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L’Offre: The Politics of the Gift

by Anya Kowalchuk

DHC/Art’s current exhibit L’Offre displays the primarily sculptural work of 8 contemporary artists. With great diversities among their artistic oeuvres and cultural backgrounds, the exhibit connects works through a curatorial theme, which posits the artists as interpreters of the social, historical and cultural implications of a gift. While some employ audience participation, or document participation to illustrate organic social reactions to gifts and conceptions of value, others address historical narratives of the gift and the politically charged policies that banned traditional giving ceremonies. Together the exhibit opens a discourse on the value of art in the post-modern world and harsh realities of political persecution played out in the cultural symbolic landscape.

The exhibit includes works by Sonny Assu, Simryn Gill, Lee Mingwei, Emily Jacir, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mike Kelly, Phill Collins, Sergej Jensen and Dora Garcia. It runs until March 11th, 2018.

Lee MingweiMoney for Art (1994-2010)

Mingwei’s photo series documents the trajectory of ten dollar bills, folded into origami and given to strangers. Money for Art is typical of Mingwei’s oeuvre, which tends to deal with issues of trust, intimacy and self-awareness through participatory installations. Though it does not call for audience involvement directly, the piece presents an ongoing timeline of who received the gifts, and how they transformed over the course of a year. The first two photos show the bill and Mingwei’s origami statue made from it, with the title “On January 1st, 1994 nine sculptures were given to:”. The following photo shows a grid with nine hands holding their own copy of the statues, each captioned with their name and occupation. The succeeding photos show the fate of these gifts six months, and twelve months later. In doing so, Mingwei quite literally posits the judgment of value in the hands of the audience. As we see, some of the statues have once again become currency, and used to buy certain items. The photos do not seem to inflect any kind of judgment on the recipients whose interpretation of the gift was centered on its monetary function and capital value, rather it seems Mingwei wanted to elicit a variety in understanding. Furthermore, the occupations of each recipient play into their subsequent use of the gift, illuminating class divisions and their respective conceptions of gifts, monetary and otherwise. In this way, the photo series also illustrates the elitism of the art world, where an appreciation of art for its “pure aesthetic value” is a afforded to those with financial security and those without are rendered outsiders. Through these juxtapositions, Mingwei raises pertinent questions that directly engage with the commodification of the art object, and greater discourses on value and worth in the post-modern world.

Sonny AssuSilenced: The Burning (2011)

Assu’s sculpture presents viewers with an overflowing stack of 67 painted elk-hide drums. The drums evoke the traditional potlatch gift-giving ceremonies, central in Kwakwaka’wakw cultural practice. The ceremonies are typically hosted by a family, or chief and aim to redistribute wealth among attendees, through shared performance of song and dance. The practice was banned in 1889 by the Canadian government as part of the ongoing political efforts to silence, strip and assimilate indigenous cultures into Canadian settler society. The ban was revoked in 1954. Too little too late comes to mind in this instance, though such a characterization would also be deeply insufficient. This is a slight departure from Assu’s striking style, which critically deals with historical legacies of Canadian colonization by employing iconic pop-culture touchstones as a means of re-asserting visual expectations while speaking to the physical as well as cultural dominion of indigenous peoples by colonial settlers. Assu’s work manipulates prominent visual conventions in a fashion reminiscent of Kent Monkman, who draws heavily on a lexicon of European oil painting to construct a seemingly familiar narrative that becomes expressly subordinated upon closer investigation. Assu’s drums offer themselves as a visual metaphor twofold, evoking a rich history of social customs which have solidified community and equal distribution of resources for generations, and a deeply exploitative exchange between indigenous and settler populations comprised of false promises leading to physical, political and cultural domination.

Simryn GillPearls (1999- )

Gill’s immense installation takes a markedly different approach to the gift, emphasizing a more collaborative capacity of gift giving and the production of material culture. The project asks friends and family to present Gill with a book from their personal collection. The book is meticulously selected to reflect the person presenting it. The book is then stripped of its pages, who are then rolled into bead-like ornaments and strung together, then given back to the owner of the book. Typically, recipients of these necklaces send Gill a photo of themselves wearing it to express their gratitude for the gift. The ongoing nature of the project illustrates the strong role of collaboration in material culture, and the practice of art historically. It speaks to art as a living, breathing discipline who is inextricably bound up with the social and practical world around it. Furthermore, it illustrates a greater connectivity of networks through small, everyday mementos. Or perhaps, as Nicholas Forrest has suggested in his appraisal of her 2013 Venice Biennale submission, her works construct a sense of belonging, rather than illustrate a pre-existing one. Here, Gill fetters a line between the conceptual and tactile, producing symbolically charged ornaments which constantly evoke a bond between maker and recipient.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres“Untitled” (Blue Placebo) (1991)

Gonzalez-Torres’s work has played a major role in the changing trajectory of contemporary American art, largely triggered by his participation in the watershed moment of the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Both works at the DHC are highly characteristic of Gonzalez-Torres’s style, which deals with loss, love, sickness, gender and sexuality through the use of minimal everyday objects. The above untitled work is a later variation of his famed 1991 installation Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LAwhich consisted of a large pile of multi-coloured, individually wrapped candies. The work was a tribute to Gonzalez-Torres’s recently deceased lover, who’s experience in seeking treatment for aids was fraught with political tensions. The Blue Placebo installation carries comparable significance, also evoking horrific realities of the AIDS crisis, which saw many patients used as test subjects in the search for adequate treatment. The work is truly striking; it speaks to the individual experience of love, posited as endlessly giving, constantly replenished and plays this against the incomprehensible hate directed at socially taboo forms of love. It additionally incorporates the political reaction to the crisis, which largely criminalized, ostracized and generally failed victims of AIDS. The exhibit encourages viewers to take pieces of the offered candy, a gesture of allowing visitors to take part in experiencing the love shared by persecuted members of the LGBTQ community.

Curated by Cheryl Sim, L’Offre constructs a diverse platform for the interpretation of the gift. The installations collectively draw on historical legacies of the gift, indebtedness, inequalities and political ramifications of giving. Simultaneously, much of the exhibit turns in on itself, considering the status of the art object itself, the value of art and its growing commodification since the 20th century. As these works play off each other, the participation of the viewer becomes a clear unifying category, providing audiences with a strikingly simple experience of the gift, still pregnant with nuanced meaning.

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