Who doesn’t like receiving presents? Christmas may not be a few months yet, but the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) has a gift for you – their newest exhibition, The Gift, running at National Gallery Singapore from 20th August to 7th November 2021.
But how does a gift equal art? According to SAM, The simple act of gifting transforms an ordinary object into something much more meaningful and emotional. This then leads to it becoming the embodiment of a relationship, a social act, or even an obligation to another.
The Gift extends upon these ideas, and is part of Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories, a dialogue between the collections of SAM, Galeri Nasional Indonesia, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, and Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, initiated by the Goethe-Institut.The exhibitions are curated by June Yap, Grace Samboh, Gridthiya Gaweewong and Anna-Catharina Gebbers.
Delving deeper into themes of interwoven histories, performed narratives and embodiment. Exemplified by Korean American artist Nam June Paik’s first meeting with German artist Joseph Beuys and the powerful feeling of being deeply moved by each other, SAM’s exhibition focuses on the nature of relations, affinities and influences, wherein history, geography and identity are observed as manifestations of such entanglement.
“Through the concept of the gift, the exhibition examines the tangible and intangible between and around objects, artworks and histories, as well as how these are entangled,” says Dr June Yap, Director of Curatorial, Collections and Programmes at SAM and curator of The Gift. “In curatorial dialogue and collaboration with partner institutions across Europe and Asia, we have the opportunity to expand our understanding and scope of meaning-making through artworks we present and exchange, allowing us to consider new readings in the company of others and find ways to be further connected.”
“With The Gift, and more broadly, Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories, we hope to bring these new perspectives on ideas of exchange and influences to our audiences.”– Dr June Yap, Director of Curatorial, Collections and Programmes at SAM and curator of The Gift
Presenting artworks and historical materials from the collections of SAM and partner institutions such as Galerie Nasional Indonesia, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, and Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, The Gift invites visitors to consider a multidimensional view of artworks and materials from across geographies and their relation to one another. Bringing visitors through a complex journey, the exhibits are presented as intimately connected through narratives, agencies, and histories, inspiring new meanings and perspectives.
Energiestab (Energy Staff) (1974) by Joseph Beuys embodies key aspects of the artist’s influential practice, particularly his ideal of Eurasia as an expanded frame which defies the boundaries that delineates cultures and aesthetics. that may be traced back to his ideal of Eurasia as an expanded frame defying boundaries delineating cultures, and even aesthetics. For Beuys, Eurasia was characterised by a nomadism that came to the fore for him during World War II, after a near death experience in 1944 over Crimea whilst serving in the German Air Force. The plane Beuys was in was shot down and he recalled then being saved from the crash by Tatars who wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm.
While this narrative is considered somewhat mythical, it transformed Beuys’ aesthetic practice. It contributed significantly to the development of his distinctive aesthetic, and speaks to the multiple interests and cosmology to which Beuys subscribed. These include notions of healing expressed in the insulative material of felt, and the energetic and spiritual symbolised in the element of copper.
Salleh Japar’s Born out of Fire (1993) was inspired by Japar’s travels to Australia and draws on universal symbols that are familiar across cultures and belief systems, yet personal when read within the context of one’s daily life. Here, three scorched canvases reveal symbols drawn from the world around us. An arrow, a bridge, a doorway, a mountain, a tree invoke concepts of direction, connection, thresholds, and of life itself. These symbols are simultaneously universal in form, familiar across cultures and belief systems, yet personal when read within the context of one’s daily life.
For Salleh, this elemental approach also speaks to a deeper experience, of the spiritual and profound. Here, the element of fire is used to evoke the power of transformation. This association was inspired by his time in Australia encountering the regenerating force of bushfire— considered destructive but necessary, particularly in the case of gum trees.
Monument for Seub Nakhasathien (1991) continues Tang Da Wu’s explorations into issues of environment and ecology. It was made in memory of the Thai ecological conservationist, Seub Nakhasathien, hence deliberately empathetic and less conventionally monumental relative to the memorial produced by the state. Nakhasathien was a fervent and passionate activist and scholar, who campaigned tirelessly for the protection of Cheow Lan Lake, Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Nakhasathien faced an uphill battle, with a series of challenges that eventually proved insurmountable.
