Overcoming fear through art

Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija with his bamboo maze installation on the roof garden of National Gallery Singapore last year.
Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija with his bamboo maze installation on the roof garden of National Gallery Singapore last year.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija looks for ways to break down barriers among people in his installations

Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who lives in a divided United States, says he is worried about society's fear of the other.

"It seems to cycle back every now and again. It happened during (former US president) George Bush's time, even (former US president) Ronald Reagan's. They use fear to win elections," says the 57-year-old denizen of New York.

"I'm concerned about the idea that we are always living in fear of one thing or another.

"I'm always trying to find ways (in my art) for people to overcome that... I've always tried to make a place or installation, in which people have to share, take care of one another and deal with strangers."

Last year, the artist's large-scale bamboo maze sprung up on the roof garden of National Gallery Singapore. Visitors could partake in tea ceremonies at a tea house inside the structure.

Rirkrit's work is often said to exemplify the idea of "relational aesthetics", where the artist constructs social situations in which the viewer's experience becomes part of the art.

  • BOOK IT / ARTIST TALKS: RIRKRIT TIRAVANIJA 

  • WHERE: Glass Room, Level 5 National Gallery Singapore, former Supreme Court Wing, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Tomorrow, 7pm

    ADMISSION: Free; e-mail artisttalk@fondationbeyeler.ch to register

    INFO: For more information, go to bit.ly/2TcItUY.

    The talk will be filmed and live-streamed on the Facebook pages of Fondation Beyeler and UBS Art

In the early 1990s, he cooked and served Thai food to museumgoers in the US. And in 1997, he "built an apartment into a museum" and opened it to the public, who could for three months come and go any time they pleased.

People shared the space and used it for communal activities like cooking.

"I was surprised by how people were able to take it up and be responsible, without all the regulations," he says.

He adds: "I put more value into the relationships than the objects... I think it has a lot to do with coming from Thailand and being a Buddhist."

Rirkrit will be in Singapore tomorrow for a talk at the gallery, where he will speak about his work in conversation with Thai curator Apinan Poshyananda. The event is presented by UBS and Switzerland-based Fondation Beyeler.

These days, the Hugo Boss Prize-winning artist has been working on an idiosyncratic cookbook with Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi.

Bastard Cooking, as it is tentatively called, is "about mixing different origins and ideas together to make whatever thing".

The duo will present a pop-up dining event in Hong Kong later this month, where they might serve dishes such as macaroni cheese pad thai, fish sauce ice cream and reindeer beef salad.

Rirkrit, the son of a diplomat and oral surgeon, was born in Argentina and has had an itinerant life.

He grew up in Thailand and Ethiopia, attended university in Canada and the US and shuttles among Chiang Mai, Berlin and New York.

The professor at Columbia University's faculty of visual arts hopes to one day establish a "free school", where people can receive university-equivalent qualifications free of charge. He also feels that art and society are inseparable.

"Art in the 21st century has to be social. It needs to function in society," adds Rirkrit, who, in 1998, co-founded an experimental art and community project in Chiang Mai known as The Land Foundation.

What does he make of today's selfie-obsessed society?

"We consume our experiences using machines. We are not spending time with our experiences. In a way, (the mobile phone) has become our memory bank," says Rirkrit, who has stopped using Facebook. He uses Instagram "minimally".

He adds: "My personal project is about living. I'm interested in how we live with the world, how we live with nature, how we need to find a way to live better."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2019, with the headline 'Overcoming fear through art'. Print Edition | Subscribe