The Kula Ring

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 18, 2016

This exhibition is part of SIFA Shares, which means that it wasn’t advertised in the early prints of the booklet. But it oughta get plenty of traffic anyway, because it’s in the lobby space of 72-13, meaning that anyone’s who’s watching LGB or In the Mood for Frankie or The Return of La Argentina orMaking and Doing is gonna stumble across it.

It’s frankly not as visually spectacular as Newsha Tavakolian’s exhibit. It honestly looks like an assembled clump of bric-a-brac—in fact, one work by Brazilian artist Renata de Bonis really is just the crap that washed up on the beach of an island settled by indigenous communities.

But it is very international. Here we’ve also got works from Singapore, Malaysia, Cuba, Germany and, in the form of the original Kula ring artefacts, Papua New Guinea.

OKS: We are interested in international exchanges. Because in Singapore our outlook can become quite closed in terms of ideas, about economics, freedom of speech.

The Kula ring, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in an area of Papua New Guinea, wherein apparently worthless trinkets are exchanged between islands to foster goodwill— red shell necklaces clockwise, white shell armbands counter-clockwise.

It was first documented by the father of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, while he was hiding out in the Pacific during World War I, and posited as an alternative to capitalism. And that really intrigues Keng Sen.

OKS: This is a small exhibition, but it’s rich in ideas. Because can you imagine a future in which we are no longer exchanging with hard dollars? I think this is something that is quite pressing in Singapore because I remember the bubble in Tokyo in the ‘80s.

I feel there is a sense of that in Singapore, because more and more we are reaching a certain limit, because people are taking about how expensive it is to live here. Our international guests are saying no one can afford anything. So can we go forward with this capitalist model?

The Kula Ring is a space that has become empty. It is not completely practised today. There are still people who are exchanging these beads of shells but it has become slightly archaic.

The exhibition was first staged earlier this year at a symposium at Weimar, Germany, after which KS decided to replicate it here. I’d previously thought the works would be the gifts that the artists were giving one another—a global ring of islands—but it turns out that they were responding to the theme instead.

Some presented documentation (genuine and faux) of the practice in the islands. While others presented parallel histories, such as Donna Ong’s recollection of the exchange of Japanese friendship dolls in pre-WWII Japan and the USA.

Interestingly, some works are only achieving their true fruition in Singapore. The local art collective Post-Museum had a library on display, called the Archive of Future Commons: they’d previously wanted to do live readings from the books in Weimar, but it only ended up happening here. Nora Samosir, Koh Boon Pin and Noorlinah Mohammed treated us to extracts of Jacques Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster, the Dalai Lama's Beyond Religion and Michael R. Dove's The Banana Tree at the Gate.

Goethe Institut head Han-Song Hiltmann also had a few words to share about the concept of sharing in the exhibition:

Han-Song Hiltmann: Sharing and exchange evolves. We are talking about sharing economies. We are talking about commons, and we all know that the new media, the social networks we are using are based on ourselves, inherent behaviour that we want to share.

And it becomes quite clear that sharing our personal information, our homes and even our cars creates entire new commercial activities and even economies: Facebook, Über and AirBnb have proven this. Even the idea of commons, shared information for the common good, has not become only a global phenomenon, but even goes along with its promise that in the future it can change entire economic systems as claimed by Paul Mason in his book Future Capitalism. I will add this book to this commons library!

Han-Song Hiltmann: What this exhibition does is different, because it is not a sociological view, because it’s not documenting current issues or traditional practice. This exhibition is artists with their very exotic work. They refer to the very old element of sharing, which is the personal encounter, which comes along with sharing and exchange. And this personal element of sharing and exchange, in my view, is the magic and poetry of these artworks. 

In this sense I wish you a very personal experience. Please share your thoughts within this festival and during the whole amazing program of SIFA.

Of course, Keng Sen couldn’t let well enough alone and pointed out the irony of using contemporary art to critique capitalism:

OKS: At a time when the contemporary art has reached this very problematic phase of the art market, all of us curators are wondering when this this bubble going to burst? Like when a collection of books like this might cost one million dollars…

Ah well. I don’t know if the master’s tools can ever dismantle the master’s house. But what else do us servants have to work with?

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  • 2016