“Set III” is composed of nine equal elements… …they fill the space, but I am not interested in the physical aspect of filling. I want the work to become an energy centre, like an atomic station. It’s the same principle again: transmitter and receiver. The receiver is the same as the transmitter, only in felt. It is a totalization. The spectator becomes the program. The spectator, represented by the felt, equals the program.” – Joseph Beuys
The German artist Joseph Beuys was responsible for a concept known as Social Structure, an idea that says dialogue and ideas are more important than the more common tools we normally associate with artists, such as brushes, pencils, and clay. For Beuys, a sculpture is a ‘stimulant for the transformation of the idea of sculpture. They provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone.’ Beuys, who was as much a politician as he was an artist, wanted art to be used as an agent for social change.
Thai contemporary artist Rikrit Tiravanija is an advocate of Beuys’s ideas and methods. His installation work, which often takes on domestic themes, invites people into its spaces, encouraging interaction and socialisation. For one of his installations, a work of participatory art named Untitled 1999, he recreated a true-to-life replica of his own apartment, inviting members of the public to occupy it 24 hours a day. Students gathered there, as did travellers and strangers. People were meant to feel displaced, alienated. More importantly, they were meant to interact, to feed off one another, and to absorb the experience.
For a globetrotter as immense as Tiravanija (Untitled 2008-11, showcases his exhaustive travelling via the means of his crammed passport), to whom identity is clearly an important issue (he was born in Argentina, raised in Thailand, Ethiopia and Canada, and now now divides his residency between New York, Berlin and Chian Mai), Untitled 1999 is a work of art that welcomes the sharing and transmitting of ideas from a vast assortment of people centred around a so-called social sculpture, a 24 hour a day dwelling space that is as much art as it is actual life. As he said himself, ‘it is not what you see that is important, but what takes place between people.’
It has been said that his work is ‘fundamentally about bringing people together.’ Art, for Tiravanija, like it was for Beuys, is impregnated with humanity; it should be, just like life itself, a lived and shared experience. Anything, be it something as seemingly trivial as preparing food, can be art. The objects used in Untitled 1999 are all symbols of domestic life, among which is the aptly titled The Power of Cheese, which can now be viewed as a standalone piece. Taken from its original context, it now has a new life of its own. It is both a piece of art and something which has retained a social use, with its physical description sounding like an amazon listing: ‘A resin cooker with a detachable lid.’ Yet it is much more than that. It is in itself a symbol for change, for upheaval.
Tiravanija uses everyday objects and scenarios that we are all familiar with because we understand them. Strong messages can resonate more clearly with people when they can easily digest what is being communicated to them. By placing his spectators inside apartments, the artist is creating an atmosphere they can feel at home in. He is maximising the potential of the social sculpture, of the ability of art to foster social change. Cheese may not seem so powerful on the surface; but if art is to be humanity’s saviour in the face of disastrous wars and misguided politics, it’s a starting point.