New York City's Asia Society Museum ushered in the spring season by unveiling the second and final chapter of We Do Not Dream Alone (26 March–27 June 2021), an inaugural triennial aimed at highlighting the diversity of ideas and practices found within contemporary Asian art.
The exhibition comes at a moment of profound anxiety for the Asian American community. Faced with increasing xenophobia and violence, one can't help but embrace the space for inclusivity with renewed fervour. That said, the Triennial—as a major presentation by an institution entirely dedicated to promoting discourse around Asian culture—could have done more to tap into this current context of pervasive fear and anger.
Part Two opens with a curatorial statement from Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, Asia Society's vice president for global artistic programmes as well as this project's artistic director, which announces that 'the Triennial does not purport to be exhaustive in its representation' and ends with a (by now, over one year into the global pandemic) boilerplate sentence about the 'healing potential of art to unite and empower.'
While the intention to bring greater attention to lesser-known artists of Asian descent is undoubtedly admirable, the lack of a clearer direction within this final chapter felt decidedly disappointing.
At times accompanied by wall texts that laid claim to either grandiose or mundane themes, many of the selected works were, frankly, cliché.
It felt like an exaggeration to link Song-Ming Ang's True Stories (2021)—a mishmash of ambient noise tracks, paper cut-outs, images appropriated from the internet, and texts—to the 'growing miscommunication and fracture of societal norms that define our contemporary moment,' while Cheuk Wing Nam's video and sculpture created in response to the 'isolation and loneliness' caused by the current global lockdown failed to capture interest. Does anyone really need an artwork to remind them of the challenges of the pandemic?
Upstairs, 'The Final Feast (Staged Photograhs)' (2019–2020) by Vibha Galhotra—unoriginally inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper—strove to satirise the wealthy elite's greed and obsession with power, by depicting decadently dressed subjects around a table as they feast on a cake quite literally shaped to resemble the earth.
Given the availability of her vastly superior works that are gorgeously woven from ghungroos, a traditional anklet that adorns the feet of Indian dancers with metallic bells, the choice was surprising.
Another point of frustration resided in Mina Cheon's diptych (Dreaming Unification: Oori (우리) Protest for Peace, 2019–2020), for which the artist spray-painted the characters meaning 'we' or 'us' between two stencilled outlines of the Korean peninsula.
Surely there must be a more nuanced way to engage with topics surrounding the painful division between North and South Korea, and the need for reconciliation; Minouk Lim's work It's a Name I Gave Myself (2018) from the first segment of the Triennial immediately comes to mind.
Cheon's adjacent row of videos, collectively titled Art History Lessons by Professor Kim (2017), felt like little more than kitsch for kitsch's sake, in spite of the fact that they were created to be smuggled into North Korea by way of an activist network dedicated to infiltrating the hermit kingdom's blockade of external information.
No matter how noble the intention, it's hard to grasp what these instructive videos about canonical artworks and movements—cloyingly filled with deadpan humour and trendy Snapchat filters—may have concretely achieved. Ultimately, it just felt gimmicky.
Even still, there were successes to be found. Abir Karmakar's trompe l'oeil paintings of domestic interiors, each mounted on metal stands that brought construction scaffolding to mind, were a high note. Masterfully rendered at life-size, the works depict spaces littered with minutely detailed objects that populate an ordinary home in India.
The exhibition comes at a moment of profound anxiety for the Asian American community. Faced with increasing xenophobia and violence, one can't help but embrace the space for inclusivity with renewed fervour.
Collectively titled Passage (2020), the suite of paintings offers intimate glimpses into faraway lives that are in fact imagined by the artist, who imposed the comforts of a non-Western home onto the recreated architectural framework of a defunct, 19th-century building that once housed American military families on New York's Governors Island. In doing so, Karmakar collapses both time and space, drawing our attention towards the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate communities and histories.
Works by seasoned artists Prabhavathi Meppayil and Reza Aramesh anchored the upstairs portion of the exhibition. A daughter of a goldsmithing family, Meppayil arranged hundreds of found iron, copper, and brass jewellery moulds to form nt/twenty (2020)—an impressive, wall-based installation that tastefully marries craft-based traditions and the visual aesthetics of Minimalism.
Each individual component is hand embellished with a delicate and unique pattern of its own, which becomes apparent only at close range. Executed with beautiful restraint, the Bangalore-based artist's work, registering as both organic and precise, harkens back to artisanship as the world moves further towards mass industry and mechanical reproduction.
Study of the Vase as Fragmented Bodies (2021), a row of hand-thrown vases by Aramesh, lined a long shelf situated before an adjacent wall. Known for inserting imagery of contemporary violence into Euro-American classical art mediums and settings, the artist imposed the stark silhouettes and loosely rendered contours of subdued men, many blindfolded or with hands tied behind their backs, onto black and white vases inspired by those of Ancient Greece.
Tinged with homoeroticism, Aramesh's terracotta sculptures evoke funerary urns, as though to mourn and pay tribute to the countless lives—often made anonymous by the Western news media—destroyed by imperial conquest and warfare. Their deliberate display in a museum, a venue that has historically peddled treasures and artifacts forcefully stolen from colonised lands, further amplified the critique.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Lu Yang's immersive video installation Dokusho Dokushi Hello World (2021)—animated via motion caption, augmented reality, and CGI technology—centres on an avatar dancing to pulsating electronic music before a bright red backdrop.
Rendered in the style of Japanese anime and video games, the work takes root in the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, and conceptually catapults the artist's physical self into a virtual realm free from the world's many societal constraints.
The only critique here is that the three-minute work, comprising only one scene, felt like a truncated trailer for something more, and could have done without the monitors showing the making-of process. It will be exciting to see how Lu, a rising young talent who studied under pioneering artist Zhang Peili, continues the series in the years to come.
Taken as a whole, the Asia Society Museum's first-ever Triennial represents an ambitious undertaking to bring more artists of Asian descent into the fold, though its execution was met with mixed success. Although key elements—such as live performances and simultaneous, auxiliary presentations at multiple venues across New York City—were unfairly curtailed by the realities of the ongoing pandemic, it is still remarkable to see so many artists, many of whom reside outside the so-called art capitals of the world, under one roof.
Hopefully, this will lead to further presentations for the many emerging talents who participated, not only in group exhibitions organised with culture as its overarching theme, but also in solo shows and performances that place individual practices on prominent display.—[O]