Culture | Art as a gift

DHC's new exhibit considers the art in giving

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, one of North America’s most renowned contemporary art galleries, the DHC/ART located in Old Montreal, is launching a new exhibit called “L’Offre.”  “L’Offre” looks at the perceptible weight of gifts and exchanges in regards to how the acts of giving, receiving, and transmitting a present influence our everyday lives in ways we might not expect.

“Our mission is to break down the idea perpetuated by certain institutions that contemporary art is inaccessible. We need to remind ourselves that contemporary artists are artists of our time and are concerned with what we’re concerned with. We read the same news and are moved, touched and afraid of all the same things. This common ground is expressed in stuff or nothing or ideas: this is all art. When you look at art this way, it’s almost like going to the movies: you don’t need to have read all the books to be moved by a piece and ask questions,” said Cheryl Sim, the curator of the DHC since 2014.

To do so, the DHC brought together nine different artists, including Sonny Assu, Lee Ming Wei, and photographer Phil Collins whose works touch on the concept of giving in ways that are aesthetically interesting while also inviting the spectator to reflect, relate, and develop their own ideas. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to join the curator along with the artists mentioned on the first press tour of the new exhibit. The interactive artwork along with the unique use of the gallery’s space, such as a lack of didactic panels to push spectator’s to draw their own meaning from pieces, and the personal description of the pieces at the exhibit launch by Sonny Assu, Phil Collins and Lee Mingwei was nothing less than exhilarating. Many of the artists would allow the audience to take a piece of their work back home with them. For example, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled (Blue Placebo Pill),” spectators could take home one of the blue candies that the installation was made of. The exhibit invited the audience to interact with the artwork, making the spectatorship much more personal.

The individual and collective ways in which each piece described the meaning behind giving, receiving, and transmitting gifts provoked questions about the variability of value. On the first floor, Sonny Assu’s “Silent Burning” is comprised of a collection of painted drums placed on the floor. The image gives homage to his grandfather who had to burn these ceremonial materials before a potlatch to prevent their theft by an agent of the Canadian government seeking to uphold the violent Indian Act by surveilling Assu’s grandfather’s reserve and selling his possessions on the black market. “By burning these ceremonial drums,” Sonny Assu explains, “my grandfather showed that materials are better off being given back to their ancestors than to be used as inanimate objects.” This memory of his grandfather conveyed through these replicas of ceremonial drums, as described by Cheryl Sim, “is really important for the notion of gift exchange as opposed to market exchange” and invites the audience not only to admire the detail put into Assu’s works, but the question of what is valuable depending on your community. Assu’s works often reveal the suppression of the Kwakwaka’wakw culture by the Canadian government and hopes to shed light on the “dark, hidden history behind Canada’s actions/inactions against Indigenous peoples.” His piece in the exhibit, “Silent Burning,” contrasts the spiritual value behind giving in his community with the materialistic value behind giving in Western society.

On the third floor, in a spacious dark room, Phil Collins’ “Free Photo Lab” installed a projector with 80 different photographs, each taken by people who made a deal with Phil Collins. He said “I would offer to develop 35 mm film for free on the understanding (there was a contract) that they be used, distributed or exploited by me.” Phil Collins further elaborated that the piece allowed him to explore how a gift could equal a threat: on one hand the installation allows spectators to see life documented through someone else’s eyes, via the perspective of the photographer, but it also shows how you could trust someone with a personal, valued piece of work that becomes appropriated and exploited by someone else.

In addition to these pieces that express the unique, sometimes disturbing implications a gift can have, the exhibit’s interactive pieces allowed for particularly poignant reflection. Dora Garcia’s “Steal This Book exemplifies this: In the reading room of the gallery found in the basement of the first building, a table is covered with multiple copies of a small compilation of stories and interviews. The piece invites the audience to follow its title’s instructions and “Steal This Book,” which is part of the gallery’s installation and also sold in the bookstore. Daniel Fiset, one of the four Educators for the DHC, describes the work by saying, “It is a book that has a use value but also a sculpture that has an aesthetic value which makes the viewer question what they should or shouldn’t do: is it okay to steal the book if the artist tells you to do so?” I stole a copy, and it was an enthralling read.

Another work found in the exhibit that centres on the direct reception and transmission of gifts is “Sonic Blossom” by Lee Ming Wei. The performance features 5 opera singers walking around the fourth floor and inviting a random viewer to take a seat and listen to the entirety a live performance of one of 5 of Schubert’s Lieders. The piece is in homage to his mother, who he was taking care of during the piece’s conception, who listened to Schubert frequently with Lee Ming Wei. The installation thus seems to be a very intimate, personal interpretation of what it means to receive a gift. The performers are in the exhibit every weekend, and will invite whoever’s willing to listen to participate in the piece.

The DHC’s objective is to make contemporary art by important living artists available to whoever is intrigued and willing to learn. “The mandate of the DHC”, as explained by Daniel Fiset, “is to provide an exhibition space for contemporary artists, [the DHC] has to make sure the work is seen in a local context and that it resonates with Montreal, Québec, and Canada.”

One last gift: admission is free.

“L’offre” runs from October 5th to 25 October.


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