Dayanita Singh, The Gift NFS, 2005/2016, vitrine displaying accordion-fold photobook Chairs, 2005, 7 1/8 × 91 × 4 1/2". From “Given Time: The Gift and Its Offerings.”

Dayanita Singh, The Gift NFS, 2005/2016, vitrine displaying accordion-fold photobook Chairs, 2005, 7 1/8 × 91 × 4 1/2". From “Given Time: The Gift and Its Offerings.”

“Given Time”

Gallery Odyssey

Dayanita Singh, The Gift NFS, 2005/2016, vitrine displaying accordion-fold photobook Chairs, 2005, 7 1/8 × 91 × 4 1/2". From “Given Time: The Gift and Its Offerings.”

Few philosophers incite muddled cultural takes like Jacques Derrida. “Given Time: The Gift and Its Offerings,” curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala, is titled after Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (1991), Derrida’s deconstruction of Marcel Mauss’s classic sociological treatise on reciprocity and exchange, The Gift (1925). Basing his argument on a cyclical retelling of Charles Baudelaire’s “Counterfeit Money,” a parable about a man who gives a beggar a high-value coin that turns out to be counterfeit, Derrida develops the notion of the impossibility of a genuinely altruistic gift, concluding that such a gift is that much more worth questing after. If this powerful message anchors the show, the welter of irrelevant works dominating the show, some by India’s biggest artists, does more to strategically legitimate the endeavor than to commemoratively revisit Derrida’s text.

Indeed, some works seem to qualify solely by the inclusion of the word gift in their labels. Raqs Media Collective’s A Different Gravity, 2012, for instance, suggests that “a surprise is a gift” through an installation meant to evoke the anticipation inherent in words. Mundane nouns and verbs—FLYING, STAGE, WRONG, TIME—take shape on a rug, a mirror, a chair, and a table, respectively. Characterized as a return gift, Anarkali and Seventy-Two Idiots, 2004–10, by Atul Dodiya, features seventy-two digital archival photographs of Indian artists presented to Dodiya by fellow artist Bose Krishnamachari in 2003, here reworked by Dodiya to ludic effect by adding details such as a moustache, thick eyebrows, and a mole. Old saws about rain, human touch, freedom, and time being gifts, and about gift giving’s moral imperatives, are trotted out ad nauseam via displays by Jitish Kallat, Anju Dodiya, Anita Dube, and Shaurya Kumar that, sophisticated as they are, lack resonance with the specifics of Derrida’s arguments.

Luckily, a few fresh views do make an impression. Both relevant and subtle, if perhaps limited by scale, Prajakta Potnis’s Please read the offer document carefully, 2016, features thin sheets of tarnished German silver representing shiny gift-wrapping paper decorated with fine print about the recipient’s obligations excerpted from various gift deed documents. A before-and-after effect is created by a neat stack of unused wrapping paper towering over a landscape of similar sheets crumpled on the ground, as though no sooner did the gift get unwrapped than the rules of return gifting were quickly forgotten, to the obvious detriment of the recipient. Justin Ponmany’s cheeky video Europa Loading . . . , 2016, fuses the internet’s circular loading icon with the European Union’s logo, a circle of yellow stars against a blue background, in a commentary on the decline of European generosity vis-à-vis the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

Solitary in its meditation on gift giving’s role within an economic flow of goods is Dayanita Singh’s vitrine of accordion-fold photo books, including the installation The Gift NFS, 2005/2016. First produced as a unique book, Chairs, in 2005, the ensuing print run of one thousand copies was divided into five hundred for sale and five hundred for distribution. Singh gifted sets of ten copies each to friends who were in turn instructed to present their copies to their friends, producing a network of largesse devoid of financial transaction.

In the end, the most engrossingly visual and texturally affective work is about names rather than gifts. Shilpa Gupta’s Altered Inheritances–100 (Last Name) Stories, 2012–14, captures the biases and dangers that last names can invite through the overused but effective metaphor of split identity. Each image, in a grouping of laterally arranged units, consists of stacked, noncontinuous photographs buffered by a thin white space. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes prosaic texts either overlay the image or are isolated in the white margin below each unit. Dozens of these proffer a culturally sprawling history of personal nomenclature. One learns, for instance, that Koreans who chose not to adopt Japanese names in wartime Japan were denied education, ration cards, and postal deliveries. There is the account of Li Lizhen, the son of a minister executed at the end of the Shang dynasty in China, who adopted the name “Li” in gratitude for the refuge provided by a plum tree, li in Mandarin. Other stories call out from the panorama. Yet none can distract from their confusing inclusion in a show that does everything but remain thematically true.

Prajna Desai