Encompassing works by 13 artists and artist collectives, “The Way Things Go: A Special Curatorial Project with Rirkrit Tiravanija” presented several strong pieces, but the exhibition overall failed to resolve basic conflicts between overlapping themes at play.
On a monitor near the entrance, the show’s title work, by Swiss collaborators Peter Fischli and David Weiss, is a nearly 30-minute video from 1987 that records the unfolding of an elaborately constructed chain reaction: a rolling tire knocks over a ladder, which hits a candle that ignites a fuse, and so on. This piece shows a sequence of things reacting to one another as a way of potentially understanding individual and collective experience—a theme introduced by Tiravanija in his statement in the exhibition leaflet. Among the works that addressed this topic productively was The New Colossus (a translation), 2012, by Michael Arcega, a Filipino-American artist based in San Francisco. It is an interpretation of a poem by Emma Lazarus through souvenirs and knickknacks that Arcega has gathered from around the United States. Mimicking the lines of the poem, the objects are neatly placed, one per syllable, on shelves. In a wall text, he describes these things as artifacts of the Nacirema, a fictitious people invoked by various social scientists since the 1950s in constructing satirical studies of U.S. culture.
Food emerged as a special category of thing in the exhibition. This focus and its relation to postcolonial studies were identified by Yerba Buena director of visual arts Betti-Sue Hertz in another statement presented in the leaflet. The promotional image most often used for the exhibition was of 5,500 brass pendants suspended in a sphere from a wooden structure, part of Golden Teardrop (2013) by Thai artist Arin Rungjang. The piece consists of the sculpture as well as a video that shows a woman preparing the Thai egg yolk-based dessert thong yod. As she does so, she narrates her personal story of migrating from Japan to Bangkok, explaining the ways in which colonialism, trade and the movement of individuals between cultures over time have contributed to the tradition of this dish. The sculpture, whose teardrop-shaped elements resemble the dessert, suggests an expanded version of Newton’s cradle, but here, plucking an element and letting it bounce off another would cause a reaction vastly more complex. The difference between a linear sequence and the reality of tangled relationships in postcolonial culture is a core conflict that is unresolved in this curatorial project.
Wall text introducing the exhibition stated that Tiravanija applied his “signature social approach” to the project, and reiterated his well-known history as an artist who fosters viewer participation to create relationships. Arcega hosted a lively free event in March during which several Bay Area artists shared food with the public, but the ungenerous events Tiravanija led during the opening weekend, such as a ticketed dinner, reinforced his “one place after another” approach.
Within the exhibition, the collective National Bitter Melon Council—currently run by Jeremy Liu, a Tokyo-born artist and urban planner based in Oakland, and Hiroki Kikuchi, a New York-born artist based in Tokyo—invited visitors to take part in the installation San Francisco de Goya: A Better Bitter (2015). An elaborate “algorithm for treating bitterness,” presented as a hand-drawn diagram on a large chalkboard, directed participants to write their feelings about bitterness on small sheets of paper, roll them up and place them in small glass bottles. The diagram indicates that these will be fermented, stewed or whipped into condiments. It was left unclear with whom the condiments will be shared, if in fact made, or how they are meant to make the ultra-rapid urban transformations of the Bay Area, which disrupt the lives of many people in many ways, more palatable.