The last time we heard from conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, about a month ago, he was cooking up Thai food in Basel, Switzerland, on the Messeplatz, the large public square outside the annual fair Art Basel, as part of a collaborative project with German architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller (who were responsible for the bamboo and steel huts that housed the cooking and eating) and Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi (recipes). Commissioned by Art Basel, We Dream Under the Same Sky was an extension of Tiravanija’s self-sustaining artistic community in Thailand, The Land. Art Basel fair goers and members of the general public alike sipped herbal tea and ate Thai-inspired dishes. They served themselves, and cleaned up after themselves. They weren’t required to pay for their meals, but donations were appreciated.
“It’s not so much that we tried to emulate The Land itself,” Tiravanija told ARTnews at the time, “but make another model using what was available and then bring it back to The Land. Everything that’s made here, built here and used here will be sent back to The Land to be realized to its full potential. It’s kind of like a symbiotic growth.”
Tiravanija, who has been incorporating cooking into his conceptual art since the early 1990s and is never at rest for very long, is now cooking again, but in a very different environment and under very different terms.
His new kitchen—as it happens, the first full, commercial kitchen he’s run—is in a former garage in Hancock, New York, near the New York/Pennsylvania border. Tiravanija and his longtime dealer, Gavin Brown, have long had summer houses in the area, and recently they noticed that the erstwhile DaBrescia Motors on East Front Street was for sale, purchased the building and rechristened it Unclebrother, a combination restaurant/exhibition venue/performance space/community gathering spot. Its inaugural weekend, July 11 and 12, featured traditional hula dancers (Hālau Hula O Na Mele ‘Āina O Hawai’i with artists Ei Arakawa & Kerstin Brätsch), as well as works by Joan Jonas, Michel Auder, Verne Dawson, Charlotte Posenenske and Sal Scarpitta. On Tiravanija’s menu were barbecue short ribs and potatoes.
Depending upon how things go in talks with the local community board, Unclebrother may be open every weekend in August. The meals—Tiravanija is now experimenting with trout, a Delaware River staple—will be priced modestly, and, per Tiravanija tradition, there will always be something free on the menu. At the moment, things are rather scrappy. “We don’t have a cash register yet,” Tiravanija said, speaking by phone with ARTnews earlier this week. As for the food, with the exception of Thai spices and such that are brought in from New York, “it’s whatever people are growing that week,” he said, referring to the local small-scale growers, and sounding like a farm-to-table chef. “It’s about eating from your surroundings.”
Hancock is a three hour drive northwest from Manhattan, traffic permitting. It’s further afield than the art world’s preferred summer destinations—the Hamptons, Orient, Cornwall—and not so far (in both distance and spirit) from some of the offbeat upstate artist projects that Carlo McCormick wrote about for ARTnews last summer. The environment suits Brown just fine. “There’s no art scene to speak of in Hancock,” he said, speaking by cell phone from the town dump, where he was “dropping off some garbage.” “There’s no pretentious [UNPRINTABLE EXPLETIVE]s. And maybe that’s a good thing for the inhabitants of Hancock.” Then again, he’s there. And Tiravanija is there, too… “In some ways that’s bad for the community because we are the epitome of pretentious [UNPRINTABLE EXPLETIVE]s,” he half-joked.
Tiravanija had referred to his Basel project as a workshop. “It is a workshop rather than an installation,” he told Artinfo, “a workshop rather than a project, a workshop rather than a work of art, and a collaboration rather than a conception by a singular person.”
As for Unclebrother, “I don’t really know what it is,” Tiravanija admitted. He and Brown “spend a lot of time up here,” he added, by way of a kind of explanation. “The town of Hancock is in between things. I know that there are some towns not so far away which have become more popular. Both Gavin and I like to do things on the side, and Hancock was perfect.”
In Basel, he was cooking for the public, but also for the likes of the artist Tobias Rehberger, and curators Chus Martinez and Hans Ulrich Obrist—globetrotting art world types he’d invited, and whose presence was facilitated by the commissioning body, Art Basel, a mammoth annual art world convention. Hancock, by contrast, is separate from the art world—“we are able to be free from those other expectations of the art world so we can do whatever we want,” as Tiravanija put it—but contains some offshoots. “The surprising thing is that, actually, there are a lot of artists around,” he said. “Even people who kind of ran away from the city, and are not participating in the art world anymore. Now they’re growing vegetables. These are people who would be interested in something like this.” He added, on reflection, “Half the town will enjoy it and half will sneer.”
About 50 people came to the opening weekend, Brown said, a crowd composed of “a third us”–himself and his family, and participating artists and performers— “a third locals, and a third people who came to visit.”
Brown enthused about Unclebrother’s having just passed its health inspection. He will make an appearance before the village planning board next week. If things go according to plan, the summer, Tiravanija said, “will be a trial run for us.” What money they charge for the food won’t be for profit, but rather just to keep the operation running. Beyond the summer, Tiravanija is thinking he might bring his students to Hancock. “We would cook and talk and eat,” per his usual pedagogical practice.
Unclebrother has been a long time coming. According to a 2013 profile of Brown in W magazine, the two men were already cooking up some sort of Hancock project: “One of his and Brown’s more fanciful schemes,” W’s Diane Solway wrote, “involves running an artist-designed nine-hole golf course near their weekend homes upstate that would include a clubhouse-restaurant and an exhibition space.”
Unclebrother lacks a golf course, but the rest of it seems to have gone from fantasy to reality, and has inspired at least one person. The project was written up in rather rapturous terms by a local reporter from the Hancock Herald:
They pushed tables together so everyone would have room. Some had the light from the fluorescents inside; at the end we had candlelight. There was no summer breeze, no gathered sense that this was to be the epitome of summer. Instead there was a unique and indescribable feeling of fellowship. Of family. A lonely band of light in a large looping circle of darkness. Sometimes a car would slip through, lights bright, traveling. Here one moment, gone the next.
I did not discover anything, instead I rediscovered something. It’s something one feels sitting at the dinner table, waiting for the gravy boat to be passed to you on Thanksgiving Day. Cigarette smoke drifting above you. It’s the feeling you get drinking coffee or tea with your mother, the last day before Christmas break. It’s the feeling of the hearth. Of home.
Throughout the Hancock Herald piece, the reporter refers to the two men as partners in the venture. Tiravanija is not quoted. “I’m the silent partner,” he told ARTnews. “Usually hiding. I’m in the kitchen. Gavin is the talkative one.”
Unclebrother is at 250 E Front St, Hancock, NY 13783. firstname.lastname@example.org