The Asia Society Triennial, Led by Singaporean Curator Tan Boon Hui, Unfolds Across New York City
The world economy is increasingly looking towards Asia—and the future is Asian so to speak. But how is Asia shaking up the global art scene?
Tan Boon Hui, the former director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, offers this insight: “When we talk about how Asian contemporary art is on the rise in the major cities around the world, we’re usually talking about the western cities. But that’s only part of the story because the reality is that among the big cultural institutions in the US, especially in New York, the presence of art and artistic expression from Asia is still very limited.”
As champions of Asian art, the Asia Society is doing its part to address this with the inaugural Asia Society Triennial, bringing together over 40 artists and collectives from 20 countries. This first initiative of its kind in the US, which puts the focus on contemporary art from and about Asia and the Asian diaspora, has taken root since Tan moved to New York from Singapore in 2015. (He recently left his role as vice president for Global Artistic Programs at the Asia Society as of October 31 to pursue new opportunities.) The Asia Society is well-known for its seminal exhibitions from the late 1990s, including Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions and Inside Out: New Chinese Art.
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For the triennial, Tan and co-curator Michelle Yun, the newly appointed vice president for Global Artistic Programs at the Asia Society and director of the Asia Society Museum, have commissioned almost half of the participating artists to create new works spanning various art forms such as painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance. Originally scheduled to take place over a two-month period this past summer, the triennial was postponed due to the pandemic and will now unfold in two phases at various locations across New York City, including the Asia Society Museum, and extended until June next year.
“We want people to come, and come back again, over the course of the eight-month duration of the triennial. Some of the works are quite meditative and may be returned to more than once and slowly absorbed, kind of like slow food,” shares Tan, over Zoom from Manhattan in early October.
The title of the triennial, We Do Not Dream Alone, is a riff off a line (“A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality”) from Yoko Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit. For Tan, the most interesting takeaway from the artist’s philosophical musings is that “sometimes you change the world by changing a little bit of your life, and you do it with somebody else—and that already is a kind of micro-change”.
He explains: “I’m interested in art’s ability to resist isolation and ignorance. Through art, you can show that in the real world, people, ideas and objects are connected. We are never isolated, we are connected across space and time. That is why a lot of the key projects in the triennial start to show these webs of association, and they question, in a sense, our ignorance and our acceptance that come from the lack of knowledge about the ties that bind us.”
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Take for example Japanese-Australian artist duo Ken and Julia Yonetani’s Three Wishes (2014). Inspired by Walt Disney’s belief in the benefits of atomic energy—as evinced in the 1956 publication The Walt Disney Story of Our Friend the Atom, which was adapted into a 1957 Disneyland television series Our Friend the Atom—the multimedia installation highlights the risks of reliance on nuclear power. The artists had created three rotating figures of Tinker Bell but transformed the Disney character into a Franken-monster of sorts. The wings were constructed from the Zizeeria maha butterflies hatched from eggs collected in the Fukushima area as a part of a scientific study into the fallout of the 2011 nuclear power disaster.
Another work that “connects Asia and America” is the special project We the People: Sun Xun and Xu Bing Respond to the Declaration of Independence. The two Chinese artists look into the values of democracy with two new works, showcased alongside a rare 19th-century official copy of the US Declaration of Independence. The project also highlights a lesser-known fact that the US founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, held a fascination for Chinese civilisation, in particular The Analects by Confucius—offering food for thought considering the triennial opened in the week before the US presidential elections this month.
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When it comes to Asia discussed within the context of the triennial, the Asia Society’s definition stretches from Australia to Central Asia and includes the Arabian Gulf. “It’s a much more expansive view. We are also looking inward at this idea of the diaspora, this idea of Asia in America, not just Asian-American but the Asia that is in America,” Tan explains.
“Similar to cities such as Berlin, New York is a kind of magnet for diasporic artists: those who live and work here or at least work here and commute between Asia and the US. So it was very interesting when I started to encounter artists who have been living and working in the city for a long time, but they have never had a major presentation,” says the former director of the Singapore Art Museum, who was later the assistant chief executive for museums and programmes at the National Heritage Board in Singapore.
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One of these artists is the Korean-born Kimsooja, a multimedia conceptual artist who now lives and works between New York, Paris and Seoul. A familiar face in the biennial circuit around Asia and Europe, she has shown extensively in France but has never had a substantial presence in New York for a long time, according to Tan. For the triennial, she is activating her project To Breathe – The Flags (2012), which incorporates 246 national flags in a cycle of images. This symbol of unity is the artist’s “wish for coexistence, for an ideal world in which individuals can unite in celebration of our distinctions and of our common humanity”.
Other New York-based artists participating in the triennial include the Pakistan-born Shahzia Sikander, who is part of the neo-miniature movement, and Syrian-born Kevork Mourad, who moves between visual art, animation and performance. Curiously, despite having been in the US since the 1990s, and travelled the world as the only visual artist in renowned American cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble, Mourad has never really been shown in New York.
Meanwhile, Malaysian fibre and textile artist Anne Samat explores issues of identity, gender and nationhood with her installation Follow Your Heart Wholeheartedly (2020), which uses traditional Southeast Asian weaving techniques to create woven sculptures infused with everyday objects. Chinese artist Xu Zhen broaches the subject of cultural appropriation with Eternity – Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix (2019–2020) with the juxtaposition of classical statue replicas from western and Asian civilisations.
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Flying the Singapore flag are three artists whom Tan describes as “working in a contemporary urban language”. He explains, “They have a strong voice and keen awareness of the larger world, not only of Singapore, and are trying to raise questions through their works—I think that’s very interesting.” One of them is Jason Wee, founder of non-profit artists’ space Grey Projects, who offers an abstract look at the unseen in Singapore through the conceptual photography installation Uncommon Choreographies (2020). The works of artists Angie Seah, and Ang Song-Ming, who represented Singapore at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, will be on show during part two of the triennial, starting from March 16, 2021.
“For Asian art to take its rightful place in the global narrative, we need to first find our own voice”
On his work as a curator, Tan elucidates that “my shows have always been about how artistic practice and the work of artists relate to the larger social, political and economic trends, structures and frameworks. I’m also very interested in the transformation and the reinvention of tradition”. It is safe to say that the first Asia Society Triennial is proof of just that.
“For Asian art to take its rightful place in the global narrative, we need to first find our own voice, we need to produce our own art history. We already have that but we need to get it out there a lot more. At the same time, we also need to try to be less anxious to gain western approval. If you are a cultural institution in Asia, you need to present the artists that come from your region and your country with much more confidence—there’s no need to be apologetic or shy about it.”