At Asia Society’s Inaugural Triennial, Artists Consider the Role of Borders in a Global Society
Installation view of “We Do Not Dream Alone” at Asia Society Museum, New York, October 27, 2020–June 27, 2021. From left to right: Lao Tongli, The Desire of Libido No. 5, 2017–19, Courtesy of the artist; Kevork Mourad, Seeing Through Babel, 2019, Courtesy of the artist; Shahzia Sikander, The Scroll, 1989–90, Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York; Shahzia Sikander, No Calm of Consummation, 2019, Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York. Photo by Bruce M. White. Courtesy of Asia Society Museum.
The Asia Society’s inaugural triennial, “We Do Not Dream Alone,” opens with a pair of nearly identical sculptures of Venus, but in the place of her head is an inverted statue of a male figure. The work of the prominent Chinese artist Xu Zhen, Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix (2019–20), was cast from replicas of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Statue of Venus Genetrix (2nd century A.D.) and the 11th-century Male Figure in the Asia Society Museum Collection. Essentially, the artist combined the Western art canon’s symbol of idealized female beauty with a non-Western ideal of male beauty.
Xu lays bare the stark differences in style between the ancient Roman and Cambodian sculptures, while forefronting the Eurocentric hierarchies that persist throughout the art world—from academia to the art market—that the triennial’s curators seek to disrupt. “The number of Asia-focus art exhibitions in New York remained modest. This is perplexing, as New York is supposed to be a global and cosmopolitan arts centre,” Boon Hui Tan, the triennial’s co-curator and former artistic director, recently told Orientations Magazine. “The majority of artists selected for the [triennial] either have not shown in New York or have not had substantial presentations for a long time—it was our way of trying to shift the needle.”
Xu Zhen®, Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix, 2019–20. Courtesy of XU ZHEN® and James Cohan, New York.
Xu Zhen®, detail of Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix, 2019–20. Courtesy of XU ZHEN® and James Cohan, New York.
“We Do Not Dream Alone” is the result of a five-year collaboration between Tan, former director of the Asia Society Museum and vice president for global artistic programs at the Asia Society, and his successor Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, formerly senior curator of Asian contemporary art at the Asia Society Museum. It’s a difficult and ambitious endeavor to mount an exhibition on the artistic production of a continent as disparate and sprawling as Asia. Even defining the boundaries of Asia, how far it stretches west or into the Pacific, feels uncertain. The inclusion of artists of the diaspora—a reflection of our current globalized condition, as well as histories of migration from war and civil unrest—further expands the possibilities of what can and should be seen as contemporary Asian art.
Tan and Yun Mapplethorpe find fertile ground in examining contemporary artists’ responses to the establishment or circumvention of national borders. Even so, the exhibition stumbles with the occasional works that exalt multiculturalism with a disregard for historical context.
Minouk Lim, installation view in “We Do Not Dream Alone” at Asia Society Museum, New York, October 27, 2020–June 27, 2021. Photo by Bruce M. White. Photo courtesy of Asia Society Museum. Courtesy of the artist and Tina Kim Gallery.
The triennial features over 40 artists and collectives—nearly half of the artists have been commissioned to create new work—from a variety of disciplines, including painting, sculpture, photography, video, textile, and performance. Reconfigured in response to COVID-19, “We Do Not Dream Alone” is presented in two parts: Part one is on view until February 7, 2021, while part two opens on March 16, 2021. The exhibition, which is free and open to the public at the Asia Society Museum, draws its title from a line in Yoko Ono’s 1964 publication Grapefruit: “A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.”
With Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix, the triennial commences by acknowledging that the construction of “the East” exists only to articulate an aberration from the West. While Western art is seen as the foundation of art history, Asian art is hastily added in for diversity, unable to stand on its own. This inaugural triennial marks the first major recurring exhibition of this scale in the United States dedicated to contemporary art of Asia and its diaspora.
Natee Utarit, The Dream of Siamese Monks, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Koh Fine Art.
Commissioned for the triennial, Natee Utarit’s painting The Dream of Siamese Monks (2020) turns to the role of Western aesthetics in nation-building in postcolonial Southeast Asia. The piece specifically addresses the artist’s home country of Thailand, which never fell to European rule. The Siamese monks noted in the title refer to 19th-century artist and Buddhist monk Khrua In Khong and his patron King Rama IV. The latter spent 27 years in the monkhood before ascending to the throne and embarking on a visual campaign to project strength to Western threats.
Under King Rama IV’s reign, In Khong adopted Western artistic values into his temple murals. The Dream of Siamese Monks parallels—in composition, use of linear perspective, and display of Western fashions—In Khong’s People Viewing Giant Lotus (1865). “European-ness,” Utarit has written, “encompasses ideals, dreams, and internal contradictions that are never going to fade.”
The triennial resists the idea of a pure or untouched essence of Asian art that exists in a vacuum, somehow unaffected by globalization or artistic production outside of the continent. In fact, “We Do Not Dream Alone” is most successful when readily engaging with cross-cultural exchange and histories of war.
To this end, multidisciplinary Korean artist Kimsooja’s video To Breathe – The Flags (2012) falls flat. Over the course of 40 minutes, 246 flags merge, blurring national lines as countries blend into one another and disappear. I witnessed the flags of Tuvalu and Uganda (two nations once colonized by the British empire) fuse together (along with others), then fade into a combination of the United Kingdom’s and United States’s flags. I thought the piece invoked imperialism and colonization, until I realized that the flags are layered in alphabetical order.
The work was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee on the occasion of the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and Kimsooja has described its subsequent variations as “a call for coexistence, for an ideal world in which individuals can unite in celebration of our distinctions and of our common humanity.” However, such an erasure of subjugation and its lingering aftermath in favor of peace, especially within the context of the nationalist Olympic Games, feels ahistorical and naive. Without a postcolonial lens, the fusion of loaded national symbolism is as undiscerning and uncritical as the work of a Twitter bot.
