Cooking the art coefficient: “Soup No Soup” at Gavin Brown

March 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

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Nicholas Savik sat quietly on his spindly chair, eating soup and listening the conversations around him. Chats drifted from fashion school aspirations to heartburn issues among his fellow visitors at the “Soup No Soup” soup kitchen at Gavin Brown’s gallery in the West Village. He slurped his tangy, yet savory coconut chicken soup. It was a warm relief from the chilly spring winds outside, but was it art?

The printmaker’s assistant from Columbia University was skeptical at first of famed artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s latest edible component of the gallery exhibition, Fear Eats the Soul. How could this be art, asked the young artist.

“Then, I went to the opening night. They dug this pit in the gallery and put coals inside,” Savik recollected. “Rirkrit was like, ‘It’s time.’ ‘Time for what?’ I asked? He said, ‘You’ll see.’”

Fear Eats the Soul busts open the gallery’s white cube (Tiravanija took off the doors and windows), leaving it literally open and accessible since late February for all to wander inside its graffitied walls. However, the “Soup No Soup” kitchen only opened its doors earlier this month to share free bowls of homemade soup with visitors, some regulars now and some new.

This interactive soup kitchen is not just another pop-up restaurant, but rather in vein with Tiravanija’s signature works involving situations, viewers and, of course, food. Since the 90s, Tiravanija has been inviting viewers to eat and participate in his art whether it be chomping on fresh-made pad thai or sleeping, showering and celebrating birthdays in a plywood “apartment” he fashioned in Gavin Brown’s gallery. His works have graced prestigious institutions and fairs like the Museum of Modern Art, la Musee dʼArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Venice Biennale. They’ve even earned him a Hugo Boss prize from the Guggenheim Museum.

Standing in front of huge metal pot, the Argentina-born, Thai artist stirred the coconut chicken soup inside. Tiravanija made the Thai dish himself, albeit he conceded the soup is missing some key ingredients like galanga, lemongrass and fish sauce. So, he improvised. Yet, his black beret and rose-colored glasses screamed artist rather than short-order cook. Swiftly and humbly, he ladled into white ceramic bowls his artwork. Once done, Tiravanija watched his work unfold, calling it “in between art and something else.”

Jerry Saltz said of the piece in nymag.com’s “Ask an Art Critic”:

“What makes all this so good — other than the free food (even better than at the art fairs!), the selflessness, the turning of space inside out, the way in which visitors are subtly transformed from being passive viewers to active participants, the tangible ways Tiravanija bridges mind-body splits, and the breaching of private and public barriers — is the lithe feeling of being in touch with the spirits of self-actualization that triggered such enormous growth in the art world in the early 1990s.”

For Tiravanija, it’s not about the actual soup (though it is good) or the visual presence of the art rather it as Saltz explained – the awakening relationship between the art and the viewer.

“I’m not a very visual artist,” Tiravanija admitted with a smile, “so, in that sense, art is in the situation and here is a situation that we’re often in.”

Sitting with friends and strangers. Sharing a meal together. We’ve all experienced these before, but “Soup No Soup” breaks the mundane designation of these situations, limited to mere chitchat and lunch dates, and makes an art of interaction.

“There’s not a lot to look at, but I’m more interested in the relationship,” Tiravanija explained, “the viewer isn’t as free to bring the experience to understand the art. I’m always inviting the viewer to explore. That viewer is half of the art.”

Since the gallery opening, Savik comes at least once a week to “Soup No Soup.” He is one of the regulars. Now, this is art, he says in between spoonfuls. Why the change of heart?

“Being part of it,” Savik said, “it is a very important aspect because it becomes more of a performance.”

Savik finished the last of his soup and put his spoon down.

“Also, the food is great,” he said cheerfully.

Check out more information about Fear Eats the Soul at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, which runs until Saturday, April 16th. For recipes from “Soup No Soup,” click here.

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