The burden and lightness in offering and giving

October 31, 2017

L’OFFRE: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition L’OFFRE.

Context: Weight and Lightness

In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Lewis Hyde develops an ‘ethics of gift exchange’, which calls for gifts to be given and received, then transformed and re-shared with the goal of creating meaningful relationships amongst those involved. Hyde sees this “as an ‘erotic’ commerce, opposing eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together) to logos (reason and logic in general, the principle of differentiation in particular) [1]”. Hyde’s ideas serve to deepen our reading of L’OFFRE, which presents the work of nine artists who have re-thought the relationship between giving and gift, and in certain cases gone so far as to seek an alternative to capitalist ideas.

We propose that this eros carries with it both a certain ‘lightness’ and a certain ‘weight’, or ‘gravity’. There is the initial joy and delight that we may experience at receiving a gift, which is followed by an uncertainty about the relationship we are then expected to forge, and about what kind of gift to offer in return. How might we propose another kind of gesture, one that could bear fruit and circulate that which has already been shared? With this new proposition comes a new fear, creating a kind of knot in our stomach: we want to open ourselves up to the other, to see ourselves transformed—but we are also uneasy at the thought of making ourselves vulnerable.

For her project Pearls (1999-present), Simryn Gill asks a number of her friends to give her their favorite book. She then tears the books’ pages in order to remake them into beads, assembling them into necklaces that she then gives back. Each recipient is asked to take a photo of themselves wearing the necklace and to send the image back to Gill. Participants both grieve the loss of their book and experience wonder upon seeing its metamorphosis into magnificent jewels, handmade by the artist. There is also the weight of wearing the necklace, a pressure that we can interpret as a gesture of relief—hands placing a therapeutic weight on another’s shoulders. For Gill, there is the receiving of all these many books, these many texts—which not only serve as incarnations of her loved ones, but also symbolize destruction and the labour required for their transformation. It is worthwhile here to note that the pearl created by certain mollusks is in fact an act of defence: when a foreign body enters the shell, the oyster reacts by surrounding the object with a layer of the pearly white material.

In the case of Lee Mingwei, his work Sonic Blossom (2013-present) unfolds with the wanderings of a singer in the gallery space, who eventually approches a visitor with the words “May I offer you a gift?” and goes on to proposes a lied by Schubert. The chosen visitor, once they hear the music, is moved towards the sublime. They then learn that the artist and his mother listened to this very music when she was recovering from surgery. Thus we come to understand the solemnity associated with this song: a son watching his aging mother weakened, sick, becoming ever more conscious of eventual death. Thus, this exchange of breath between the singer and the visitor, this back and forth of a life force, is not only a vibrating manifestation of life itself; it is also a poignant reminder of the fragility of the body, that a breath can stop at any moment. Sonic Blossom is this warmth that lingers between us, held by our common existence.

Kataoka Mami draws on the principles of Zen philosophy, which also grounds the works of Lee Mingwei: “The impermanence of worldly things holds that all existences in this world are in constant flux (…) [2]”. In what ways do Sonic Blossom (2013-present) and Money for Art (1994- 2010) offer a destabilizing alternative to capitalist culture?

Sonny Assu’s work, Silenced: the Burning (2011), evokes potlatch ceremonies as celebrated in the Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Potlatches were banned by the Canadian government from 1884 to 1951. If you consider this context in relation to Assu’s work, how would you describe its tone?

Marie-Hélène Lemaire
DHC/ART Education


[1] HYDE, Lewis (2007 [1983]). The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Vintage Books.
[2] MAMI, Kataoka (2014). “Value of Invisible Threads: Lee Mingwei and His Relations”. Lee Mingwei and His Relations. The Art of Participation. Exhibition catalogue (Taipei Fine Arts Museum and Mori Art Museum).


Photo credit: Simryn Gill, Pearls: Lenin’s Predictions on the Revolutionary Storms in the East (Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1967), 2005. One strand, silk, 134 cm. Photo credit: Jenni Carter.

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