Rirkrit Tiravanija has never been known as a maker of elaborate objects. In a market-riven art world, he has remained, since the early ’90s, a steadfast conceptualist whose immaterial projects, enmeshing daily life and creative practice, have earned him a key role in the development of relational art. At galleries and museums around the world, he has prepared meals and fed visitors, broadcast live radio programs, installed social spaces for instruction and discussion, set up apartments—where he or visitors might live for the duration of a show—and dismantled doors and windows, leaning them against walls. At two of the three venues for his 2004 retrospective, the “display” consisted of a sequence of empty rooms referencing (in their proportions and an accompanying audio) his selected exhibitions over the years.1
When Tiravanija does make objects, they are generally of a modest nature—most often multiples and ephemera connected with exhibitions. At his show this spring at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, for example, he set up a room where an assistant screenprinted white T-shirts with his signature terse, block-print headlines, ranging in tone from vaguely political (LESS OIL MORE COURAGE) to hospitably absurd (I HAVE DOUGHNUTS AT HOME). They cost $20 apiece.
So it is no mean irony that this quintessential anti-object artist has just completed a monumental print project—among the most adventurous in the recent history of the medium—demanding three years’ work, dozens of laborers, a generously furnished shop and a small forest’s worth of paper, and requiring, for its ideal viewing, a considerable stretch of wall space. Still, for Tiravanija, who enlists the participation of many people in the realization of his works, collaborative printmaking on a grand scale is not an entirely illogical step. “Art is a site that produces a specific sociability,” wrote the curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, whose essays and shows on Relational Aesthetics have often embraced Tiravanija’s projects. Here, however, “sociability” has yielded a marketable, and potentially profitable, commodity.
Signed in April 2011, Tiravanija’s print, Untitled 2008-2011 (the map of the land of feeling) I-III, is 3 feet high and 84 feet long. Made up of three single-sheet scrolls that are meant to be displayed end to end, it is an elaborate montage of inkjet printing, offset lithography and screenprinting, and was produced in an edition of 40 (plus 10 artist’s and two printer’s proofs). It is currently on view in New York at Pace Prints Chelsea, in an exhibition of recent editions from Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, where it was created. Subsidized, in part, by an endowment from the artist and printmaker LeRoy Neiman, the center has deeper reserves than many private workshops. In addition, because it is a teaching institution, there is always a ready supply, through work-study, of student labor. The center is known for producing time-consuming, often materially innovative prints by artists such as Ellen Gallagher, Sarah Sze and William Kentridge. Still, as Tomas Vu, the Neiman Center’s artistic director and master printer, observes, “Rirkrit’s is certainly the most ambitious project the center has ever undertaken.”2
Several master printers, shop managers and (at least) 40 students worked on the project at one time or another, overseen by Vu (and coordinated with the often absent Tiravanija by his assistant Danny Baez). Sometimes as many as five people together had to maneuver each print onto the press, taking care not to damage previous layers. Tiravanija was present only in spurts (mostly when fulfilling his teaching duties at Columbia, where he is on the studio art faculty). Arriving at the workshop, he would print out images from the Internet, draw on films, and instruct the printers about composing the disparate elements in his absence. (One is reminded of how, often, he sets a situation into motion at a particular exhibition, then leaves it to others to carry out over time.) “I started out vaguely knowing what I wanted to do,” Tiravanija says, “but there was no plan. As it developed, I started to see and add things—which drove Tomas crazy.” To which Vu responds, “It was the right way to do it. We wanted to stop Rirkrit way early on. But in the end it was definitely worth it.”
Tiravanija is famously peripatetic, and indeed, the subject matter of the print specifically concerns his movements through the world, and through life—his physical and temporal passage. A Thai born in Argentina in 1961, he is the son of a diplomat. He attended art schools in Canada and the U.S., and came to professional attention in New York in the ’90s. Tiravanija is notoriously difficult to pin down, and his peregrinations were clearly a factor in the long gestation of this project.
Running in a continuous strip through the center of all three scrolls is a digital copy of the artist’s passport, page after page, chronicling 20 years of travel and foreign residency, from 1988 to 2008.3 On these pages, in repeated photographs made as the document was renewed, we see the artist get older, while noting the many places he has visited, which, according to him, mainly correspond to exhibitions. Around the stable yet constantly changing central band is a dazzling array of images: city plans (again, referring to the cities where Tiravanija had shows); big abstracted mazes from archeological and architectural sites; symbols representing various types of human experience (for example, time-zone lines, or arrows referencing urban flow—the latter an allusion to drawings by Louis Kahn, Gordon Matta-Clark and the Situationists); and representational vignettes, among them images of the ships sailed by Christopher Columbus and, a half-century before him, the Chinese explorer Zheng He, little known in the West. The ships are reproduced according to their relative scale: Zheng’s is much bigger, delivering a lesson in the selective priorities of historical memory, one of Tiravanija’s favorite themes.
Texts abound. A headline from a Johannesburg newspaper stands out in bold uppercase letters (like those on his T-shirts): STONES ARRIVE IN FOUR JUMBOS. This announces the first concert played by the Rolling Stones after the fall of apartheid, an event that coincided with the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1996, in which Tiravanija participated. There are also copies of notebook pages with the artist’s handwritten texts, which he composed specifically for incorporation into the print: recipes, memories inspired by the project and an original short story. Spilled beverage stains add a quotidian eloquence. A road map not only of Tiravanija’s comings and goings, but also of his recurring themes and pet art historical sources, this is the only print I can recall that charts an artist’s entire career.
For those who know prints, the project should ring bells. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg enlisted John Cage to help him make his now famous Automobile Tire Print. Inviting Cage to come down to Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan in his Model A Ford, Rauschenberg had Cage drive the vehicle over 20 sheets of typewriter paper glued together and placed on the street in a long strip, over which Rauschenberg slowly poured black house paint. “[John] was the printer, and the press,” Rauschenberg later said.4 Tiravanija acknowledges that precedent for his print, with its long, central, unifying strip; indeed, he has taken the influence a step further. For the past 10 years, in Japan, Tiravanija has been working on another print—“one kilometer long,” he reports—for which he inks a tire of a car that he drives over paper laid down on the street. (Technically, the drive was made over only 100 meters—a tenth of a kilometer—but the print is being multiplied 10 times to equal the intended length.)5 In fact, Tiravanija suggested a version of this when he first arrived at the Neiman Center. Vu began scheming about jacking up a car and running paper along the tires as they spun. Tiravanija objects: “It would get the mark, but it would not be real. For the print in Japan I was actually on the road, driving.”