Among the many victims of Covid-19 in New York was a plan for a city-wide Asia Society triennial scheduled to open in June 2020. As envisioned by co-commissioners Michelle Yun and Boon Hui Tan, the triennial – the organization’s first – was to be a multidisciplinary celebration of contemporary art from Asia and Asia. “We Do Not Dream Alone,” a truncated version featuring two exhibitions and a scattering of performance events, finally opened in October 2020, with a second part scheduled for March 15 through June 27.
In his curatorial statement, Tan says the Triennale is designed to unveil how people, objects and events “are linked in a complex web of bonds, associations and relationships”, thus attesting to “the power of the art of resisting our desire in the silo in these uncertain times. That this admirable sentiment is vulnerable to oversimplification is evident at the start of the event’s titular exhibit at the Asia Society. A pair of matching Xu Zhen® sculptures guard the entrance to the show. Each includes a headless copy of a traditional Cambodian sculpture grafted – vertically, neck to neck – onto a headless copy of a classical Roman figure, thus announcing the curatorial premise that in a globalized context all cultures are hybrid. Further amplifying this idea, the melassing accents of the Disney anthem “It’s a small world” float in the galleries of the second floor. The source of the soundtrack is an installation by Ken and Julia Yonetani. Not surprisingly, the Yonetanis use this melody ironically as part of a critique of misplaced twentieth-century confidence in the benefits of nuclear power. But the song inevitably colors all the surrounding works, enveloping them in a soporific plea for cultural harmony.
The selections both reinforce and repel this narrative. Natee Utarit’s painting The dream of the Siamese monks (2020) provides a classic illustration of hybridity. Based on a 19th-century Thai painting, it is a mishmash of images of colonial architecture, neoclassical sculpture, Western tourists, and a Buddhist monk pointing at a giant lotus. More intriguing in its cross-cultural references is a special project by Xu Bing and Sun Xun, “We the People”. Curated by Susan L. Beningson of the Brooklyn Museum, the installation suggests the interplay between Chinese and American political thought. An official 19th-century print of the American Declaration of Independence anchors the project. Xu presents a silkworm infested copy of The Interviews by Confucius, an ancient text on family duties and good government which influenced several Founding Fathers. Sun contributes to a long scroll painting that mixes traditional Chinese characters and motifs with shattered fragments of the Statue of Liberty. The handwritten denunciations of the tyranny of the Declaration of Independence involve a damning judgment on recent policies in China and the United States.
Sometimes the exhibition extends the geographic definition of Asia almost to the breaking point, thus undermining the promise of a common cultural heritage. Syrian-born artist Kevork Mourad emphasizes regional differences in See through Babel (2019), a scale model of the legendary Tower of Babel built from hand-drawn architectural cutouts. Minouk Lim’s Running empty, on the other hand, features three totem sculptures surrounding a video assembled from a 1983 show documenting efforts to reunite Korean families torn by the Korean War. The faces of hopeful, hopeless and – in a few cases – happily reunited family members speak to the peculiarities of Korean history without having to stress the book’s relevance to the current issue of family separation. at the US-Mexico border.
The second exhibit, “Dreaming Together,” at the New-York Historical Society, gives visitors a glimpse of what the initially envisioned civic extravagance might have entailed. By eliminating works from the collections of the Asia Society and the Historical Society (where she is Curator of American Art), Wendy NE Ikemoto has created interesting conversations across cultural and historical divides. The first of the show’s four themed sections, Nature, includes delicacies such as a pair of meticulously realistic 19th-century still lifes by Martin Johnson Heade, alongside the beautifully executed ink on silk by Zhang Yirong. Spring Peony III (2014). The People section combines works such as the 1867 painting by George Henry Boughton Pilgrims going to church and Stafford Mantle Northcote 1899 Hi Hee, Chinese Theater, Pell St., New York City. While the dark pilgrims of the former reinforce the founding mythology of a white Protestant America, the latter’s performance of a Cantonese opera performance in Lower Manhattan suggests the more diverse reality of the nation. In City, visitors find confrontations such as photographs by Zhang Dali showing Beijing’s abrupt modernization juxtaposed with shots of urban decay in Harlem by Marc Winnat. The protest section includes poster images of Kalaya’an Mendoza and Kenn Lam advocating Asian / African-American solidarity.
But above all of these mini-stories was a larger narrative suggested by the inclusion of the famous Historical Society painting cycle “Course of Empire” (1833-1836) by Thomas Cole. These five paintings relate the rise and fall of a great civilization. Placed at the beginning of the exhibition, they give an elegiac tone which is echoed by the references in various works to the destruction of the World Trade Towers, the demolitions brought about by gentrification and the destruction of political monuments. Matching Cole in Epic Ambition was Lotus, a 2014 video animation by Shiva Ahmadi that depicts the transformation of a peaceful Buddhist kingdom into a dystopia of war and destruction.
The Asia Society Triennial presents the evolution of pan-Asian exhibitions. After a hiatus in the market years of the early 21st century, identity explorations in art and art criticism are back in full force. But identity is taking on a new face in a world rocked by financial crises, the pandemic, right-wing nationalism and, in the United States, shameless racism. The ‘Other’ discourse of the 1990s assumed a binary opposition between the mainstream and the fringe, which served to implicitly elevate ‘non-otherness’ as the norm. In contrast, the identity of the 21st century emphasizes hybridity, intersectionality and the leveling of hierarchies. But is this just another calming myth?
While “We Do Not Dream Alone” conveys a message of hope about multiculturalism, “Dreaming Together” suggests that our commonalities are less about shared cultural traditions and more about the collective potential of universal annihilation. In that sense, a “small, small world” is a terrifying prospect.
This article appears under the title “Asia Society Triennial” in the March / April 2021 issue, pp. 63-64.