A Tale of two art worlds: ‘Untitled (Free)’ and the commercial art market

by Ben Elliott


Rirkrit Tiravanija. Untitled (Free). 1992/1995/2007/2011-


Rirkrit Tiravanija is an artist, but not in the traditional sense of churning out commissions. Tiravanija’s work explore forms of space and communality, and ultimately how people inhabit spaces, in environments of other purpose. ‘Untitled (Free)’ brings together two vastly different spaces, the canteen and the art gallery into one room. Tiravanija is therefore producing a socio-artistically motivated project, seeing spaces usually designed for contemplation and intellectual thought (the gallery), transformed into spaces of: eating, senses, conversation, relationships and differences – all through the artful trickery of offering free food. ‘Untitled (Free)’ converts the gallery space into a quasi-restaurant, where Tiravanija cooks and serves curry and rice to his guests (gallery visitors), for no fee.

In an interview with MoMA, Tiravanija claimed this piece ‘is a platform for, people to interact with, the work itself, but also with each other… The distance between the artist and the art and the audience gets a bit blurred.’ It seems therefore, that as an artist he does little in the way to expect a commercial profit, even to the extent of reducing the celebration of his artistic intellect. By destroying the traditional role of the artist as: a master, an intellect, a romantic, and the philosopher, Tiravanija makes both himself and ‘Untitled (Free)’ extremely non-conforming to the commercial art market, that dominates today. Yes, the work can be re-staged, as it has been many a time; but it cannot be sold, but is this the point? Let me pose this to you, does this work detrimentally slur the art dealer?

To consider this, we need to understand the art dealer. The art dealer normally roams around London’s art dealing hub of St James’, Westminster, in a navy three-piece suit, with a black leather briefcase in hand. I know I did for my art dealing stint, as of course art dealing is one big roleplay of the aristocrat and connoisseur. Agreed, ‘art dealer’ has a ring to it, a certain shine, that makes people believe you are involved in high-end luxury deals. But no, art dealership is little more than a glorified cauldron, that serves graduate’s small portions of the quest, of destroying what makes art so unique. Art should conjure intellectual discussion and public interaction, it should be available for all; and not be mixed to a thin watery consistency of the auctioneers pricing increments, private deals, vault storage, acquisitions costs, and legal fees. I’m not saying art dealing is all bad, if done properly then its success is staggering – but there is something to me which doesn’t feel quite right with this industry.

Little is known about Rirkrit Tiravanija outside of the academic circle, but I do think this is not entirely our fault. Art dealers try their hardest to get us to remember, only the artists that are the most profitable at a current time. For example, if I were to say, Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse to you, you’d recognise these artists. But, has the world of the commercial art market made you remember these names? I mean any art dealer would rave about dealing a Picasso. But when their last days strike and filter what really matters, I can guarantee that the art dealer would really begin to think. They would think that the chance to work with art, and its beauties was the fulfillment, rather than the monetary deal. This is what we should strive for.

To put it bluntly, if our older generation remain glued into watching the mind-numbingly boring midday television programmes of Bargain Hunt, Antiques Roadshow and maybe even Cash in the attic, and not the humble art history documentary – then what hope is there for our younger generation, in the understanding of art. These programmes advocate the art dealer and art market to the world, and not the artist’s art. Art is not just a means to fill the bleak existence of the afternoon weekday television.  Do you want your child’s hero to be David Dickinson, the heavily fake-tanned looking man off Bargain Hunt? Let it be the museum curators, the self-less artists of Tiravanija, the art thinkers of the E.M Gombrich’s and the John Berger’s of the world. Please don’t let it be the art dealers of our money-centric world – they are only the faces of the crude world of the commercial art market. Let’s embrace the ground-breaking ‘Untitled (Free)’ that still gets staged globally, this is the hope for art’s true survival.


Image credit: MoMA

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