For artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, art is a way to break down barriers and reach people where they might feel most comfortable. He does that by subverting what’s expected in museums and art galleries. Instead of patrons sedately gazing at paintings and sculptures hung on blank walls and reading the placards describing the art, Tiravanija wants visitors to his shows to interact with the art — and with each other.
At Potomac’s Glenstone Museum, the peripatetic artist, the son of a diplomat, who lives and works in New York, Berlin and Chiangmai, Thailand, is occupying and remaking one of the vast contemporary gallery buildings with a reinstallation of his mixed-media interactive work from 2011 with the chilling and prescient title “Fear Eats the Soul.”
The exhibit title reflects the current socio-political zeitgeist, said Emily Wei Rales, the museum’s director and chief curator. Still, when asked if his art contains political messages, the 58-year-old contemporary artist indicated that viewers should make up their own minds about what he is saying.
Tiravanija called the vast, high-ceilinged galleries on the nearly 300-acre Glenstone campus a “modernist temple.” There, he has gathered and installed found architectural elements like oversized windows and doorways collected from old New York City tear downs and propped them against gallery walls, as if they’re waiting to be carted away. A shipping-container-sized room with a working T-shirt printing factory inside, and gallery walls themselves become an ever-changing canvas for invited graffiti artists to tag and paint.
He would have preferred to have removed all the exterior doors and windows, as he did in his earlier New York show, leaving the gallery open to the elements. Instead, at Glenstone, some doors have been removed and closed off with cemented cinderblocks, disrupting the pristine ambiance.
Tiravanija has stenciled in oversized letters the moniker of his show: “Fear Eats the Soul.” But over the course of the coming months, invited artists will add their own monikers, tags and other graffiti art. By the end of the show’s run, sometime early next year, Tiravanija’s painted letters will likely be completely obscured as regionally based graffiti artists, curated by artist Mike Guy, leave their own marks on the walls.
Like the artist’s show earlier this year at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden titled “(Who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green,),” “Fear Eats the Soul” features food as part of the exhibit. Here it’s soup – Tiravanija’s own recipes, prepared by Chef Brian Patterson and his team in the gallery kitchen.
Upon entering the gallery, a lit neon sign either says “soup” or “no soup.” Long communal tables await patrons carrying their bowls of soup. For Tiravanija, serving food deepens the communal experience of the art. “Food has always been the element that can transgress borders and boundaries,” he said at a preview at Glenstone.
Tiravanija is also borrowing from 20th-century Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who shocked and mystified the art world with his ready-mades, ordinary found objects like a urinal or a hat rack, that he signed and entered into major art shows. This radical act forced critics and ordinary art goers alike to assess their understanding of what is art and who can be an artist. Borrowing from the readymade idea, in his recent installations, Tiravanija scours the collection and pulls out selected artistic works to incorporate in his overall installation.
In this case, he chose pieces from late American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (from the Glenstone collection), including Matta-Clark’s compelling and still current “Fresh Air Cart.” The piece is a rickshaw equipped with an oxygen tank and masks that the artist himself pulled around Wall Street offering rides to bankers and stockbrokers on its debut in 1972. Here, alas, it’s only on display; no rides allowed. While it commented on the growing awareness of environmental issues of the era, Matta Clark’s works often mediate urban spaces through transformational architecture.
But Glenstone visitors can get a T-shirt featuring a slogan chosen from dozens collected by Tiravanija and printed on the inside of the plywood shipping container. “On Strike,” “We don’t mix,” “See, see, we assemble,” “No Beef No Crying Tiger” and the show title rendered in English, German and French, are among the non-sequitur-like phrases the artist appropriated, borrowed or coined during his travels. In exchange for a donation to the City Kids Wilderness Project, patrons can select a slogan and appropriately-sized shirt and watch it being printed, lending a performative element to the exhibit.
Adjacent to the silkscreen factory, Tiravanija created a scale replica of his 1994 show at New York’s Gavin Brown Gallery. The crumpled bedding slung on the floor, old Brillo crates and stacked beer bottles have been immortalized in gleaming silver ceramic palladium, making the ordinary extraordinary. A desk and chair in the back room will reportedly be used occasionally by Glenstone staff catching up on work normally performed behind closed doors, but now on occasional display for whoever is visiting that day.
Occasionally, and unannounced, cochinita pibil – a roasted pig, cooked for 12 hours in an underground pit – will be prepared and served on tortillas, one more way to encourage out-of-the-ordinary interaction among museum-goers and break down the perception that art is only for looking and not for interacting.
“I want to subvert all expectation on how we should behave in an arts space,” Tiravanija said. “We usually separate the messy parts of life from the pristine parts of life.” At Glenstone, “Fear Eats the Soul” allows – encourages even – the unplanned, the messy, the mundane and the rarefied to intermingle, along with the patrons themselves. The result is sometimes surreptitious – like the ongoing evolution of the walls where graffiti will change the space over time as more artists tag over Tiravanija’s original slogan.
“Fear Eats the Soul” is consciously accessible and it works best, according to the artist, when visitors interact. The soup serves primarily as a way to encourage that interaction. “You are invited to do things we normally never do [in a museum],” the artist said. So, go ahead, enjoy the soup, and talk to a stranger about art.
“Fear Eats the Soul” is on view at the Glenstone Museum, 12002 Glen Road, Potomac, through early 2020. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Admission is free, but visits, on the half hour until 3 p.m., must be reserved. Visit www.glenstone.org/visit/plan-your-visit.