from Thailand and beyond since the Cold War. Gridthiya has curated various regional and international exhibitions including Under Construction, Tokyo Opera City Gallery and Japan Foundation; Forum Japan (2003). She has co-curated with regional curators on several occasions, including ‘Politics of Fun’, an exhibition of artists from Southeast Asia, with Ong Keng Sen at Haus Der Kulteren der Welt, Berlin (2005), with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, ‘Bangkok Democracy’, and the 4th Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, Bangkok (2005), with Rirkrit Tiravanija on Saigon Open City, Ho Chi Minh City (2006) and with David Teh on Unreal Asia, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (2010). She curated Apichatpong Weerasethakul's The Serenity of Maness at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiangmai, which toured to Asia, Europe and USA (2016-2019) (Commissioned by ICI, New York); and served as curatorial team for Imagined Borders, the 12th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea (2018). She is currently preparing an exhibition entitled Errata, Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiangmai, initiated by the Goethe Asia Pacific regional office in partnership with Singapore Art Museum, National Gallery, Jakarta, and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2021-2022). Gridthiya lives and works in Chiangmai and Bangkok, and is artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center. 

Since the 1990s, Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961, Buenos Aires, Argentina) has aligned his artistic production with an ethic of social engagement, often inviting viewers to inhabit and activate his work. Solo exhibitions include the ICA London (permanent installation), Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian, Washington D.C. (2019), the National Gallery of Singapore (2018); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2016); the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2015), the Kunsthalle Bielefeld (2010), the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (2009), the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Serpentine Gallery in London (2005), as well as the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (2004). Tiravanija's work has been recognized with numerous awards and grants including the 2010 Absolut Art Award, the 2004 Hugo Boss Prize awarded by the Guggenheim Museum, and the 2003 Smithsonian American Art Museum's Lucelia Artist Award. Tiravanija lives and works in New York, Berlin, and Chiang Mai. Tiravanija is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts at Columbia University, and is a founding member and curator of Utopia Station, a collective project of artists, art historians, and curators. Tiravanija is also President of an educational ecological project known as The Land Foundation, located in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is part of a collective alternative space called VER in Bangkok.