Daydream Eating Soup
Let’s assume that the acceptance of reality is situated somewhere between the nostalgic longing for something in the past, and utopian visions of the future. ‘Nostalgia’ is a compound word from the Greek ‘nostos’ meaning ‘return’, and ‘algos’ meaning ‘pain’, designating a painful desire to return to a place or to a situation no longer within reach. ‘Utopia’, from the Greek ‘ou’ meaning ‘not’, and ‘topos’ meaning ‘place’, contrastingly designates the longing for a ‘non-place’, a place which doesn’t exist but whose constitutive characteristics one can imagine. What nostalgia and utopia might have in common is the longing for a place which does not exist, a flawless imaginary context, a place detached from the present. Both nostalgia and utopia are symptoms of reality’s rejection and motors for turning away from it, moving in two different directions but ironically, both towards the idealized comfort of something outside the commonplace of the present.
In 1990, the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija realized his piece “Untitled 1990 (Pad Thaï)” in the Paula Allen gallery in New York. The piece, which defined his entire subsequent artistic trajectory, consisted in transforming the space of the gallery into a kitchen used by the artist for the preparation of meals. During the opening, all visitors could have a plate of the prepared meal for free, encouraging according to the artist’s ambitions, the creation of relations between the artist and the public, as well as among the participants. The food, even though the only material element produced by the artist, acted only as a placeholder, a conceptual pretext vowed to disappear in favor of the real centerpiece of togetherness, conviviality and participation. His work can be read in the line of an existing tradition in the western arts consisting in challenging the limits of exhibition spaces, and thus their accessibility, openness and intentions. There is something rudimentary, almost archaic, in proposing the experience of sharing food inside the sanitized context of a gallery. Tiravanija’s intention was the creation of some kind of platform, a context challenging the existing reality of extreme individualism, a new ‘place’ for the sharing enacted by the participants, a place which may be imagined but remains foreign and most probably idealized.
The art historian and critic Claire Bishop has written extensively upon the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, along with that of many other artists who during the 1990s and 2000s produced art complying to what Nicolas Bourriaud termed ‘relational aesthetics,’ a form of art whose main medium is the provocation of rela-tions. In her article “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” from 2004, Bishop underlines the limitations of Tiravanija’s work, positing that it lacked clear artistic and social intentions, content, and the definition of a precise context for critical analysis. In his work, the mere act of ‘sharing’ transforms into the image of a positively connoted social relationship, a spectacle for people to watch while letting themselves be watched, a nostalgic vision of performing inside an idealized non-reality. Extending Bishop’s criticism, can ‘sharing’ create the conditions for new ‘places’ to emerge, and for the present to be critically perceived? Can the sole process of participating be political? And are we able to surpass the reassuring but flat image of togetherness, tempting but inherently nostalgic in its painful insistence on what the present is not, rather than in what it could be? In the end, under which criteria should one judge the work of art?
In architecture, the contemporary discourse seems to detach itself from its self referential formalism, in the pursuit of a critical position towards social and environmental urges. This attitude can be measured through the growing number of architectural collectives, alternative practices and student initiatives, which have gradually acquired a central place in the debate of contemporary architecture, both in academic and professional spheres. Questioning the established reality of architecture by means of socially driven platforms facilitating participation, is both healthy and essential, but the question becomes, how to confront reality and not its idealized, nostalgic image? Is there a defined, common ground of arrival, a desired place which can be collectively but precisely imagined? Moving away from the rather limiting concept of ‘architecture is itself,’ and hopefully beyond the tautology of ‘architecture is social and collective,’ how should architecture’s reality be defined? Is the radical new ‘place’ to be found in the shared process of creation, or could we discuss in terms of architectural and aesthetic criteria? And is the former excluding the latter?
Rirkrit Tiravanija has continued producing art which seems preoccupied with the provocation of social relations. Among a very long list, the project “Utopia Station” presented in the 2003 Venice Biennial, which he co-curated together with Molly Nesbit and Hans Ulrich Obrist. It consisted in exhibiting the works of sixty artists and architects, concurrent with the creation of a wooden platform serving as the background of discussions among the visitors. In a similar line, in 1998 a wooden reproduction of Le Corbusier’s maison dom-ino was installed inside the gallery space Chantal Crousel, in Paris. According to the press release, “Rirkrit Tiravanija invites the visitor to invest in the two platforms of the habitat. Thus, the Spectator becomes the inventor and the actor of his own environment, in the interaction with his fellow visitors. […] The visitors are invited to use the house as they wish, and to share what they bring or find with the others.” The artist creates a platform upon which things can be said, positioned or exchanged, a place of utopic freedom in its most nostalgic materialization, that is, away from the ugly face of reality and the burden of responsibility, towards the warmth of a soup, fluid and blurry.