East City Artnote: Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

By Ted Coltman on May 22, 2019

Contemporary Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija has focused for decades on bridging the gaps that separate audiences from the physical objects of artwork, chiefly through real-time experiences and interactions. Now through July 24, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden offers a chance for visitors–both audiences and a group of local DC-area artists–to step onto such a bridge in the museum’s first public engagement of Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green), a culinary/artistic experience that the museum acquired for its permanent collection in 2017. The installation is both intriguing and–for lack of much explanatory or interpretive documentation–very puzzling.

Tiravanija’s food performance (serving rice with red, green, and yellow curries) was first installed in Bangkok in 2010, accompanied then by “protest drawings that reference opposing political factions (identified through the wearing of red, yellow and green shirts).” According to a Hirshhorn press release (but not in any wall text accompany the current installation), the title of this installation is meant also to evoke that of a similarly titled painting by Barnett Newman that was vandalized in Berlin in 1982.*

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green?, 2010 at 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok. Image courtesy of 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok

The colorful food that is displayed, served, and consumed at the Hirshhorn is accompanied by charcoal wall drawings in black-and-white, as were the murals that accompanied the 2010 Bangkok installation. Some of these charcoal drawings at the Hirshhorn may relate to Thai political events, but others appear to relate to military actions or violent civilian vigilante (partisan?) atrocities, and still others are clearly related to American (or European or Latin American?) political protest demonstrations ranging from suffragists to the Million Man March. None of the mural artists is identified, and it is not clear whether the drawings that appear to relate to Thai political or military events were made by Tiravanija or by someone else, nor whether they were created de novo for this Hirshhorn exhibition or had been physically acquired by and brought to the Hirshhorn from the 2010 installation in Bangkok.

Tiravanija has said that he practices “relational aesthetics”, in which the aesthetic significance lies not in any physical objects in the installation, but in “the interaction, collaboration, and engagement of the audience.” He seems to expect this to emerge in the line of people waiting to be served one of the curries, or as visitors to the exhibition sit down to eat the curries on the roughly two dozen wooden stools scattered around the room. It isn’t clear, though, how this setting will encourage interaction among visitors who do not already know each other, but patterns of interaction may well emerge as the exhibition continues.

In two other adjoining rooms, films by a prominent Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose connection to Tiravanija is not explained other than that they jointly curated the selection of films for this exhibition), are being screened. The films include both a long (and quite fascinating) ethnographic documentary without narration that features food preparation and cooking in a rural village, and a collection of documentary shorts without a readily apparent unifying idea.

This show is curated by Mark Beasley, the Hirshhorn’s curator of media and performance art, and involves DC-area artists in the creation of new mural drawings. None of the artists contributing (unsigned) drawings to the mural has been identified in the installation, and I saw no indication that they will be identified by labels at any point. A couple of artists were working on their drawings during a media preview on May 16, and there were a number of blank spaces that appeared to be awaiting drawings to be contributed by other artists who have not yet begun work.

At least two of the artists contributing to the murals have been identified on Facebook: Lenora Yerkes, a DC artist whose recent work has explored in comic (and sometimes Surrealist) form various ways to make a “waking connection” with her subconscious, and Ellen Cornett, a Maryland artist who works in charcoal, carbon pencil, and pastel, creating tableaux that reference fairy tales, poems, and rhymes.

Cornett posted about this exhibition on Facebook:

“I am one of a team of 20 artists who are creating a charcoal mural in the Hirshhorn this summer. The images are part of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibit ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Green.’ I am so honored to be included, and the experience is more wonderful than I had anticipated. I have made new friends, and feel the building of a real community amongst us.  . . .

“Rirkrit and his crew, Yujin and Sam, gathered images of protests over the last 40 years in Thailand and from DC going back to the suffragettes. We are ‘collaging’ those images in charcoal. Rirkrit hopes that we will work over each other and that at the end of ten weeks, the walls will be black. I don’t know if that will happen. But I see us beginning to work into each other’s drawings. It’s pretty wonderful, and I am really enjoying being with all these other artists, many of whom I am just meeting.”

This optimistic appraisal by one of the participating artists suggests that the “relational aesthetic” Tiravanija is seeking may actually be developing among participating artists, if not necessarily among audiences, but I’ll keep an open mind about the latter, too.

Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green) will continue at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Ave and 7th St SW in Washington, until July 24.

* The veterinary medical student who slashed Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969) claimed that it was a “perversion” of the red, yellow, and black colors of the German flag. A different attacker, Gerard Jan Van Bladeren, a realist painter who rejected modern art, slashed Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1969-70) in Amsterdam in 1986 because he wanted it to serve as an example of the art he rejected.