by Sukanya GargApr 23, 2020
Laced with multiple connotations is the act of gifting. The economic value attached to the gift and gifting has incessantly made it synonymous with the act of contribution, donations, exchange, and offer, just to name a few. More often than not, the action to give and receive the object of gift has been instrumental to determine the course of a relationship: a bond between humans as well as history and environment. The exhibition Given Time: The Gift and its Offerings at the Aicon Gallery, New York, curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala is a walk through what lies between the gift and the gifting – obligation and reciprocation. The exhibition, in the words of the curator, “Examines Jacques Derrida’s suggestion of the ‘impossibility of the gift devoid of reciprocity, return, or exchange of a counter-gift.’ I wanted to explore the concept of ‘given time’ or ‘the interval’ between the exchange of gifts – an essential component of the interaction between the giver of the gift and its recipient.”
The collection presents work across media by artists including Sheba Chhachhi, Nikhil Chopra, Raqs Media Collective, Anita Dube, Shaurya Kumar, Justin Ponmany, Pushpamala N, Prajakta Potnis, Mithu Sen, and Sumakshi Singh. Speaking with STIR, Lokhandwala traces the curatorial strategies applied to select the diverse works and how the artists approach the idea of a gift, “Each artist unpacks the idea of the gift in a very personal manner. There are common threads related to the ‘gift’ that tie this selection of works together: the gift of the divine gaze with regard to the way we gaze at ourselves, the hand (used for gifting) as a scribe, the gift of a home and the security it represents, and the abundant gift of nature that we have destroyed or taken for granted.”
The collection of 40 pieces of hands in the work A case of the broken hands by Shaurya Kumar could be seen as the fragment of the human body: the physiognomy that is offered to us as a gift. The laborious exercise that the human hands accomplish at times with the intent of exchange or as a gesture of non-reciprocation is part of human life. The work, as part of the display, if at once could be perceived as an array of found objects, it also points to the collective efforts our human hands perform in everyday life, irrespective of their size and shape.
If Kumar’s A case of the broken hands opens a visual narration on the signs of gifting through the human hands, then the mixed media work, Bahujan Samaj, by the contemporary artist Anita Dube with votive eyes on wood does not fail to be critical of the social structures defining the Indian society. While describing the series of eyes that frequently embellishes her works, Dube once mentioned, “The eyes are like people for me and this could speak of large migrations in history.” In the current work, the eyes carefully set on the wooden structure accompany the text Bahujan Samaj. The samaj, written in Hindi, translates as society in English, has been turned upside down in the work, since the plurality or ‘bahujan’ it is populated with has been challenged. The work hints towards the possibility of a crisis when the gift of social diversity bestowed upon us is put under a scanner.
The gifts were an essential commodity of the trading systems till the medieval times of the Indian subcontinent. The archival documents preserved in the museums testify to the historicity of the same event. Giving a new garb of creative authenticity to these records is the set of 50 copperplate sculptures, Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets, by the photographer Pushpamala N. On a visit to the archaeological museum in Bangalore, the photographer saw the vitrine with the ancient inscriptions engraved on copper plates. The inscriptions served as the records of the land grants offered by the kings. The collection is an attempt to revisit the times of trade when the people were liberated to migrate not just physically, but also anchored cultural exchange. The pieces of the collections with a unique script eschew any marker of identification with place or time. The text etched onto patinated copper sheets rightly adds the look of antiquity to the collection, which transmutes them to the object of desire.
On one hand, Pushpmala gives an overview of the gifts of the archival knowledge system embedded within the copper plates, on the other hand, Sumakshi Singh relooks at her family history as a gift of collective memory and remembrance. The values pinned to the home is a gift cherished, a step more, by the ones who have experienced the uprootedness. The event of the partition of the Indian subcontinent ruptured the flow of a sense of belonging to a place called home. Illustrating the similar idea of home and its loss is the thread drawings and stop motion animation work by Singh. To equate the notion of gift with the family home in Delhi, the national capital of India, built by Singh’s refugee grandparents, for the artist sets in the binary of emotion: permanence and evanescence. The works are of the architectural fragments from Singh’s ancestral home. Singh expounds, “For the first time in 70 years this home now lies empty, its last occupant (my grandmother) recently deceased.” The perpetuity ossifies to transience as the delicate embroidery threads of the work weave the doors only to remind the viewers of the inevitability of the state of ephemerality.
The past one year punctuated by pandemic and dotted with self-isolation has opened the ways to appreciate the gifts of nature. For a long time, the abundance that the environment presents to us has been taken for granted. Lokhandwala affirms, “The pandemic has taught us a huge lesson. Most importantly to value the incredible gifts we often take for granted, such as freedom and happiness. As the show was supposed to take place last year, the fact that is happening is such a gift in itself.”
It is the digital prints from the series Capsule by the multidisciplinary artist, Prajakta Potnis, which represents the aftereffects of the environmental calamity. The series simulates the snow-clad environment devoid of human life. For the digital prints, Potnis uses the freezer – an accumulator of the frost - of the old refrigerator as the space to stage the domestic object, for instance: the kitchen lighter or pressure cooker whistles. The Capsule carries resonance with the apocalyptic world of science fiction cinema. Nature, when metaphorically encapsulated in the electric world of a refrigerator, seems to be highlighting the invincible power of the climate change to touch every aspect of life: domestic and personal too.
Lokhandwala says, “When we give or receive gifts, there is a tacit agreement that one enters into. The obligation to reciprocate a gift after its receival is an act of self-awareness, really. I think we should be mindful of the gifts we exchange and the relationships attached to them.” With the exhibition, she is hopeful of the viewers being dawned with “a renewed appreciation for the various complex and often unacknowledged relationships and exchanges we have with those around us.”
Many a time, the gift is not just a tangible object, the varied works of the exhibition give a face to the creative imagination: a share of a less visible gift. The exhibition, if, unfolds the layers of what constitutes a gift, it also opens the opportune moment to gauge the crest and the trough a relationship endures as part of the act of gifting.
The exhibition Given Time: The Gift and its Offerings runs at the Aicon Gallery, New York, until August 14, 2021.