by Dilpreet BhullarJul 25, 2021
Asia Society Triennial recently presented its inaugural edition of a contemporary art event which examined the spectrum of Asia’s diaspora, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which recently shook the cultural landscape of America. In a showcase of over 40 artists, the Triennial selected interdisciplinary works from more than 20 countries.
Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, Vice-President for global artistic programs at Asia Society and director of Asia Society Museum, who is co-curator of the event, speaks with STIR about the motivations to create this exhibition in New York City. She says, “One of our goals in organising the Asia Society Triennial was to provide a much-needed platform in the United States for contemporary art from and about Asia. We wanted to be inclusive in our selection, and to present the diversity of Asia and Asian art in a place where too often, Asia is perceived as a monolith. We also conceived of the Triennial as a celebration of the broad and rich array of Asian cultures that comprise a significant yet historically underserved demographic in New York City”.
Mapplethorpe contextualises this showcase against the larger narrative of global economies and culture. She aptly says, “As the world continues to pivot toward Asia, it is essential to foster greater understanding, empathy, and discourse about Asian cultural and sociopolitical concerns. The issues raised by Triennial artists resonate with topical circumstances within the countries represented, yet many of them, such as environmental degradation, are shared global concerns. These concerns connect seemingly disparate audiences and reveal our shared humanity”.
The Asia Society Triennial is one of many arts driven initiatives looking to break down the hegemonic, colonial narrative of global culture in the hope to create better relations and equations across the world. In the purview of our collective fight against racial intolerance and cultural oppression, the Triennial is a step toward a more informed and mindful viewer, reader, human. The director shares, “This inaugural presentation of the Asia Society Triennial is titled We Do Not Dream Alone. This title references 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”—suggesting the uplifting and uniting potential of art”.
She continues to say, “The Asia Society Triennial has coincided with both a dramatic rise in anti-Asian violence in the United States following the COVID-19 outbreak, and the BLM protests and their aftermath. Distinct yet overlapping conversations about race relations in the United States have historically centered on the dichotomy between Black and White or Caucasian and Latinx populations. This has caused a deep cultural identity crisis within the Asian diasporic community relating to their ability to be seen, heard, and understood. It has also left out consideration of shared experiences and allyship between the Asian Pacific American (APA) and Black communities”.
Mapplethorpe outlines the institution's efforts to address these issues. She discusses, “Asia Society focused its 2021 programming and other content on highlighting the experiences and contributions of APAs in the United States such as our Asian film series, Asia Society at the Movies, as well as other new initiatives. The Teaching Truth to Power discussion series looked specifically at the root causes of systemic racism in public education while our Global Talent, Diversity and Inclusion Symposium assessed challenges and opportunities facing APAs and other communities, in an effort to come together to tackle injustice and embrace a common set of beliefs that we are all part of one human family”.
One of the highlights of the show was We the People, a set of works created especially for the Triennial. The director tells us more about the significance of these works, “Xu Bing and Sun Xun’s We the People is a special project spanning parts one and two of the Triennial in which the artists have created new works that respond to a rare 19th century official copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Xu uses a copy of The Analects by Confucius, foundational to both Chinese and early American political thought and which influenced the nation’s founders as they crafted the Declaration, to make a work commenting on the fragility of such manifestos. The book is displayed open, with silkworm cocoons and threads spun across the pages. The delicate overlay of silk fibers masks the printed text, suggesting the shifting meanings and interpretations over time.
In Sun’s 24-page folding album, he borrows from Chinese painting tradition both in use of motifs and in its suggestion of dissent. The artist takes inspiration from the words written in the Declaration of Independence while offering political critique of more contemporary power structures, including a reference to excesses of the (Donald) Trump administration. Together, the works encourage viewers to contemplate democratic values at a time of transition in the wake of a new presidential administration. We the People is guest curated by Susan L Beningson, PhD”. In many ways, these works are representative of the backbone of the curatorial intentions of this exhibition making it a keystone in the display.
The Triennial took place in two parts, starting in October 2020 and closing on June 27, 2021.
The display included myriad media, including dance, film, theater and installation. Lu Yang and Vibha Galhotra are two of the several prominent contemporary artists on view. Lu Yang, a Shanghai-based artist, shared her 2021 animated installation Dokusho Dokushi Hello World at the second part of the Triennial. The four-minute video was commissioned by Asia Society. Galhotra, a noted artist from India, showcased her recent photo series The Final Feast 2019-2020. The staged images employ dramatic lighting and exquisite costume to deliver an ethereal effect to the viewer. The New Delhi-based artist was the recipient of the Rockefeller Grant in 2015 with works in private and public collections globally.