Examining Reciprocity in Singapore Art Museum’s “The Gift”

Interpersonal relationships and reciprocity, or the concept of gifting, is explored in an ongoing transnational project “The Gift”, curated by Dr June Yap, Director of Curatorial, Collections and Programmes of Singapore Art Museum.  Seminal international artists, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Holly Zausner and more, alongside much-loved local artists such as Donna Ong and Ho Tzu Nyen, that have taken personal approaches to form an emotional bond between the viewer and the art work.

Some highlights include more participatory works that invite audience to submit to a wall, interact, and in the process, become conscious of resistance, as well as following the compelling journey of an artist drag a gargantuan, oddly-shaped latex sculpture modelled after a human around the city of Germany. We feel the weight of German artist, Holly’s struggle against the metaphorical burdens of the sculpture, dragged around as though it were her own soul, shaped as a carcass, and how it is absurdly contrasted against the backdrop of the city.

Holly Zausner: The Doppelgänger Stretch – ARTnews.com
“Second Breath” (2004-2005), by Holly Zausner

We speak with Dr June Yap to understand the curatorial process behind “The Gift”, and explore the differences between the concept of “giving” in the East & West, and how it is exemplified through the works selected.

Popspoken: The concept of reciprocity seems more understated in Asian cultures as compared to the West, where every act of giving, whether in media or art, is vocalised and accepted in a more open manner. Do you agree with this statement? 

Dr June Yap: An examination of differences between Asian and Western giving is not the exhibition’s purpose, however, from experience we might notice such differences. In the case of the “Friendship Doll Project” referenced in the work of Donna Ong, while comparatively lesser in quantity, the dolls sent from Japan to America were elaborately-decked and their  representation in number (of prefectures, cities, territories and imperial household) is very meaningful as a national gesture.

On the part of the artist – which might be read as an ‘Asian’ response – the introduction of a caretaker and thus a giver of care, would seem to be a subtle yet considered response. The same might also be said of the work of Tang Da Wu, “Monument for Seub Nakhasathien”, where the artist offers an empathetic act rather than a grand one.

“The Caretaker” (2008) by Donna Ong

Popspoken: Out of all the Western artists, why was Joseph Beuys, a controversial performance artist who is known for his works revolving around a shamanistic ritual with a coyote chosen? How far do you think Energiestab was about him getting over his own personal trauma, rather, than giving unconditionally to the world around him?

Dr June Yap: In the broader curatorial discussion as part of the “Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories” project, the figure of Joseph Beuys is recognized for his impact on contemporary art, not just in Germany, but also internationally, thus his inclusion in the exhibitions.

“Energiestab” (1974) by Joseph Beuys

It is also significant for us in Singapore, in a historical recollection of an earlier exhibition of his works, Joseph Beuys: Drawings, Objects and Prints, that was presented at the National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore, in 1991, and is featured in photos by Koh Nguang How. As for Beuys’ chosen materials, which he is well-known for, it certainly demonstrates the impact of his encounter with the Crimean Tatars. And, as artists do, these experiences do shape their practices, in this case, developing a unique sculptural approach.

Popspoken: A different kind of pressure is felt in the written art form Body Pressure of Bruce Nauman, that seems to suggest something more visceral, as compared to the emotional piece with Joseph Beuys. Nauman’s works all have a sense of tension and helplessness, a sign of his struggles as an artist that was used to isolation. Why was this piece by Nauman chosen in the context of the “Gift” – what sort of relationship did the curator intend to convey with this piece?

Dr June Yap: As part of the scope of “Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories”, we have been interested in performative practices and this particular work by Bruce Nauman is especial in that it is not the artist who performs. There is a dynamic quality to this instructional and participatory work which also has an interesting introspective turn. In the act of giving, one often thinks of the other as outside of the self. But one can also gift to the self, and Body Pressure can be read as giving to the self through a reflexive experience.

Popspoken: What was the process like in coming up with the theme The Gift? Was it with the works in mind from above celebrated Western artists, to be fit in a framework, or did it stem from a societal issue seen in Singapore, whereby the concept of The Gift was birthed? 

Dr June Yap: The theme of gifting is a means to extend the broader project’s interest in collections, narratives and histories, to further explore the nature of exchange, affinities and relations, particularly their intangible and subtle aspects. A gift is not the object alone, but also intrinsically bound to the relation that it creates. Through the concept of the gift, attention is drawn to these aspects in these works. It is thus not arising from any social concern, but in its familiarity, audiences may find a personal connection to these artworks.

Popspoken: How do local artists like Donna Ong and Ho Tzu Nyen relate to the above seminal works of the West, which seemed preoccupied with the themes of isolation?

Dr June Yap: The presentation of artworks by local artists together with those from other parts of Asia or further afield in Europe or America is quite deliberate. We certainly see our artists as producing works which have presence and speak at a global level; both Donna Ong and Ho Tzu Nyen have shown works in international settings. In Donna Ong’s “Caretaker” and Ho Tzu Nyen’s “The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia: F for Fold”, their subjects are significantly international and regional respectively.

“The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, F for Fold” (2021) by Ho Tzu Nyen

Popspoken: What inspired the dialogue between SAM, Galeri Nasional Indonesia, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, and Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, initiated by the Goethe-Institut? What was the flow like and how did the artistic differences in collections between the institutions get reconciled before the final framework of the exhibition was agreed upon?

Dr June Yap: Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories is a discursive and exhibitionary project with the purpose of producing conversations between collections and curation. Aiming to trace stories, counter-histories, and absent histories and seek new narratives, it explores how these interwoven histories on nation-building and individual identity formation are reflected in artistic works and their exhibition history.

The curatorial collaboration started with informal conversations in 2017, with the years-long process of discussion and exchange culminating in the presentation of four related exhibitions by Singapore Art Museum, Galeri Nasional Indonesia, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

That is to say, it is not one exhibition that travels to four locations, but four exhibitions that are related primarily through artists and ideas. This deliberate distinction between the project and the exhibitions meant autonomy for each of us to develop our exhibitions differently and thus also get to understand each others’ perspectives on the project’s core subjects. I think we were quite invigorated by our curatorial conversations, in both sharing from and on our respective collections, as well as excited by the discoveries in each others’ collections for local purposes. This process has resulted in a deeper relationship between the curators than if it were just an exchange of collections. Even as the exhibitions have begun opening, in a sense bearing the fruits of our labour, it feels like we are still learning from each other.

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