I arrive at the Zwirner Gallery’s double show of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Gordon Matta-Clark, rolling my bicycle up to the front of the kitchen and locking it before the window-like openings. I enter the dumpster with the maze built inside it. With its back panel open, the dumpster is the major opening of the double installation to the street.
This is a recreation of Matta-Clark’s Open House Dumpster of 1972. The original was exhibited on the street outside the legendary 112 Greene Street gallery in Soho, and later reconstructed for a posthumous show at P.S. 1. This is the third time around. Two parallel walls, pieced together from old building materials, have been set up inside a commercial dumpster, a large truck-borne open steel container used to remove construction debris. The walls run the length of the container, and a series of old doors set in the walls access narrow rooms. This simple design is an engine for chance meetings, enforcing a close physical sociality, a genial play within a simple blind labyrinth. Tiravanija has reconstructed this – if we assume that the living artist has enforced his will upon the dead, which may not be so – on the street but within the gallery. It is no longer open to the sky. Actually the Matta-Clark recreation is stuck into a wooden box built into the façade of the galley building. To enter the labyrinth is to enter a box. It is, in fact, an inversion of the original. Rather than a feeling of excitement and human possibility, I felt mounting claustrophobia and unease as I entered a darkening dead end…
To enter Tiravanija’s own installation one either climbs through the windows or walks a long narrow corridor alongside it to the back, then down a corridor in the center. The back of the installation resembles a loading dock, cavernous, with tools and materials lying around, the flotsam and jetsam of maintenance. Behind the box containing the recreation of Matta-Clark’s Open House Dumpster, a film of the original on the street plays large and dim against the back wall of the gallery. Denizens of the 1970s artists’ community wave up at the high-held camera. This filmic record has become, as it were, a stand in for the intention behind the recreation.
As if to say, Here’s how it was then. We’re showing it to you in another room, separated from the original, back with the cleaning supplies. This is poignant; but it’s not nostalgic.
In the front of the installation café tables have been set up, pots of food, a refrigerator. In the back is a large L-shaped kitchen counter. The place was full of Zwirner employees taking a late lunch. I walked among these fashionably dressed young people as if I were a ghost. “So this is like a company cafeteria?” I asked a young man. “No,” he said. “You can help yourself.” He pointed out potatoes, then lifted the lid of a large pot of mussels. As he did so the steam rose and clouded his glasses just as he turned his head towards me. Thus he spoke to me and looked me full in the face without seeing me, maintaining as if by stage magic the visual lockout of a cheaply dressed middle-aged man who had arrived on a bicycle at a store for the rich where there was free food. Muy elegante!
Being hungry I ate, a fine tofu in green curry over mashed potatoes, made from the palletized ingredients in the back area. The installation is indeed the company cafeteria of the Zwirner Gallery, which may well have laid on extra staff to handle the increased business resulting from the Whitney retrospective of Matta-Clark.
Two young women sitting next to me called out to a man in a new Cadillac sedan parked in front of the gallery. “Come in, have some food!” They did not look at me, although I was between the man and the car, advertising the action they were urging on him. The discourse was between two enclosed privileged spaces.
The openness of the Tiravanija social stage is contingent, the invitation conditional. It is provocative, it is generous, but wherever these situations are set up, they are locked into social position, depending upon the social actors within them for their overall animation. Often in pictures the Tiravanija installation is shown empty, a picture of pure possibility. In practice, it is closely bounded. In this instance one may eat, because that is the intention of the artist. But one eats at the sufferance of the patrons of the artist. Some communicants are welcomed. Others are tolerated.
This ain’t no soup kitchen. And that is the point. Tiravanija designs party spaces and accoutrements for the international art scene. These are floating bubbles that extend the traditional convivial moment of the art exhibition’s opening night reception and dinner for the artist into a continuous experience. It’s a sign that business is booming.
It might be argued that this is a materialist version of institutional critique. Certainly the work reveals by staging how the art institution is “self-filtering,” how it produces its audience, as Turkish curator Vasif Kortun put it at a Cooper Union conference on public art. Just once I’d like to see Rirkrit’s schtick done vegan BBQ style, produced by Food Not Bombs.
Speaking of giving things away, I am reading Bradford Martin’s account of the Diggers (in his The Theatre Is in the Streets; he writes them together with the Living Theatre, which Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov have just reopened on Clinton Street with The Brig, since it ain’t the time for Paradise Now). My friend Steve told me he’d been at a party Shirley Clarke threw in the Chelsea Hotel for the Diggers in ’66. They passed the hat to support their work serving free food and running crash pads for the hippie kids flooding into the Lower East Side. When the hat had gone around, the Diggers passed it back – “You’ve given, now if you need, take.”
A radical gesture… but the same kind of conditional generosity we see in Tiravanija at the Zwirner Gallery. No one at Clarke’s party was liable to take from the hat. That would be to admit that they, a guest at a privileged private soiree, were as needy as any other vagabond. Only a junkie would take from that hat… Emmett Grogan, a top (bottom?) Digger, was a junkie. Money is simple. Generosity is complex.