Rirkrit Tiravanija, “untitled 2021 (rich bastards beware),” 2021
Is he lauding the liberatory decentralization of the blockchain, which promises to wrest wealth away from the hegemonic few? Or is he critiquing the overheated NFT market fueled by speculation?
View “untitled 2021 (rich bastards beware)” in the K21 gallery here →
Have you ever been offered free Thai curry at an exhibition opening? Or played ping-pong in the middle of a museum? Or found yourself in an apartment where you were welcome to stay or sleep or shower, but it was actually in an art gallery that happened to be open twenty-four hours a day? If so, you’ve experienced the ever-so-generous art of Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Born in Buenos Aires to a Thai diplomat, Tiravanija spent his formative years living and studying in Argentina, Canada, Thailand, and the United States — intrinsically coming to terms with Western-centric aesthetics from the polyfocal vantage points of the East and the Global South. He frequently describes encountering Thai artifacts in the Asian art collections of Western museums as a foundational event in his evolution as an artist. Vessels, bowls, teacups, and the like are often exhibited in museums as rarefied art objects instead of the utilitarian items they are in reality. Wanting to reintegrate function into art — and with that the active engagement of the audience — Tiravanija started cooking and sharing food as his signature creative practice during the early 1990s.
Art lovers are served helpings of Pad Thai or red, green, and yellow curries during exhibitions of Tiravanija’s work. Often, the used woks, cooking utensils, and bowls remain in the space as evidence of the feast and as part of the completed, collectible installation. When cataloguing the artist’s interactive works, the descriptive medium line includes an important reference to “lots of people.” This mention is indicative of the humanist baseline critical to the full realization of his art. People are centric to it, perhaps the primary ingredient.
With all its festive trappings, Tiravanija’s art is nevertheless quite nuanced. On the art-historical level, it cleverly inverts the Duchampian Readymade by reinstating an object’s utility. The example he provides anecdotally involves taking Duchamp’s famous urinal (Fountain, 1917) off its pedestal, reinstalling it in a bathroom, and then pissing in it. The real-world items that populate Tiravanija’s work — food, utensils, ping-pong tables, apartments, musical instruments, etc. — are meant to be used by the audiences who interact with them.
As a cosmopolitan, global artist, Tiravanija moves freely between cultures, but he is also keenly aware of the hegemony of Western values informing the established art world. This is reflected and subverted in his choice of ingredients for the meals he prepares. He will make two versions of his curries, for instance — one with traditional Thai vegetables, and another with whatever is available at the local grocery store — in a statement eliding cultural appropriation and cultural adaptability. Does anyone in the hordes of gallery visitors eager to partake of a free meal even notice the distinction? There is also something slightly sinister in the equation of free food for gallery and museum patrons who, for the most part, have no need for it. Art connoisseurs are often in a wealth class far beyond the reach of the general public and certainly don’t require handouts. Behind its veneer of conviviality, Tiravanija’s work amplifies the divide between greed and need.
Protest lies at the heart of Tiravanija’s art. In 2007 he inaugurated an ongoing series called Demonstration Drawings, for which he invited a group of young Thai artists to render graphite facsimiles of photographs from the International Herald Tribune documenting outbreaks of civil unrest around the world. Images range from violent street protests in Bangkok to NGOs agitating against the WTO summit in Seattle to artists occupying the Guggenheim Museum demanding fair labor practices in Abu Dhabi. This project led, in 2011, to Tiravanija’s 100 Years Pictorial History of World Revolution, an iterative wall mural drawn by art students using appropriated media imagery showing key episodes of public dissent. The artist imagined a scenario in which the drawings would multiply and become so densely layered that the mural would eventually be obliterated in a sea of black pigment.
Tiravanija’s first NFT, untitled 2021 (rich bastards beware), 2021, is a satirical protest piece. A skeletal shadow puppet — part devil, part pirate — throws a spear through a bleeding heart, which shatters and causes the figure itself to crumble. This grim scenario plays out in front of a $100,000 bill — a denomination printed as a gold certificate in 1934, during the Great Depression, but never circulated. Too large for public use, the bill was deployed by financial institutions for transactions since wire transfers were excruciatingly slow. Sound familiar?
The animated GIF ends with an alarming admonition: “Rich Bastards Beware Your Future Executioners,” spelled out with the artist’s signature block lettering. Here Tiravanija leaves us with open-ended and unanswered questions. Is he lauding the liberatory decentralization of the blockchain, which promises to wrest wealth away from the hegemonic few? Or is he critiquing the overheated NFT market fueled by speculation? In this uncertain light, who are the rich bastards and who are their executioners? Might these roles one day be interchangeable?
In the interview below, Rirkrit Tiravanija discusses the paradox expressed in his NFT and his fascination with pirates.
What was the impulse behind the NFT you created for K21?