Minouk Lim, still from It’s a Name I Gave Myself, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Tina Kim Gallery.
In contrast, Korean artist Minouk Lim’s installation, which homes in on the function and consequences of national borders, is arguably the strongest presentation in the triennial. It’s a Name I Gave Myself (2018) is composed of excerpts from the live TV broadcast Finding Dispersed Families (1983), which sought to reunite lost family members 30 years after the Korean Armistice Agreement established the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Condensing more than 453 hours of footage to just over 20 minutes, Lim’s work emphasizes the loss of identity, memory, and histories caused by the division of the Korean peninsula. Many of the individuals shown in It’s a Name I Gave Myself were too young at the time of separation to remember their age or the names of their family members, offering only fragments of their childhood in the hopes of being identifiable. When one man is asked if he is certain of his name, he replies, “No. It is a name I gave myself.” Like many, often renamed by an orphanage or adoptive family, his birth name eludes him.
Minouk Lim, still from It’s a Name I Gave Myself, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Tina Kim Gallery.
Within the space of an art exhibition, It’s a Name I Gave Myself divorces the original TV broadcast from its intent of reunification and instead presents it as a spectacle of racial trauma. If Finding Dispersed Families’s endeavor to heal personal, familial fractures reflects a longing for a reunified Korea, then It’s a Name I Gave Myself acknowledges the global stage on which its partition occurred and the foreign powers involved.
Kyungah Ham’s series of textiles “What you see is the unseen / Chandeliers for Five Cities” (2016–17) speaks directly to the geopolitical power of China, England, the United States, and the former Soviet Union after World War II. Ham cites “middle man, smuggling, bribe, tension, anxiety, censorship, [and] ideology” in her list of materials. To create these works, she collaborates with anonymous artisans in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea through coded instructions and intermediaries based in Russia or China. The resulting embroideries depict luminous chandeliers swinging at dangerous angles. The chandeliers and their impending state of collapse evoke the grandiose rooms in which foreign powers decided Korea’s fate, and suggest that the golden age of such influence has passed. Nonetheless, indelible marks on the Korean peninsula have been made, with each individual stitch in Ham’s compositions representing a life impacted.
Kyungah Ham, installation view in “We Do Not Dream Alone” at Asia Society Museum, New York, October 27, 2020–June 27, 2021. Photo by Bruce M. White. Photo courtesy of Asia Society Museum. Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery.
Transnational collaborations are also integral to Palestinian-American artist Jordan Nassar’s practice. Based in New York, Nassar creates his hand-embroidered work with hired Palestinian women artisans from the West Bank. Guided by Nassar’s conceptual direction, they fill a designated portion of the canvas with geometric patterns characteristic of Palestinian cross-stitch. Nassar responds to the women’s color palette and patterns by embroidering an imagined landscape into the remaining space. The final composition is a dialogue between the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Nassar, the descendant of a Palestinian who left.
“When I’m in Haifa, modern-day Israel,” Nassar has said, “I think of it simultaneously as where my grandfather was, Palestine.”
Jordan Nassar, Memories, 2018. Courtesy of the artist, Anat Ebgi, and James Cohan, New York.
In the same space as Nassar’s work is that of Israeli-American artist Ghiora Aharoni, whose pieces fuse Hindi with Urdu and Hebrew with Arabic without a demonstrated consideration of the politics of language. Aharoni’s textile works depict a negation of a traditional Orthodox Jewish prayer, “Thank God for Not Making Me a Woman.” His series “Thank God for Making Me a Woman” (2017–19) is made up of embroidered angarkhas, garments traditionally worn by Indian men. The text, in Aharoni’s invented Hindru© and Hebrabic© languages, is embroidered by male Muslim artisans in India.
Whether Aharoni is attempting to draw parallels between the loss of Palestinian land to the partition of British India into present-day India and Pakistan, or express solidarity with the persecuted Muslim populations under Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, remains ambiguous. The curatorial intent to place the works of Nassar and Aharoni, vaguely united in their use of embroidery, in conversation with each other is also unclear.
Ghiora Aharoni, Thank God for Making Me a Woman, II, 2017. © Ghiora Aharoni. Courtesy of the artist.
The first part of the triennial concludes with a special project organized by guest curator Susan L. Beningson, “We The People: Xu Bing and Sun Xun Respond to the Declaration of Independence.” The project epitomizes the brief moments when the triennial falters—when cross-cultural commentary is prioritized over historical context.
In fact, commissioning artists to respond to an official 19th-century copy of the Declaration of Independence during this political moment feels out of touch, especially considering that the majority of those who signed the historic document were slave owners. It’s clear that the founding of the United States is rooted in genocide and enslavement, and the legacy of such violence continues to be felt today. The Declaration of Independence and its claim to the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness applied only to white men.
Sun Xun, detail of July Coming Soon, 2019. Photo by Alex Wang for ShanghART Gallery. Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery.
While Xu focuses on the influence of Confucius’s The Analects on the founding fathers, Sun illustrates the destruction that the Trump presidency has caused. Interspersed with excerpts from the 1776 document, Sun’s July Coming Soon (2019) depicts the Statue of Liberty in ruins as a winged creature resembling President Trump scurries away from the apocalyptic scene. However, structural inequities, amplified in the wake of COVID-19, existed prior to Trump and will, in all likelihood, continue to exist under Democratic leadership.
“We The People” still provides some insight into the present, however. Until part two of the triennial, which will happen approximately two months after President-Elect Biden’s inauguration, Sun leaves us with this: “Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”