An art exhibit you can eat in. Actually, you eating is part of the art.
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Twenty-seven years ago, the 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.”
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