When Rirkrit Tiravanija was a master’s student at the Art Institute of Chicago, he’d visit the Asian art wing. Hundreds of artifacts—“usually bowls and potteries, porcelines, and buddhas”—stood on display behind glass, he says. This struck Tiravanija, a 57-year-old Thai visual artist, as strange. “These are things we live with,” he says. “And [art institutions] were looking at them as aesthetic objects.”
Beautiful as they may have been, for Tiravanija, separating them from their original purpose removed an essential dimension. “I wanna take them out of the case and then reanimate [those objects],” Tiravanija says, “to cook and put food back into them.”
That experience inspired his new interactive exhibit, “Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green),” which runs at the Hirshhorn through July 24. For the first time, the Hirshhorn is incorporating food into an exhibit. Visitors are invited to participate in reshaping the exhibit space by eating one of three curries (red, yellow, or green) served onsite and, basically, hanging out. Tiravanija says curry plays a central role in daily life in Thailand, where it’s consumed ubiquitously. He makes his own grandmother’s recipe regularly. Despite the allure, however, the exhibit isn’t really about the curry. It’s about experiencing a familiar ritual in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people.
“I just want life to be the art,” he says. “I want us to pay attention to the things around the object, which is actually the relationship we have together—around the art.”
The surrounding exhibition walls are smeared with imagery from recent protests across the world, from those demanding racial justice in the US to protestors demanding government reform in Thailand. “We may think it’s violent,” Triavanija says. “But the reality was that people were trying to do things to change things, and there were people against that.” Those struggles are the product of the endless dialogues that happened amongst normal people in the domestic settings—scenes similar to what Triavanija seeks to replicate with his exhibit.
While the real point of the exhibit whisks around in the abstract, the logistics of the experience are in the curry. The Hirshhorn and Triavanija enlisted DC’s Beau Thai to deliver and serve more than 60 liters of curry each day of the exhibit. According to Triavanija, Beau Thai stuck out amongst the Beltway’s curry slingers because it creates its curries from scratch.
That process begins on Monday each week, when folks at Beau Thai blend base ingredients—some which require treks out to Asian food suppliers in Northern Virginia—into a paste. Throughout the week, that homemade paste is used to kick-start the day’s curry, with a blend of coconut milk and produce, depending on the color. Beau Thai owner Ralph Brabham says that if you visit the Hirshhorn between Thursdays and Sundays while the exhibit’s on, you can try some yourself. Come early, though: “We don’t anticipate having any leftovers,” Brabham says.
If, on arrival, all three flavors of curry are still available, consider the opinion of one of its cooks. Fern Thongpunchung, whose aunt is an owner of Beau Thai, regularly prepares the curries. She prefers green—it’s a little sweeter and the most ubiquitous throughout Thailand—but those looking for a punch might opt for red, even if its bite is muted. “Usually, the way you’d cook it, you wouldn’t put in coconut milk, so it’d be the hottest one for sure,” Thongpunchung says. “But it’s still hot anyway. Red chilli is always hot.”
It’s not Tiravanija’s grandmother’s recipe, but if his exhibit stands for anything, it’s that it shouldn’t have to be.
“Rirkrit Tiravanija: (who’s afraid of red, yellow, and green)” on view through July 24; Curry served Thursday through Sunday, 11:45 AM to 1:30 PM or until supplies last, every week during the run of the exhibition; Free; hirshhorn.si.edu