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The Land

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist presenta The Land, il progetto avviato dall'artista Rikrit Tiravanija nel 1998 in Thailandia su un'area acquistata presso il villaggio di Sanpatong, vicino a Chiang Mai. Illustrazione di un progetto utopico nato ai margini delle grandi teorizzazioni. Un esempio di ricerca artistica condotta al di fuori dei confini dell'oggetto autonomo, lontano dalle istituzioni del mondo dell'arte e dalle esposizioni che le sostengono.

More and more artists today refuse to display their creativity exclusively within and upon the pristine walls of the gallery space. Their curriculum vitae increasingly mention such diverse projects as designs for restaurants, private residences, or public buildings. This inclination of art toward architecture and design emerges from the revived interest of artists throughout the nineties to more actively question the role they play in society. In turning towards collaborative and transdisciplinary practices, artists have been defining new modes of bypassing formalist credos and interacting with the social realities of daily life.

Rikrit Tiravanija has been a key figure of these evolutions. Recently he revealed his ideas concerning "The Land" a large-scale collaborative and transdisciplinary project taking place on a plot of land that Tiravanija purchased in the village of Sanpatong, near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Land is a laboratory for self-sustainable development but it is also a site where a new model for art and a new model for living are being tested out.


Begun in 1998, The Land, as Tiravanija explained, "was the merging of ideas by different artists to cultivate a place of and for social engagement. It's been acquired in the name of artists who live in Chiang Mai. We've been trying to find a way to turn it into a collective, and to have the property owned by no one in particular, but that's one of the hardest things to do in Thailand. We cannot be a Foundation." The undoing of ownership strikes at the heart of what Tiravanija is trying to do with the project since, as he emphasized, "The Land is not a property." And to the question, then, "Is The Land an art project?" the artist replied: "We don't want to have to deal with it as a presentation to the art structures, because I think it should be neutral; and, it's also one of the reasons why it's not about property." Indeed seeming to underscore this are the two working rice fields positioned in the middle of the Land and monitored by a group of students from the University of Chang Mai and a local village. The harvest, cultivated using traditional Thai farming techniques, is shared by all participants involved.

Extending Tiravanija's previous artistic efforts that engage the objects and actions of everyday life, the Land demonstrates how far contemporary artistic production today exceeds the boundaries of the autonomous object and the art systems that uphold it. Although the Land was not initiated uniquely as a space for structures to be designed, built and used by artists, many of the projects to date are being developed along those lines. Thus in its own way, The Land is something of a "massive-scale artist-run space" in which Tiravanija's incitement to collaborate is offering artists of all kinds the chance to exceed the boundaries of their discipline, to construct works they may not have otherwise imagined, and to allow these works to be developed and experienced in an atypical way.

A slew of contemporary artists have thus designed or carried out projects for houses or self-sustaining device systems for the Land: Kamin Lerdchaiprasert built a gardener's house, Atelier van Lieshout developed a toilet system, Tobias Rehberger, Alicia Framis and Karl Holmqvist worked on housing structures, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss are building an utopic busstop inspired by Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia.

Some contributions are structural in other ways: Arthur Meyer constructed a system for harnessing solar power, Prachya Phintong put in place a program for fish farming and a water library, Mit Chai-Inn develops tree plants to be later turned into baskets and the Danish collective Superflex developed a system for the production of biogas. Tiravanija described some of the inherent complexities to which the participants were responding: "There is no electricity or water, as it would be problematic, in terms of land development in the area. Superflex has made experiments to use natural renewable resources as alternative sources for electricity and gas.

'Supergas' is using the land as a lab for the development of a biogas system. The gas produced will be used for the stoves in the kitchen, as well as lamps for light." Tiravanija himself contributed to the occupation of The Land with the construction of a house based on what he calls "the three spheres of needs," described as the following: "The lower floor is a communal space with a fire place; it's the place of accommodation, gathering and exchanges; the second floor is for reading and meditation and reflection on the exchanges; the top floor for sleep."

Finally, Philippe Parreno and the architect François Roche have begun their plans for a central activity hall that will be built this spring and will function as a biotechnology driven hyper-plug. The Plug in Station uses nature to produce the interface: it will make use of a satellite downlink and a live elephant will generate the necessary power.

The Land is already in use. The curious have begun to visit. And, although there are currently elements in construction and others still yet unrealized, it is developing in density and layers like the sedimentation of the plot it sits on. Constructed of the complex exchanges that have, in some cases, begun between individuals in locations all over the world and long before Tiravanija staked out its territory, The Land demonstrates perfectly the "collaborational promiscuity" that interests so many of the artists involved. To that end, it is important as well that the Land's collaborative development is somewhat unpredictable, organic, and ultimately oscillates between process, object, structure, and exchange.

"The Land itself," Tiravanija emphasized, "is not connected to anything and that's what's interesting about it." And this can be understood in many ways. Above all, Tiravanija's initiation of The Land project resists the normative and prescriptive aspects which accompanied many earlier utopias. The Land is a concrete Utopia, but it is also first and foremost a self-imposed Utopia, one that is not rooted in intransigent beliefs on how others should live. Thus, The Land stands as a pertinent illustration of what a utopian project can be once grand theories have been moved aside: a feasible, practical, but even more importantly, subjective Utopia.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
A shorter version of this text was published in Wired, issue 11.06, June 2003.

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