The Gift: Generous Offerings, Threatening Hospitality

  • Gabriel Orozco, My Hands Are My Heart, 1991.

  • The Gift installation view, The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002.

  • Carsten Höller, Killing Children III (Kinderfalle), 1993. Cortesy Schipper & Krome, Berlin.

  • The Gift, installation view, Block Museum of the Arts, Northwestern University, Chicago, 2003.

  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Revenge), 1991.

  • Yoko Ono, Wish Tree, 1996–2001.

  • The Gift, installation view, Block Museum of the Arts, Northwestern University, Chicago, 2003.

Curated by Gianfranco Maraniello, Antonio Somaini

What is a gift? Who gives what, to whom, and why? Asking ourselves these questions underscores the three pivotal elements involved in the action of giving: giver, gift, receiver. The term “gift” evokes a variety of gestures and practices: the present and the offering, the homage and the dedication, invitation and hospitality. These gestures seem to be born from a spontaneous and joyous generosity, but behind them often hide insidiousness and provocation, challenge and confrontation. To give can be both the means of expressing one’s own affection and devotion in a modest but seductive way, or a strategy to affirm one’s own superiority with an exuberant and excessive gift. Hospitality can be translated as generous welcome or as the imposition with which the other is obliged to submit to our rules. Every gift, in other words, can be generous or perverse, sincere or insidious, discreet or invasive; it can be proposed as a manifestation of the joy of giving, or as a gesture of waste and dissipation that brings with it a desire for self-affirmation and a will to power.

Christmas and birthday presents, complimentary and free offers, alms and donations, celebrations based on giving or thanksgiving, gifts of organs, blood, or sperm: the practice of giving does not seem to have lost its importance in the current economy of relationships and exchanges. Today, the obligation of reciprocity in giving is still in force: the gift and the invitation must be reciprocated; hospitality has its rules, its times and measures; things given still possesses a “spirit” that confers in them a particular aura. A gift that cannot be reciprocated – because it is excessive, grandiose, disproportionate with respect to the receiver’s ability to give in kind – is looked upon with embarrassment and easily ends up being interpreted as an offense or an affront. And yet, beyond these residues of ancient customs and measures, we perceive everywhere a tendency toward the establishment of practices of giving and hospitality that are increasingly repetitive and impoverished: the rules of giving and receiving are becoming explicit and progressively lose their symbolic value, with gifts bought and offered according to pre-constituted and repetitive models of desire.

The intent of this exhibition is to emphasize a new perspective on the relational nature of the work of art arising from the ambiguous nature of gifts. The work presented here demonstrate the capacity of art to give life to situations in which the gestures of giving and receiving still maintain all their richness and ambiguity, and in which the relationship among artists, spectator, and work may shift back and forth between invitation and provocation, homage and insidiousness, self-expenditure and seduction. Before such works, we as spectators are called as recipients of an offering, and we are invited not to fail in the obligation to reciprocate every gift with a counter-gift, through our own offerings of reflection, criticism, and memory.

The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Centro Arte Contemporanea Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena, Italy.



Gianfranco Maraniello

Gianfranco Maraniello is currently Director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto (Mart). He has curated numerous exhibitions in Italy and abroad and is the author of many essays. He has taught postgraduate courses for LUISS University in Rome and for Brera Art Academy in Milan. He served as curator at Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena and at MACRO Museum in Rome. In 2006 he was Chief Curator of the Shanghai Biennale. In 2005 he became Director of GAM in Bologna where he proceeded to inaugurate the new MAMbo museum in 2007. From 2013 until 2015, he was in charge of directing the entire system of civic museums in Bologna (Istituzione Bologna Musei).

Antonio Somaini

Antonio Somaini is Professor in Film, Media, and Visual Culture Theory at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3. In 2013, he was a fellow at the ZfL (Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung) in Berlin, and in 2014-15 Senior Fellow at the IKKM (International Research Institute for Cultural Technologies and Media Philosophy) in Weimar. His research deals on the one hand with the film, media and montage theories of the 1920s and 1930s (Béla Balázs, Walter Benjamin, Sergei M. Eisestein, Siegfried Kracauer, László Moholy-Nagy, Dziga Vertov), and on the other with the history of the concept of “medium.” He is the author of two books (Visual Culture: Images, Gazes, Media, Dispositives, published in Italian in 2016, and Eisenstein. Cinema, Art History, Montage, published in Italian in 2011, English translation forthcoming in 2017) and the editor of editions in Italian, French, and English of writings by Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, László Moholy-Nagy, and Dziga Vertov). Together with Naum Kleiman, he has edited the English edition of Eisenstein’s Notes for a General History of Cinema (Amsterdam UP 2016).


touring schedule

Art Gallery of Hamilton
Hamilton, ON, Canada
August 9, 2003 - October 18, 2003

Block Museum of the Arts, Northwestern University
Chicago, IL, United States
April 11, 2003 - June 22, 2003

The Bronx Museum of the Arts
Bronx, NY, United States
November 27, 2002 - March 2, 2003

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
Scottsdale, AZ, United States
February 9, 2002 - May 5, 2002

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