The pirate figure, the $100,000 bill, and the text are all things I’ve used in the past. This project brought them together. I had been working on the idea of pirates and piracy over the past couple of years and, just before COVID, I had been experimenting with pirate flags in Thailand as a kind of painting. The background image of two $100,000 bills is from an edition I made for a benefit for Artists Space in New York City in 2011. It is called untitled, 2011 (print mo’ money) and was actually an etched copper plate for printing $100,000 bills. It was an ironic gesture that I donated for a fundraiser with the idea that one could literally print money — inflated money, of course. And the text that appears at the end of the animation, “Rich Bastards Beware Your Future Executioners,” has been around forever, or at least as long as I’ve known and worked with Gavin Brown [Tiravanija’s dealer in New York]. It is something Gavin, who is British, would always say. Inspired by Malcom McLaren and the Sex Pistols, it was based on a 1980s, punk, anti-Thatcher-type movement. It is the kind of anti-capitalist slogan you would encounter at a protest. For us, it was a secret motto that we would keep inside our lapels, so to speak, whenever we had to come face-to-face with rich collectors in the art world. This sensibility was very much behind his gallery in the beginning.
So all these elements have been present in the work for a while, floating around as ideas, and they seemed to make sense in the context of the NFT — which offered a place to put them down. I use them like graffiti in the same way that anarchists would do historically. They would paint slogans on a banner and go to a hunting party, for instance, and unfurl it to warn the elite to “beware of your executioners.”
What is the symbolic function of the pirate in your work?
The pirate flag is a symbol of intimidation. I’ve been researching the famous British pirate Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard. He would place lit fuses under his hat when boarding an enemy boat to cause fear and trepidation. Despite his ferocious reputation — promoted by his black flag with a skull — he is never known to have harmed any of his captives. Teach deployed death as a symbol, as a threat; it is what scared people the most and, in his case, would make his victims acquiesce to his demands. Thinking about the art market, which has had a really bullish run, I decided that I wanted to be more like a pirate — I want to rob the rich and do something better with the money. So I guess I could just paint the flag and sell it to them!
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use art and now the crypto system to basically make a new economy to fund things that we think are worthwhile. I’m not sure what that is yet, but it is something I am really interested in. For the longest time, I’ve been working with my students to establish means of support for up-and-coming artists and communities in need.
To that end, how will you use the K21 tokens destined for charity?
I know it will address food insecurity; it will involve feeding people. We’ve been doing quite a bit of this in the past year by donating money to organizations that are feeding hungry children here in New York City and beyond.
Do you think the NFT space is inherently utopic?
There is certainly the possibility of achieving some kind of utopian goal in the crypto sphere. But we have to keep in mind that both ends of the economic spectrum can be activated. I am not interested in buying Bitcoin to make a profit from it in and of itself. I find it a much more interesting proposition to make something that plays with the system. And then any end gains would go to something really useful.
The idea of protest has been present in your work for years. Does your NFT function as a piece of agit-prop art?
Protest is, for me, inherently about community. People come together to act on something or respond to some situation — like the Black Lives Matter protests all over the country last summer. I think it is important that a collective voice gets heard. There are always going to be protests in the world since there is always going to be authority. I’m just here to be against authority. I’m not innately antagonistic, as some critics have written. But I am interested in change for the better, so I find ways to make that visible. It’s always somewhat subtle; I trip up a viewer in wholly unexpected ways, like a piece of carpet in the wrong place that causes you to stumble and then you have to rethink why you are actually going where you’re going.
I always start with the context in which I find myself, in the situation that I’m in. So I am directly dealing with the condition of where I am — which country or art system or institution — and, of course, the politics of the place. But then I hope that the work opens itself up to a broader usage. I want to make a thing that people trip on — like when I make T-shirts with slogans like “Freedom Cannot Be Simulated,” and I see on Instagram that people in Tiananmen Square are wearing them. People wear T-shirts in Thailand without necessarily understanding what they say — they could say a lot of great things and they could say a lot of horrible things, you know? But at the same time, for the person who actually trips on that slogan, it could trigger a new consciousness. I’m happy to work in any context, really, because they all provide opportunities to infiltrate new structures and raise new awareness. What is important to me is that these things get shared in the public realm. In the end, people could just print these shirts themselves.
Who are the “rich bastards” and who are the “executioners?”
I’m happy for it to be read in different ways at different times by different people. The ambiguity is deliberate. In an anarchistic sense, we always want change; we want to be on the edge of that change. All sides — Wall Street, crypto investors, art collectors, total anarchists — can read the piece as they like and use it in their own way. That is what is important to me about this project and how it opens up possibilities. It helps the people who encounter it think about their desires. Those desires may change one day and then the reading of the work will also change. Maybe that is where the shift in consciousness comes in.