“A man may wonder what will come in return for his gift, but he is not supposed to bring it up.” Lewis Hyde, author of “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World,” once said that. “Gift exchange is not a form of barter.” Gift, the new documentary by Robin McKenna is heavily influenced by the writing of Hyde, often presenting quotes of his from his books about the way artists utilize their talents as gifts to others. In Hyde’s terms, a gift is something selfless, something given without the anticipation of something in return. The giving of the gift is the true reward. While McKenna’s focus on this same topic does approach this idea at times, it’s hard not to think that some of that idea has been lost.
With Gift, McKenna focuses on four different stories of artists and how they give their gift to the people around them. McKenna doesn’t bother with names or details, instead focusing on the acts instead. One story centers on a Native American man who carves wooden masks for a tribal gathering. Another shows the Roman Metropoliz, a home for squatters that is also an art space. A beekeeper makes a bee car and brings her honey to Burning Man, and another artist, Lee Mingwei, provides unique art installations that allow him to mend museum visitor’s clothes or have his assistants go up to museum goers and ask if they would like “a gift of song.”
At least with these latter two stories, it’s hard to see these as completely altruistic acts. For example at one point, Lee Mingwei offers a woman a $20 bill he has turned into an origami creature, then tells the receiver of the gift, he will call her every six months to see what she has decided to do with his gift. Will she use the $20 as money, or will she treasure the gift he has given her? For Lee Wingwei, this is more of a transaction he can follow up on for his own experimentation and curiosity than it is a one-sided gift.
The same can be said of the beekeeper, who goes by the name Smallfry. She mentions that she’s been interested in bees since she was a child, hoping that she could even put a leash on one and keep it as a pet. We see her building a car that looks like a bee, only for it to be revealed that this is a vehicle she is taking to Burning Man. While there, Smallfry gives plentiful samples of her honey, yet it’s hard not to see this performance as a transaction as well, a way for her to standout in the desert party.
But Hyde’s ideas do come out here and there through McKenna’s film when the film shows off acts of kindness without any sort of return. One of Lee Mingwei’s exhibits is called “The Moving Garden,” in which visitors can take a flower, but only with the promise that they will give this flower to a complete stranger. While some strangers refuse the present, others receive the flower, then pass it on to another person. It’s a lovely gesture that shows the of giving selflessly and how giving a gift alone should be enough.
By splitting this film into four different tales, the story of the tribal gathering and the Metropoliz are both worthy stories that often feel like they are getting the short end of the stick. Metropoliz is a building brimming full of people telling their stories through art that an entire film could be made just about this building. Meanwhile, the gathering never quite gets the heft it deserves, and while the event’s planning is shown, the purpose for the event is lost in the mix.
Like an actual gift, Gift is at it’s best when it’s a present of generosity and care, not as part of some social contract. Gift – and its gift givers – likely have their hearts in the right place, but the presentation of McKenna’s view of gifts and Hyde’s ideas never quite coalesce.