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Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Pad Thai Is Both a Meal and an Artwork

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Pad Thai Is Both a Meal and an Artwork

I don’t really think of what I do as an artistic practice. There’re no boundaries or limits. All the ways I fill a day — even if I’m doing nothing at all — are one and the same. I don’t have a studio. I don’t wake up and go to a place where I sit down and make things. I just do what I need or want to do, and throughout that process, I think about various possible works. Everything informs everything else.

For the past six years or so, I’ve taught a class at Columbia University called Making Without Objects. Technically, it’s an advanced undergraduate sculpture course, but we don’t really produce anything. I’m always looking at what’s going on in the world at large and trying to imagine how a young artist might experience that. The students have made films for YouTube. We’ve done projects on Instagram. Once, I rented a plot of land in the virtual reality game Second Life and had everyone build a sculpture there. I encourage the students to think conceptually and create things in their heads more than in any material sense. Really, the name of the class should’ve been How Not to Do Anything, but the university said it sounded counter to the idea of going to college.

Food has featured a lot in my work — I practically grew up in my grandmother’s kitchen in Thailand — so, for several years, I conducted the class in the kitchen of the gallerist Gavin Brown’s house in Harlem. In this photo, I’m teaching my students at his former exhibition space on West 127th Street, which closed in 2020, in a kitchen he built partly for this purpose. Every year I show the class how to make a few recipes, and here we’re cooking pad Thai, a noodle dish and also the name of a piece of mine from 1990 in which I served food to visitors at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York.

As I mixed the sauce and stir-fried the noodles, I explained to the students all the different elements that went into that work — the various influences and layers that could easily be missed. For example, I used an electric wok for the original piece because I’d seen one in a video by the artist Martha Rosler and took that as an inspiration. And the meal was based on a recipe from an American woman, in the ’70s or early ’80s, who substituted ketchup for tamarind paste because pad Thai wasn’t well known in the United States at the time. When I made the work, I was really interested in offering a postcolonial critique. There’s a methodology in the West of isolating objects from other cultures, of putting them in boxes in museums and studying them outside of their context, which, for me, completely misses the point. In contrast, enjoying a meal is a way to really engage with and understand the other, to share time and space and sustenance. Today, I don’t draw a line between the cooking I do for a work and the food preparation I do at home to feed my partner and me. Cooking, making work and teaching are all just living.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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