Nakhasathien took his own life at the age of 40. This grave event galvanised action, including the establishment of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation. Nakhasathien’s admirable conservation work went on to inspire a generation of young forest patrol officers—an enduring legacy that has persisted beyond what he perhaps dreamt possible. Tang’s monument recalls Nakhasathien’s bravery and valiant pursuit through the depiction of a fragile boat heading upstream. This imagery incidentally references a Thai idiom “เข็นครกขึ้นภูเขา” that translates to pushing a millstone up a hill, referring to a difficult or impossible task.
The Gift also investigates the nature of exchanges – of their gesture, value, expectations and reciprocation – and how the status and interpretation of exchange may also change over time. Donna Ong’s The Caretaker (2008) for instance, extends the history of the Friendship Doll Project of 1927, an exchange of dolls between Japan and the United States as a symbol of goodwill and their close relationship.
Unfortunately, the subsequent bombing of Pearl Harbour and World War II caused relations between the countries to sour, and these dolls, which were seen as ambassadors and representatives of their respective countries, bore the brunt of the rising enmity. Many dolls were destroyed, de-acquisitioned from museum collections or stored out of sight. Ong’s work returns to this historical moment by creating a fictional setting where a caretaker appears to be watching over the memory of the dolls and bearing witness to their amicable reunion.
Unpacking the complex definition of territories in Southeast Asia, Ho Tzu Nyen presents The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: F for Fold (2021), from an ongoing project that is one of the commissioned works for Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories, where he showcases an amorphous interpretation of the subject of historical narratives through an endless physical book. The dictionary is framed as an alternative approach to reading Southeast Asia, presenting a layered perspective of concepts, motifs and biographies that respond to the histories, cultures, and experiences of the region.
Beyond looking at historical landscapes and symbols, The Gift also draws visitors into introspective consideration of the self, through works that reflect personal expressions of interrelations between bodies and spaces, sensibilities and the other.A key example is Bruce Nauman’s Korperdruck (Body Pressure) (1980), which invites audiences to introduce their body to the unyielding surface of a wall, encountering and becoming conscious of its resistance. Body Pressure features a set of instructions that invite the audience to introduce their body to the unyielding surface of a wall, encountering and becoming conscious of its resistance.
This then leads to an examination of the self as being on the other side of the wall pushing back, as well as a study of their body—its shape, muscular tensions and sensations. As the work transitions from a physical to mental exercise, the wall seems to suddenly disappear and all that is left is the body itself, simultaneously familiar yet experienced anew Through this participatory work, Nauman encourages an examination of the self and one’s relationship with their own body.
In Holly Zausner’s video work Second Breath (2004-2005), the work presents a portrait of Berlin’s long and intractable history through Holly Zausner’s dramaturgy. Inspired by her time living and working in the city in the 1990s, Zausner created a series of three outsized figures made from rubber silicon and knitted material. This film features Zausner interacting with these figures in a sequence filmed at key landmarks in the city, including the Potsdamer Platz, Neue Nationalgalerie, Spree River, and the now-demolished Palast der Republik.
In every scene, we see the heft of the figures counteracting her manoeuvres of them, turning the idea of the body as a metaphor for the weight of history from abstraction to physical reality. Zausner’s interaction with the figures, through the gravity of her own body, gives shape to the various environments. In regarding the city as a stage, Zausner implicates the space and the objects and bodies within it. Her choreography presents a series of diverse and nonlinear scenes and situations that invert the conventional coordinates of familiar sites, interrupting their daily operations and rendering new subjectivities.
“The act of gifting seems simple, but there is so much more to see philosophically and academically, involving ideas of obligations, customs, and perceptions. Take for example how the word ‘gift’ actually has its roots in poison, so it may not always be benevolent, but in fact, dangerous,” says Dr Yap. “Each of the four exhibitions both here and at our collaborators are related to this topic, taking a different perspective of these topics and issues, and relating it to their own local context. So The Gift is about looking into the complexities of gifting across history and cultures, through this selection of artworks.”
“Since it started in 2017, there’ve been so many conversations about working together to do a project, and use it to engage with critical curatorial discourses while bringing SAM’s collection into meaningful relationships, both regionally and internationally, and firmly establish SAM as a collecting institution,” she adds. “We want to take a step back and think about what it means to look back on the entanglements of cultures, particularly through the movement between objects, expressed in the practice of performance itself.”
The Gift runs from 20th August to 7th November 2021 at the City Hall Wing, Level B1, The Ngee Ann Kongsi Concourse Gallery, National Gallery Singapore. More information available here