In June 2010 Mexican artist Eduardo Abaroa and Chinese artist Yang Zhenzhong were invited by the haudenschildGarage 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 residency at the Garage.
From October 25 - 31, 2010 two artists from very different countries entered a blurry zone between intimacy and aesthetic compromise at the haudenschildGarage.
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.
About the artists
Eduardo Abaroa http://enwikipedia.org/wiki/Eduardo_Abaroa_(artist)
Yang Zhenzhong http://www.yangzhenzhong.com/
* 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.