WASHINGTON – Twenty-seven years ago, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija began serving curry out of a makeshift kitchen in a New York gallery. The artwork was not only comprised of the curry and its environs, but also the people who came to the gallery, and the way they interacted with one other, and the conversations they had while they ate.
It fell within the framework of what's known as "relational art," or "social practice," working off the kind of amorphous concept that can drive people crazy outside of the art world: Basically, the way people experience Tiravanija's art is the art.
In the years between that work, "Untitled (Free/Still)," and Tiravanija's current exhibition at the Hirshhorn, "(who's afraid of red, yellow, and green)," the art and food worlds have inched closer to each other. Restaurant openings have risen to the same cultural status as art openings. Some pop-up dining experiences toy with the same social dynamics of interactivity and discomfort that Tiravanija (pronounced tee-ra-va-nit) first explored. At the same time, Tiravanija – who is adamant that he is not a chef – has released a cookbook, with another in the works, and has opened a seasonal restaurant and art gallery in the Catskills, called Unclebrother.
"Food is interesting in that way, because it can bring people to this place," he said, "And it's something we do all the time, so it's not something foreign. But the experience can take you to a very different place."
Claim your bowl of free curry, and you'll eat it in a room surrounded with scenes from both Thai political protests and demonstrations on the Mall throughout history. The name of the exhibition alludes to a series of Barnett Newman paintings ("Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue"), but more importantly it's a reference to the three flavors of curry being served, which are the same colors that represent Thailand's three political factions. The murals and the meal serve as conversation starters for the rest of the art, which is whatever happens when you sit on a stool in the gallery and take in the imagery, and, if you're feeling brave, talk with strangers.
"What I find is at first, people are afraid. And then they look at other people who are not afraid, and therefore, they enter into it," Tiravanija said. "And then with that kind of entry, maybe then it becomes a discussion. And then, that discussion becomes more generous, because one is understanding that the other is giving something."
Food and politics aren't always complementary. Politics can lead to confrontations – say, protesters shouting at a senator or cabinet secretary, or a gunman showing up at a pizza parlor to investigate a false internet conspiracy theory about child sex-trafficking – and confrontations can be bad for business. It's no wonder many restaurants want to stay as far away from political controversy as they can.
But Tiravanija's work is art, not commerce. That allows him to serve his food with provocative imagery that hasn't been sanitized for a family dining experience: One of the mural's vignettes from the Thai protests depicts two men hanging by their necks from trees, with another figure about to strike the mutilated corpse. The Thai images overlap with recognizable Washington images: the Million Man March, the 7,000 shoes laid on the Capitol lawn in 2018 to represent children killed by gunfire (cleverly abutted, in the exhibition, by a Thai military officer brandishing a handgun). The museum has employed a team of artists who will continue to trace copies of the images from projections on the wall until they bleed into one other. By the time the show concludes, on July 24, the walls will be entirely black.
"It's about a struggle, and the struggle is history, and that history is layered and complex," Tiravanija said. Curry is more complex than its colors. Politics is more complex than its banners.
Making meaning from that complexity is a matter of taste. Tiravanija's work doesn't tell you how to think, or what to say to your dining companions.
"I think we just need to make a space where people can listen to each other," he said. "We need to say what we think, and we are going to say and think differently. We need to understand that that can exist together. It doesn't have to be a divide."
Tiravanija's grandmother, Somrit Suwannabol, was a well-known chef in Thailand, he said. She trained abroad in France, and founded a restaurant and a cooking show when she returned to her home country. She's the one who taught him about food.
In the early days, the artist would make the food for his exhibitions by himself, but for the Hirshhorn show it will be provided by Beau Thai, a restaurant with locations in Shaw and Mt. Pleasant. There will be enough curry for about 150 people each day, and it will be served Thursday through Sunday, beginning at 11:45 each day, until 1:30 p.m. or whenever supplies run out.
Once visitors finish their curry, they may continue through the other two rooms of the exhibition, which are films. The first, "Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbors," is quiet film about a retired farmer, directed by Tiravanija; the second consists of a program of short political films curated by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. One short, Sompot Chidgasornpongse's "Bangkok in the Evening," is a dreamy collection of shots of Thai people pausing throughout the city for the daily playing of the national anthem. Some stand rapt at attention, others sway or fidget, a tiny rebellion.
Eating curry could be a tiny rebellion, too, if you consider coming together around food and politics to be rebellious – which, these days, Tiravanija does.
"I think a form of sharing and giving," he said, "could be, at this moment, a kind of protest."