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John Waters's Loser Gift Basket (2006).

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Recession-Addled Art World Weighs Return to Barter System at Group Show

As money becomes a touchier and touchier subject in the art world, with galleries going months without selling a piece and artists making new work mainly for the hell of it, the opening of John Miller's group show at the Swiss Institute last night offered an interesting suggestion: Why not just give the art away? Called "Regift," the exhibition featured contributions by 23 artists — including heavy hitters like Sophie Calle, Lawrence Weiner, Jim Shaw, and Dan Graham — that all dealt with the strange and delicate affinities shared by gifts and works of art. "Basically my idea going into this had to do with the gift as an economic form, and how it doesn't fit within the supposedly rational economics of capitalism — it's not completely accountable in ways that an artwork cannot be completely accounted for," said Miller, an artist who has known many of the show's participants for years. "I was interested in looking at that in terms of an awkward fit, of what happens when something's exchanged, what happens when something's bought and sold, what happens when something is given again. And to what extent does the meaning have to do with social relationships rather than just the thing itself."

Sprawling through the Swiss Institute's spacious Soho loft, the show displayed work ranging from the explicitly literal — a secret-Santa-like pile devised by Maria Eichhorn, where people can leave wrapped gifts they've received to be exchanged for others at the end of the show — to the obliquely referential, like a sculpture by Sam Durant consisting of a bottle of Jack Daniel's lying on a folded military-green blanket, a reference to the liquor and smallpox-infected blankets the U.S. Army gave Native Americans. Some artworks were outright gifts that people could take, like matchbooks by Louise Lawler that read "NO SMOKING," a pile of colorfully wrapped candies by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and a stack of iron-on heart-and-dagger transfers by Mike Kelley that had a longish backstory. (Basically, he had designed the image for a friend's book and was surprised to see it printed years later on T-shirts.) A John Waters photograph of a "Loser Gift Basket" (seen above), containing canned pig brains, a pass good for 90 days at Betty Ford, and a Yanni CD, was certainly the funniest.

For the guests at the opening — which included artists like Jamie Isenstein and the genuinely Swiss Olaf Breuning and curators like Matthew Higgs, Bob Nickas, and Sarina Basta — the notion of art being distributed freely or on the barter system as its main mode of distribution had not yet become the reality. "We haven't done very much bartering yet I have to say," said art dealer Andrew Kreps. "We've exchanged work with people, but we haven't said 'You give me your Rolex and I'll give you a piece of art' ... Not yet."

Photo: Courtesy of the Swiss Institute