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Rirkrit Tiravanija

The Shop / David Zwirner / Hong Kong / Mar 20 – May 6 /

Stepping out of the elevator at David Zwirner Hong Kong, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the wrong location. What lies before you is an old-fashioned umbrella shop – the kind more commonly seen at street level in Hong Kong. The shop is stuffed to the gills with brollies, Chinese lanterns, manuals, books, a replica of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. It’s a delight to peruse. All items are for sale. 

Installation view. Courtesy David Zwirner Hong Kong.

Is the installation a commentary on the idea of art? An attempt to elevate the umbrella from a banal, everyday object to art by situating it in a different setting? Its creator, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, has said that Duchamp’s Fountain is his favourite art piece. 

Tiravanija is a master at using everyday experiences such as eating and playing to shed light on how the personal is also the political, and how art is a part of the everyday. He is perhaps best known for exhibitions involving food, such as Untitled (Pad Thai), where he served the popular Thai dish to gallery-goers to highlight its autocratic origins – it was invented by then prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram in the 1930s as part of a nationalist campaign. At The Shop, Tiravanija turns his gaze to a politically charged object. 

The umbrella is a device to protect oneself from the rain or the sun. But in modern-day Hong Kong, an umbrella isn’t just an umbrella. In fact, it stopped being that during the 2014 protests, when it was used as a makeshift shield against tear gas and pepper spray.
Here, a machine airs a Cantonese recording of a chapter from Death’s End, the third book in Chinese science-fiction author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy. The narrator tells the story of how a spinning umbrella protects a princess from being disappeared by her power-hungry brother. 

Installation view. Courtesy David Zwirner Hong Kong.

The theme of disappearance continues in the next space, revealed via a nifty automatic sliding door at the back of the brolly shop, which is austere, stripped of the visual richness and spontaneity that came before. A few robotic vacuum cleaners sweep across the carpeted floor, tracing the Chinese characters for “dark forest”, the title of the second book in the trilogy. The book’s plot revolves around a group of extra-terrestrials trying to eliminate the human race and claim Earth as their own. In Tiravanija’s work, the Chinese characters disappear as viewers walk across the space, then reappear again, in an endless loop. 

Downstairs, 3D printers create what look like poorly formed architectural models but are in fact broken umbrellas, their blazing red hue making them looking all the more forlorn. There is also an AR component: as you pan your phone around the gallery, black mutilated umbrellas are suspended in mid-air, one of them so close that it feels like it’s grazing your body. The spinning umbrella that provides protection has transformed into a battered, useless object.

Installation view. Courtesy David Zwirner Hong Kong.

The only way out of the gallery is through the way in. As one re-enters the robo vacuum-filled space and the brolly shop, it almost feels like going back in time. What has disappeared? What has been lost? Has the brolly shop already been relegated to the past?

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