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Grab a free bowl of curry and eat among the artworks at Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibition, “(who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green)”, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Photo: AFP

How a bowl of Thai curry can be an artwork, a conversation starter and a protest

  • Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibition, ‘(who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green)’, combines art, food and a sense of rebellion
  • Visitors are given a free bowl of curry which they eat in a room full of scenes from political protests and demonstrations

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 the curry and its environs, but also the people who came to the gallery, 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: basically, the way people experience Rirkrit’s art is the art.

In the years between that work, Untitled (Free/Still), and Rirkrit’s current exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, “(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 Rirkrit explored.

Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at his interactive exhibit (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green) at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Photo: AFP

At the same time, Rirkrit – who is adamant that he is not a chef – has released a cookbook, and has another in the works. He has also opened a seasonal restaurant and art gallery called Unclebrother in the Catskill Mountains in New York state.

“Food is interesting in that way, because it can bring people to this place,” he says, “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 demonstrationsthroughout 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 flavours of curry being served, which are the same colours that represent Thailand’s three political factions.

Rich or poor, liberal or conservative, we all sit down to share a meal. Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is betting that this communal experience can break down the often artificial barriers that divide us as he serves curry to visitors. Photo: AFP

The murals and the meal serve as conversation starters for the rest of the art.

“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,” Rirkrit says.

“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 confrontation – say, protesters shouting at a senator or cabinet secretary, or a gunman showing up at a pizza parlour 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.

A local artist sketches over a projection at Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s interactive exhibition. Photo: AFP

But Rirkrit’s work is art, not commerce. That allows him to serve his food with provocative imagery that hasn’t been sanitised 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 recognisable 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,” Rirkrit says. Curry is more complex than its colours. Politics is more complex than its banners.

Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Photo: AFP

Making meaning from that complexity is a matter of taste. Rirkrit’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 says. “We need to say what we think, and we are going to say and think differently. We need to understand that it can exist together. It doesn’t have to be a divide.”

Rirkrit’s grandmother, Somrit Suwannabol, was a well-known chef in Thailand, he says. She trained 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.

There will be enough food for about 150 people each day, and it will be served from Thursday to Sunday, from 11.45am until 1.30pm, or whenever supplies run out.

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Once visitors finish their curry, they may continue through the other two rooms of the exhibition, which are showing films.

The first, Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbors, is quiet film about a retired farmer, directed by Rirkrit; the second consists of a programme 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, Rirkrit does.

“I think a form of sharing and giving,” he says, “could be, at this moment, a kind of protest”.