It was clear from its premise that the Asia Society Triennial would be a difficult feat: a triennial about the most populous continent in the world and its diaspora amid a crowded field of hundreds of biennials and triennials — and that’s not even to mention that it debuted during a pandemic that not only forced a last-minute re-hang and rescheduling of its vast slate of programming, but also unleashed a torrent of anti-Asian racism in the US. But though the scope of We Do Not Dream Alone — “unveiling the way people, objects, and events across time and space are linked through a complex web of relationships” — makes its task nearly impossible to execute, some form of it was necessary to attempt. Though the first exhibition of the multi-part, multi-venue triennial occasionally stumbles, it ultimately succeeds, at least as the first instantiation of what will hopefully be a regular and prolonged investment in art from the Asian diaspora in New York.
We Do Not Dream Alone takes an expansive view of what “Asian”-ness is or can be. The presentation at the Asia Society Museum highlights plurality: its twenty-one-artist roster includes East Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and artists from the Arab world in solid numbers. Jordan Nassar, for instance, is a New York-born-and-based artist who engages with his heritage through the contracting of Palestininan craftswomen to make landscapes in tapestry; Kevork Mourad, who contributed the grand yet gossamer “Seeing Through Babel” (2019), channels oral history traditions and childhood memories of Syria and Armenia in his work.
But perhaps as a result of that wide range, the triennial draws uneven and occasionally awkward connections between artists from disparate regions, traditions, and practices. For instance, the only text in the show that explicitly links two artists compares Hamra Abbas’s brushwork to the gongbi style of Lao Tongli — an artist exhibiting on a different floor of the show — and strangely relegates discussion of the technique “tak[ing] on different meanings outside their place of origin” in Abbas’s work to Lao’s wall text. More successful curatorial pairings signal the connection between themes of obfuscation and coded-ness in Abbas’s and Jason Wee’s depiction of Lahore’s transgender community and queer Singaporean meeting places, respectively.
In launching the triennial, co-curator and former Asia Society Museum director Boon Hui Tan professed surprise at New York’s disconnectedness from the cross-cultural work happening in other global centers. Partly in an attempt to remedy the local dearth of critical attention on Asian artists, the exhibition is intended to showcase new work by artists who haven’t held major museum or gallery shows. But the tension between the curatorial aim of featuring work by lesser-known artists and the temptation to introduce audiences to a body of work via its “greatest hits” — a particular challenge for any triennial’s first iteration — is palpable. Nassar and Shazia Sikander recently presented simultaneous exhibitions at blue-chip New York galleries; Nandalal Bose and Arpita Singh are well-known as the patriarch and matriarch of first- and second-wave Indian modernism, respectively. Xu Bing and Xu Zhen are likewise essential presences in any presentation of Chinese contemporary art. At the same time, artists like Daniel Crooks (whose work is being presented in Times Square) and Kyungah Ham, have barely shown work in the US in recent years. Crucially, nearly half of the works in this show are commissioned, underscoring Asia Society’s dual interest in surveying the landscape of Asian art production and actively shoring it up.
There are certainly some misses in this show. Nasim Nasr’s video “33 Beads (Unworried #1)” (2018), in which women destroy worry beads, an integral part of a largely patriarchal tradition in Iran, is heavy-handed. On the other hand, her multi-channel installation, “What to Do?” (2012), is subtle and wonderful. Anonymous men expertly and worriedly flick tasbih prayer beads from one hand to another, filling the room with the sound of collective ritual and concern.
The most successful works in this show are those that hone in on specificity and nuance, which necessarily connect to cross-cultural currents, rather than extrapolating about globalization or collapsing into too-simple gestures of subversion. With her stunning sculpture “Follow Your Heart Wholeheartedly” (2020), Anne Samat creates a monumental group of familial totem figures, elevating household materials by arranging them into regal warrior-like figures with crowns and epaulets. Minouk Lim’s “It’s A Name I Give Myself” (2018) probes the scars of war via a compilation of video excerpts featuring individuals separated from their families by the Korean War, narrated by a fast-clipped voice-over. The fragmentation of their recollection is synecdoche for the sundering of a nation: one individual tries to identify themself to a lost family by a birthmark under the chin, another by an early memory of a sister’s limp.
We Do Not Dream Alone draws its name from a 1964 book by Yoko Ono, Grapefruit, a collection of “event scores” that instruct the reader of simple actions one might undertake to enact a work of art. So might this exhibition build upon the groundwork laid by the ongoing work of smaller organizations and Asia Society’s previous programming to encourage more vigorous engagement with Asian art in New York. In response to COVID-19 closures, Asia Society built one of the most robust online platforms for any museum show anywhere, including Q&As with each exhibiting artist, fully online wall texts and images, an online reading club, and a program of online lectures and performances.
Taken all together, We Do Not Dream Alone is a formidable first effort. If this is the beginning of a dream a long time coming, I’m excited to see where it goes.
Editor’s note: This review has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of Jordan Nassar’s textile works.
Part one of the Asia Society Triennial, We Do Not Dream Alone, continues at Asia Society Museum (725 Park Avenue at 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) as well as at various venues across New York City through February 7. The Asia Society Museum presentation is curated by Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe and Boon Hui Tan.
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