Since June 7 and until October 7, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has taken on the task of daily exhibiting Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box). The temporary installation involves a random selection of four visitors at midday to eat a meal together at an allocated table in the gallery’s entrance hall. As curated by the NGV, Untitled (lunch box) serves as a representation of the renowned Thai contemporary artist’s conceptual practice where a meal in a gallery environment intentionally brings people together. Uniquely, however, the NGV presents Untitled (lunch box) while also actively intersecting Tiravanija’s heavy reliance on context.
Untitled (lunch box) was first conceptualised by the artist in 1996. Whilst the work has pre-existing materials—stainless steel, newspaper and takeaway food—its final composition is ephemeral, coming in and out of being through variable conditions hinged upon context. The work’s physical features remain the same wherever it is exhibited, but outcome is changeable by the contextualising setting. Tiravanija’s meals are typically installed within gallery spaces, to disrupt their supposed tranquillity. The NGV's choice to place the work next to the institution's well-known water-wall within the busy entrance hall juxtaposes previous galleries’ choices of clean-cut white cube spaces, such as the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in 2014.
Within this gallery-non-gallery-setting, the work’s materiality inhibits the space for the duration of the four months: a plain white table with four accompanying chairs hosting stainless steel lunch boxes, menus detailing their daily stocking of chicken yellow curry, rice, pork satay, peanut sauce and green papaya salad, and a Thai magazine. Near the table a panel details the artist’s intention, practice and history.
If the visitor is lucky enough to pass the NGV before opening hours, they will gain a serene viewing of Untitled (lunch box) with the table and its belongings glistening behind the water-wall, visually obscured into an impressionist-like painting. The viewer will feel as if they are peeking inside a welcoming home while in the rain pours outside, spying a dining table where friends and family will soon gather.
The scheduled participation prompts visitor interaction with the materials in the setting, ultimately creating a communal moment. Oblivious crowds bustle around and a few stand still to watch the unfolding Untitled (lunch box) as four women sit to eat together. They dine awkwardly with small bites and constant, polite napkin-dabs, their conversation hardly breaching a whisper.
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Rirkrit Tiravanija’s conceptual practice became prominent following his theorisation of Pad Thai (1990), in which he broke the conventional sanctity of the ‘white cube’ through cooking meals for visitors at Paula Allen Gallery, New York. For Tiravanija, shared meals are a medium which insinuate communal values, a cultural norm for the Chiang Mai, Thailand local, whilst uncommon in the sometimes-hostile setting of a Western gallery. This ideology continues to be central to his work 28 years since Pad Thai and 22 years since the 1996 initiation of Untitled (lunch box).
Tiravanija is known for his conceptual practice, creating platforms for visitors to actively finalise the artwork within the overtly passive gallery. Indeed, any visitor of the NGV can try their chance of being chosen from the crowds to participate, eat with new friends and judge the concept for themselves. However, in this presentation of Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box), the gallery is not inattentive and the visitors are not the only influencers of the work. Within such an energetic, lively atmosphere, Tiravanija’s artwork can only join a pre-existing festive atmosphere without having the oppurtunity to grapple with overt gallery hostility.
At the National Gallery of Victoria, Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) is not simply a nonconventional conversation between artwork and visitor; the gallery strategically contextualises the work to complement rather than resist the institution.