Sunday, April 18, 2010

Demonstration Drawings

A consideration of Rirkrit Tiravanija: Demonstration Drawings. Viewed in November 2008 at The Drawing Center, New York.

Obviously, this field report is not very timely (among the reasons I never made a great journalist), but I was reminded of my experience of these drawings – and I have a different perspective on them now, given the material we're reading in this class – after attending a lecture by Brett Littman, director of the The Drawing Center, a few weeks ago.

In the "Relational Aesthetics" article from earlier this semester, Bourriard states that relational art is "an observation of the present and about the fate of artistic activity." Rirkrit Tiravanija's 'Demonstration Drawings' is such a project that both identifies currents in artistic practice and poses possibilities for future art-making activities.

The exhibition featured 224 small graphite drawings that reproduced photojournalists' images of political protests, marches, police barricades, and other dramatic clashes between opposing ideological camps around the world. The exhibit was controversial for the fact that Tiravanija had not in fact drawn any of the drawings himself; he commissioned student artists in Thailand to draw them in a uniform, photorealistic style. The method of production making obvious allusions to sweatshop labor and the uniformity of mass production, Tiravanija thus created a record of a process, though not in the Deleuzian sense of pure thought-action-image, or the poetic idea of leaving one's mark on the world.

The exhibition of course led to a flurry of discussions on ethics and authorship in art. As Littman said in his lecture, discussing the Tiravanija show in regards to the production of drawings, "When you remove the artist's hand, people get anxious."

When I saw the drawings, I had no context or knowledge of Tiravanija's work. I simply looked at them, was confused by them, and consulted the exhibition brochure for explanation. What struck me was the profound cynicism of the project – not because the drawings were done by a cadre of assistants, but because the act of drawing itself was seemingly being mocked, the 'photorealism' of the drawing style appearing as na├»ve and pitifully in earnest. As if the attempts of the individuals in the images (real people who risked their livelihoods, if not their lives, to change something in their world/society) were hopelessly inadequate because their struggles were being "depicted" through two or three repackaging processes (photograph, drawing, gallery). By having the drawings identical in size and displayed side-by-side in a grid pattern, the images were too numerous, too interchangeable to elicit empathetic response. And the medium? Too quaint, too dependent upon dead ideals of craft and technique.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, "untitled (demonstration no. 145)," 2007. Graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of Craig Robins, Miami, FL.

Yet now when I look at scans of these drawings on the web, and think about them in the context of what we've read, I can't help but see them in a new light. In crafting the project, Tiravanija perhaps sees a way to highlight the individual relationship to mark-making. The incidendiary content of the images, the controversial story behind their production, the audacity of the project – all cloud the fact that these are objects made by hand, the result of simple markings made with graphite on paper. After stripping away the surface glamour, each of the drawings, upon close inspection, bears indications of the presence of the craftsperson who wielded the pencil, despite the relative uniformity of the drawing style. [As one reviewer noted, none are particularly talented, but some of the artists are better at cross-hatching than others.] The exhibition is indeed the result of 'sweatshop'-inspired production techniques – but the product is a series of handmade markings of images derived from the world.

There is something radical in that, which perhaps circles back to the content (radical actions, bodies clashing in space and time – the drama of human society). It seems Tiravanija has used the medium of drawing to focus attention upon the contact between hand and surface as an intrinsically self-affirming act. I mark, therefore I am.

In terms of Deleuzian philosophy, this work is clearly not about bringing something glistening and new into the world through pure artistic exploration. Yet it somehow resonates with his project of unmasking and identifying the true nature of the artistic act –and with the idea that images are formed in their relations with other images. Each of these drawings bears subtle individual characteristics; they are self-consciously handmade when they don't need to be. (Tiravanija could have more easily copied or reprinted the photos if multiplying their impact were his goal.)

So in a sense, they do reveal the generative force of art-making, even if they do so by way of vacant reproduction, socio-economic-political statement, and flashy marketing. Perhaps future artworks will have to do similar conceptual acrobatics in order to bring attention back to the creative act itself.


Rirkrit Tiravanija, "untitled (demonstration no. 16)," 2007. Graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches. Collection of Craig Robins, Miami, FL.

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