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Reality Show: In a Telling Moment of Truth, Contemporary Art Finds Strong Voice

Aernout Mik's art, like "Schoolyard," looks real but documents a fabricated world where something is not right. Note: this video contains no sound. Video by Howard Deitch

The most famous of these innovators is Rirkrit Tiravanija, an Argentine-born Thai who has already done three stints at the Biennale. Tiravanija, who won the Smithsonian's big Lucelia award in 2003, is most famous for the Thai curries he cooks in museums and galleries -- with the whole social experience of the unexpected meal in an unexpected place counting as his art, and the food itself as just one of its supplies. He's in the main group show at this year's Biennale.

This "social" art will be in Washington all summer and fall. Vesela Sretenovic, the Phillips Collection's ambitious new curator of contemporary art, has invited a group of New York artists called the dBfoundation to occupy its newly reopened cafe, and to "activate" it on the first Thursday evening of each month. One member of the group, Elaine Tin Nyo, refers to their work, titled "this is not that CAFÉ," as "a metacafe that's inhabiting the real cafe that's here. . . . It's a stealth environment."

On opening night in May, Nyo's contribution was meta-food: Every table gets a dada-ish menu that includes art-themed non-foods that are not being served in the cafe, such as "Cezanne Salad (of Apples, Oranges and Drapery)." This doesn't have the anti-object rigor of high-tone relational aesthetics, and she doesn't want it to, she says. "We just throw parties. . . . I just do this."

Her partners in the dB project do other things: Tom Russotti has put some homemade board games into the cafe, alongside notebooks where visitors can scribble down the rules they've dreamed up for playing them. Where traditional games involve passively following rules, these turn visitors into artists by letting them be inventive.

Another dB "intervention" is a bookshelf filled with cafe-appropriate books contributed by various authors. One week in May, they were shelved according to how far the publisher is from Washington. Another week, they were sorted by the number of pages in them.

As Sretenovic puts it, the project is about getting art, the museum and the audience "to function in new ways" so as to reveal "how art and life intersect."

In the best art being made today, they come closer than ever before.

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