hG commission: ‘The Gift Exchange’ with Eduardo Abaroa & Yang Zhenzhong

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In June 2010 Mexican artist and Chinese artist were invited to collaborate for the first time on the project, The Gift Exchange, which culminated with a private gift exchange on October 27, 2010 while both artists were in residence at the Garage. Click here to read the Art-Agenda announcement on the project.

From October 25 – 31, 2010 two artists from very different countries entered a blurry zone between intimacy and aesthetic compromise at the haudenschild Garage.

Any form of exchange implies risks. An undesired outcome can be almost imperceptible as when someone did not really like their birthday present. But some other gifts are a form of disaster. Think of the Trojan horse or President Obama’s DVD collection for Prime Minister Brown, which outraged the UK last year. The practice of the gift is a key element in a set of social coordinates that are deeply related to the process of art making, which many times is disastrous in itself.

The project began in June as a common interest in plastic toy factories in China and then it went on to the case of unlicensed Marvel super hero piñatas in Mexico. A few e-mails later it took the form of an exchange of photographs in what would be a sort of trans-cultural guessing game (I am still very fond of the idea of making an alternative free trade agreement between China and Mexico). Each artist would try to sing the other’s national anthem in its original language. The final touch that put it all together was Eloisa’s suggestion that the Chinese artist and his Mexican colleague should exchange a suitcase full of gifts, taking into account Marcel Mauss’ seminal essay The Gift and the traditions that these two cultures embrace.

Yang and I were confronted with a challenge. The vast differences between China and Mexico ensure some degree of unfairness and misunderstanding. A few hypotheses can be drawn up to this point:

– A gift exchange can become a ritualized form of combat, an amicable competition that in this case may be equal to deciding who has the most resourceful imagination. Yet there is something paradoxical to it, for the loser in this combat will get the better stuff.

– The feeling of power comes not only from a capacity to subdue the other, but also from the capacity to make someone else happy. These two forms may be separated or coexist in one and the same gift exchange. Altruism does exist, but only as expression of the giver’s own enjoyment with the other.

– Gift giving can be intensely aggressive, a form of control. In Mexico politicians give away caps, t-shirts, food, bags of cement or many other useful things to the people who are supposed to correspond with their vote. Voters favor the candidate who delivers the better gifts. It would be too innocent to believe that affection is never involved in this kind of exchange. I believe receiving gifts from the big man in the village would not be an equivalent of selling the vote for many of the people involved.

– A gift implies reciprocity, but this does not mean that the gift of each participant must be of the same kind. A person may even expect to be reciprocated in another life, by a specific spiritual entity or something similar. Reciprocity is relative. It is understood as an equivalent percentage of each participants´ energy or resources, not as objects or services having the same material value as in the case of barter exchange. While the unequal exchange is thus stabilized as fair, it also preserves the difference in hierarchy between the givers.

– Even if the exchange has strict rules, the end result is excessive and irrational from the point of view of material progress.

By Eduardo Abaroa

Click here to listen to the national anthem of Mexico as sung by Yang Zhenzhong.

Click here to listen to the national anthem of China as sung by Eduardo Abaroa.

About the artists

Eduardo Abaroa

Eduardo Abaroa is a mexican artist working in the fields of sculpture, installation and live action since 1991. He has shown his work in many major museums in Mexico, LA MoCA, PS1 and ICA Boston in the United States, Reina Sofía Museum in Spain, and Kunstwerke, Germany as well as in important venues in the UK, Canada, France, Korea and other countries.

As a writer, he was an art reviewer for the art section of Reforma newspaper, and has written for other important Mexican publications like Curare, Casper, Moho, D.F. and Codigo 06140. He has contributed texts for exhibition catalogues of artists like Francis Alÿs, Melanie Smith, Pablo Vargas Lugo, Tercerunquinto and Dr. Lakra, among others. He is currently course director at Soma, and was a co-founder of the influential Temistocles 44 artist run space in Mexico City(1993-1995).

Yang Zhenzhong

Born in Xiaoshan in 1968, Yang Zhenzhong now lives and works in Shanghai. He graduated from the oil painting department of the China Fine Arts Academy in Hangzhou in 1993 and began working with video and photography in 1995. Yang Zhenzhong’s work has showed at major biennales and triennials including Venice (2003), Shanghai (2002), Guangzhou (2002) and Gwangju (2002). Yang Zhenzhong became famous in 2000 with his half-hour video “(I Know) I Will Die” that features short sequences in which a series of people speak the phrase “I will die” to the camera. It is a disconcerting, soberly presented film that confronts the viewer with existential questions.

Yang Zhenzhong recognizes that individual participation is the starting point for the transformation of perception. The video “922 Grains of Rice” plays with the interaction of the image of a cock and a chicken pecking grains of rice and the sound of a male and a female voice counting the number of pecked grains. It is a humorous representation of the battle of sexes as well a comment on today’s competitive behavior.

The desire to challenge normative notions of social behavior informs the practices of Yang Zhenzhong’s work. He is pre-occupied with China’s intrinsic disharmony and extreme discrepancies and often touches upon taboos such as death and out-dated social norms. His approach is metaphorical rather than narrative. His videos often start from witty ideas, employing image repetition and rhythmic coordination of sound, language and image. “Let’s Puff” (4th Shanghai Biennale, Zone of Urgency, 50th Venice Biennial) similarly starts from the interplay of two images: a young woman puffing and a busy street. Every time the woman breathes, the image of the street moves away from the viewer. The rhythm of the traffic and the angle of perception are altered with the rhythm of the woman’s breath. (from ShanghART; Shanghai, China)

* The Garage would like to thank Yang Zhenzhong’s translators during the project: Alexia Dehaene in Shanghai and Alice Zhu and Ya Xiao in San Diego.