On ViewKurimanzutto Gallery
April 30–August 27, 2022
In a 2004 interview in this publication, on the subject of utopian concepts, Rirkrit Tiravanija stated: “it is hard for me to discuss the idea of a model because I think that one is already capable of existing in it, so in that sense it is about how you think of life”1—a comment made in the artist’s characteristic overly understated way. There’s an aspect of Bartleby to his broad inhabitation of arts and cultural institutions over the years since, in which he shows up to squat the given situation and, by his occupation, deconstructs the societally appropriate use for such. Melville’s character reveals the enervating ennui of the reproduction of law, Tiravanija’s, the vacuum of institutional pretense. His dark night of the soul must bring him to a place where all the situations he has set up to circumvent an institutionally encumbered society stare back at him as models in and of themselves. It’s a dilemma that never really gets resolved in his work and yet may be the most important byproduct of it, because he’s canny enough at this point to anticipate the oceanic reabsorption of his sandcastle models. This lends a monumental poignance to their provisional existence, where the poetry of place actually resides.
For Mezcal vs. Pulque, Tiravanija collaborated with cooperativa 1050°, a collective of potters from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Chiapas, and led by Kythzia Barrera. The result was numerous vessels in the exhibition shaped by Margarita Cortés Cruz, Marisela Ortiz Cortés, and Gregoria Cruz Peralta from Río Blanco Tonaltepec, as well as Silvia García Mateos and Leopoldo Barranco in San Bartolo Coyotepec. Reconstructed in the vaulted white box of the gallery is a low, tile-roofed structure that was inspired by an abandoned stone house which the artist noticed in the countryside during his multiple trips to Mexico. Around this are arrayed several ceramic vessels. Some of the pots are broken, their shards gathered in discreet piles. Glazes and finishes range from either earth-toned red or charcoal black, weighing themselves against the pristine walls and floors of the space. The public performative aspect of the installation involved the serving of mezcal and pulque, two traditional Mexican beverages derived from the same Maguey plant, during an opening event. This social aspect was made residually evident by a long ceremonial table set with ceramic dishes and cups, candlelit within the low wood and ceramic structure. On one wall two of the artist’s large newspaper collage pieces were presented, in this case derived from Mexican periodicals and then sprayed with what appears to be a granular ceramic slip.
I can only think the “vs.” in the title of the show is a reference by Tiravanija to the Lucha Libre, hyperbolic wrestling smackdowns that are an integral part of popular Mexican culture. It is also a sly takedown of the binary agonistic of representational culture wars. There are differences in the processing of mezcal versus pulque. Pulque is only fermented while mezcal is also distilled. Pulque has a long history reaching back into the Mesoamerican period when it was reserved for ceremonial use. Its secularization came about with the colonial occupation of Mexico by Spain. Pulque’s milky consistency was developed from the aguamiel of the Maguey plant, considered in ancient Mexico to be the “blood” of the female deity Mayahuel. Mezcal derives from the same Maguey plant (seventy percent of which is cultivated in the Oaxaca region where many of the exhibitions’ potters are based) but developed via the direct technical influence of the Spanish Conquest, so it is distilled in both spirit and in production. Tiravanija has highlighted this sacred/profane dynamic between the two drinks to underline a choice between ritual mind-altering and recreational intoxication. Placemaking, he declares via analogy, is dependent on what one considers the appropriate definition of social ceremony. A drink can either bind a community in the imbiber’s performative signification of the commons or more quickly (and efficiently) numb them to the original purpose of such. The fact that some of the ceramic vessels are intact and installed in organized symmetries while others are isolated and broken tends to bear out such a thesis, but the artist problematizes a pat reading of opposites by including such an alternate presentation as a tree branch stuck in a five-gallon bucket and playfully hung with diminutive ceramic pitchers.
While working out these different elements of the show, Tiravanija would intervene in the traditional sequence of the ceramic process, so the resultant works are the hybrid result of a mutual conversation, not strictly of anthropological extraction. Such hybridity of course raises additional questions about received tradition versus tradition-in-the making. Tiravanija’s model here trends toward the latter while remaining reverent of the former.
- Rirkrit Tiravanija with Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey, The Brooklyn Rail, February 2004.