“Ne Travaillez Jamais” is a short, punchy phrase with a storied, punchy history: in 1958, the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord wrote it on a wall along the rue de Seine in Paris, calling on all workers to “never work,” thus rejecting the act by which they subjugated themselves to the abuses of capitalist society. To Debord, the iconic graffito was a cornerstone in his intellectual project, and seized upon a decade later by the students and workers of May 1968.
It is this phrase and this history that the peripatetic international artist Rirkrit Tiravanija calls on for his first solo show in China. But unlike the revolutionary spirit Tiravanija invokes in the show’s title, “Ne Travaillez Jamais” does not succeed in its promise to act as an agent of socio-cultural reflection or engagement. Rather, it suggests Debord’s other seminal work, his 1967 treatise on commodity fetishism, La Société de la Spectacle in its embodiment of the very visual and commercial cultures Debord wrote against. To quote Debord again: “In both form and content, the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system.”
Consisting of four oversized installations, the show attempted to reflect upon the industrial and personal investments of modern China. Two of these fell flat: In the main space, bamboo replicas of the tallest buildings in Beijing and Shanghai were filled with droves of small, screeching birds, while a life-sized plaster model of gallery director Zheng Lin’s Mercedes-Benz covered in milk powder was parked in a side room. Both operated on a fairly conventional logic of art objects in white spaces, inviting viewers to contemplate their possible significances. The birdcages, for example, humanized the juggernaut economic identities of China by taking down the scale of its workers and their trappings. But if this gesture toward reduction is Tiravanija’s formal gambit for the local Chinese context, what to make of the objects themselves, whose collective intelligence struggled to justify their oversized presence?
At his most successful, Tiravanija is an artist intensely interested in the local condition; the early cooking works his legacy rests upon provided nurturing new social structures by which communities gathered and broadcast their values. This show included Tiravanija’s trademark cooking too, here localized to the audience with doufunao and youtiao prepared on-site by area stall owners. But the interactive relevance that made Tiravanija’s first curry installations a success was completely absent from Beijing’s offering of savory tofu and fried dough. At the wellattended opening, visitors seemed uninterested and unimpressed by the food on offer, old beer to an art jetset corn-fed relational aesthetics. After the opening, the food mostly wasn’t available, the stall owners either absent or idly checking text messages around an empty stove. If Untitled (tofu nao) was Tiravanija’s classic attempt to reconfigure the gallery as a community center, offering tofu as his bait, the work never stood a fighting chance, as the relevance of participatory works can only be activated when their audience engages them.
The jury is out only on Untitled (14,086), in which the titular number of bricks—the number necessary to construct a small family home—were fired on-site in an industrial kiln and made available for purchase at RMB 30 each. Speaking before the opening, Tiravanija said he is most interested in what will become of the bricks ten years from now, how they may become building blocks, doorstops or paperweights. About a month after the show’s opening, a gallery staffer said that over a thousand of the bricks had been sold—to Tiravanija, a thousand-some possibilities floated out the gallery door.
Inside the gallery door, in ceiling rafters high above the ground, a half-dozen lovebirds and finches had escaped from the bars of the birdcage towers. Flitting noisily from perch to improvised perch, they roosted in the building’s rafters in a happy state of revolt, pulling apart the insulation and shitting directly above wandering patrons. Far from the reach of the gallery staff and visitors below, it seemed the small birds were the true Debordians: rise up and escape, destroy the system that cages you and never work again. Angie Baecker