It is not the rarefied air of an upmarket gallery that greets visitors at international art dealer David Zwirner’s Hong Kong space this weekend, but the smell of fish sauce and frying oil. Here, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is “reactivating” a work he first dished up in 1990 while living in New York, untitled (pad thai) , a performative piece that put the Argentinian-born Thai on the path to stardom. Before the pandemic, the now 59-year-old flew two or three times a month, but those hoping to catch a glimpse of the artist this time around will have to wait. Speaking from his home in upstate New York, the professor of professional practice, visual arts, at Columbia University, says he is saving his next trip to Hong Kong for early next year, to attend his solo exhibition at Zwirner’s gallery. Rirkrit is not even virtually involved (the way he will be this summer, when he holds a Zoom cooking session with Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi for the Helsinki Biennial). This performance will rely on Rirkrit’s former assistant Tony Huang Zhiyong, now employed by David Zwirner Gallery, to lead the cooking. But by the very nature of the piece, the artist’s absence will not dilute the essence of one of the most divisive works in contemporary art. Pad thai is about creating a space for public engagement more than any specific object or person. The work is defined by visitors to the gallery being offered plates of pad thai, freshly made to Rirkrit’s original recipe – with pork, not chicken or shrimp. Calling something like this “art” is not exactly new, nor was it when Rirkrit first presented it in 1990. Nearly a century ago, in 1921, French poet and artist André Breton led a “dada” tour near a run-down Paris church as a way to parody commercial tourism to the city’s world-famous landmarks. Breton’s expedition was a failure – not many wanted to see some no-name church in the rain – but that may have added to the exercise being defined as “art”. Generations of “conceptual” artists have since created works in which execution consists of instructions to be executed by others, often with room for improvisation. The “wall drawings” by Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) are just a set of instructions, and the late Charlotte Posenenske’s modular sculptures can be freely reassembled, for example. French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 book Relational Aesthetics refers to untitled (pad thai) and the 1992 follow-up, untitled (free) , in which the pad thai was replaced with medium-spicy vegetarian green curry. Bourriaud holds Rirkrit’s works as prime examples of a global art movement where collective “micro utopias” are meant to oppose capitalism’s ongoing alienation of the individual. “I don’t want to have an opening when I have a show,” says Rirkrit, believing the focus on him would distract from the opportunity for the interaction and reflection his work creates. The equipment used for cooking can be bought and sold as the physical “art” of his works, but Rirkrit says these are merely “supports for the activities and conditions” of the actual work. Although three decades may have passed since he first made pad thai at the Paula Allen Gallery, in New York, Rirkrit still reacts strongly at the mention of the work’s bête noire, British art historian Claire Bishop. Bishop’s 2004 critique, published in academic journal October , was memorable because of the famously bad-tempered response by Rirkrit’s fellow “relational” artist Liam Gillick. The barbed exchange is also telling because the seemingly jolly, open and generous environments Rirkrit creates, clearly stir up darker feelings. In the piece, Bishop disagreed with Bourriaud’s suggestion that the relationship between fellow pad thai eaters is democratic, or that the result is good art. “Open democracies are societies where antagonisms have not been made to disappear, and micro-utopias without friction are not intrinsically democratic,” she wrote. The “feel-good positions” adopted by Rirkrit and Gillick reflected their ubiquitous presence on the international art scene, their status as perennial favourites of a few curators that made them touring stars. “In such a cosy situation,” she wrote, “art does not feel the need to defend itself, and it collapses into compensatory (and self-congratulatory) entertainment.” In a supremely spiteful response, Gillick accused her of being uncritical and of “analytical peculiarities” that remained from her days “as a journalist”. “There are lucid moments […],” he wrote. “However, a text has been produced that undermines the usually high standards of October […] These standards have been replaced by sallow techniques more familiar in a right-wing tabloid newspaper.” Utopia for me is being in chaos … It makes it more interesting to be in Hong Kong and in the mess, with layers bubbling up rather than hidden Rirkrit Tiravanija Rirkrit maintains Bishop’s criticism was based on a kind of “academic racism”, a Eurocentric and colonial mentality that prevented her from understanding the significance of sharing food in Thai Buddhist culture. But Thai artists also struggled with the work, including someone who reportedly challenged Rirkrit by saying, “Young man, if my wife makes it …” In 2000, Rirkrit made multiple editions of a work – a plastic bowl of noodles – named for that apocryphal comment. These now sit in museum collections. The whole attitude of irreverence, by the artist and the museums that collect him, can easily be taken for arrogance – the very reason many people find his work inaccessible, elitist and even ridiculous. Conceptually, the cooking sessions are meant to be all-embracing, but they often end up catering to the art world. In 1992, American art critic Jerry Saltz described the serving of curry in untitled (free) in New York’s 303 Gallery as “an amazing run of meals with art dealers”. Rirkrit’s 2019 “Bastard Dinner” in Hong Kong was a VIP networking event sponsored by an upmarket hotel chain during Art Basel. This month’s re-enactment in David Zwirner Gallery is by-registration-only thanks to Covid-19, so the demographics are not likely to be as diverse as may be thought necessary to legitimise the work. All these examples lean towards Bishop’s claim that the artist is merely a servant of the market. But Rirkrit insists he made pad thai as an anti-capitalist gesture, an ephemeral experience that could not be captured or preserved. “I was afraid of it being co-opted by the market but at some point it became bought and resold,” he says. “As an artist I tried to resist but resistance is futile. The capitalistic structure consumes, regurgitates and transforms art into something elitist. Denying it is one way but if you deny it you lose access, even agency. “Take Art Basel, for example. It’s a bloody art fair. But one can put SCMP on the wall and cover it with words about freedom,” he says, referring to untitled (freedom cannot be simulated, south china morning post, september 26-27-28-29-30, 2014) . This was a 2016 installation at the booth of Berlin-based gallery Neugerriemschneider, in which the phrase “Freedom Cannot Be Simulated” was written over early reports of the Occupy Central movement in the South China Morning Post . “I am interested in the pirate culture: robbing the galleons of the rich and taking it to another place,” he says. “That system is there to be used. I am not interested in accumulating wealth but in dispersing it. I cook in food banks in America. I set up the Land Foundation in Chiang Mai with [fellow artist] Kamin Lertchaiprasert to promote sustainability.” The idea of gallery visitors eating pad thai in a bubble of happiness is not something that brings Rirkrit satisfaction; what he really wants to see is people “cross the line” of accepted behaviours. “It’s easy to say that my works bring people together. Actually, they are about crossing certain lines in order to live with other people.” Back in the early 90s, the line was clearer because Thai food was not ubiquitous in the West and someone in New York coming to the gallery might think they would be poisoned by strange food. But Rirkrit says a more cosmopolitan palate does not indicate a broader willingness to tolerate differences, as the rise of xenophobia and nationalism around the world has shown. Rirkrit is troubled by how critics respond to second-hand reports of his shows. For example, the homeless also went into the New York galleries to eat, but only Saltz’s seeing lots of gallery owners there was reported. As for the “Bastard Dinner” in Hong Kong two years ago, that was “only one moment” of his public engagements in the city, he says, which also involved giving a lecture to art students at Tai Kwun. The bastard menu – as the name suggests – features mixes of Finnish and Thai food: reindeer meat with Thai flavours could be seen as the crossing of a culinary line that represented a fluidity of national identities, and that idea is in line with his eclectic background. With a father in the diplomatic service, Rirkrit was born in Argentina and brought up in Ethiopia, Thailand and Canada before moving to the United States. In taste, that menu was disappointing, and could be more of a warning than inspiration for mucking about with traditional recipes. The choice of serving pad thai could be said to be rich in a different kind of symbolism. This inoffensive dish is a culinary insult to the bold flavours and regional diversities of Thai cuisine, dreamed up by prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram in the 1930s as part of a campaign to bind the country together, resulting in a singularly bland taste. Online, with the galaxy as his Zoom background, he says he can feel at home anywhere: “That has to do with not being afraid to sit wherever. If you are constantly scared, then you are never going to be at home.” Rirkrit says the appeal of doing something in Hong Kong lies in how “messy” the place is now, and when he comes back, he will help the soon-to-open M+ museum reactivate one of his mini utopias, called untitled 2001 (the magnificent seven, spaghetti western) , complete with his recipe for tom yam gai . “Utopia for me is being in chaos,” he says, “and not being in an orderly place or in a world that is clear. It makes it more interesting to be in Hong Kong and in the mess, with layers bubbling up rather than hidden.” Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled (pad thai) is part of “The Real World”, a group exhibition showing at David Zwirner Hong Kong, H Queen’s, 80 Queen’s Road Central, Central, from Tuesday until July 31. Pad thai will only be served on certain days to registered guests. For details, go to davidzwirner.com.