The Asia Society was founded in 1956 as a centre for cultural exchange at a time when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were glacial and parts of what Western powers called the Far East were associated with the “Red Scare” – fear of the spread of communism.
Its founder, John D. Rockefeller III, believed that the arts could be used to convey a more nuanced understanding of a diverse region. His substantial collection of East and South Asian antiques became the foundation of the Society’s museum.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Asia Society is hoping its inaugural art triennial can help defuse another fraught moment between America and the East. Works by 40 artists from various Asian communities will be presented in two phases at the Asia Society Museum in New York and a number of satellite venues from October 27 until the end of June 2021.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Originally a two-month affair, it was extended to allow for the likelihood that people will be able to travel more freely to New York next year, and to give the project, which has long been in the works, time to make an impact.
Singaporean curator Tan Boon Hui moved to the US five years ago to become the Asia Society Museum’s new director. Near the top of his to-do list was creating that country’s first major recurring exhibition dedicated to contemporary art from Asia and the Asian diasporas.
“I brought this idea to New York. I felt it was what America needed at that moment. Asians make up a sizeable proportion of the population here but there is still very little Asian art shown. Even an artist like (Korean-born) Kimsooja, who is very well known in Asia and in Europe, has rarely shown her work in the US, and she is partly based in New York,” he says.
In the 1990s we spoke of the end of history. Ten, 20 years ago, the art world was all about post-identity. Well, identity politics have certainly come back in a big way
Tan Boon Hui, director, Asia Society Museum
“We want to put Asian art in the foreground. Asia is the main dish here, not the salad.”
In March, with the extent of the Covid-19 pandemic by then clear, the exhibition’s opening, planned for June, was postponed. Agnes Hsu-Tang, the art historian and archaeologist who is executive chair of the triennial, came up with the idea of extending the programme in case the pandemic lingers and out-of-state visitors can only come much later in 2021.
“Instead of a short spectacle, we decided to make it more of a slow-food experience, with two phases of the triennial showing different artworks, and most of the performances scheduled for next year,” Tan says.
One thing that stands out from the list of artists represented is their diversity. The gender split is 50/50 and the artists (all except Nandalal Bose are living artists) range in age from millennials such as Hong Kong-based Cheuk Wing Nam to the octogenarian Arpita Singh in India. The definition of what is “Asian” is also taken to its geographical limits: digital artist Daniel Crooks was born in New Zealand and lives in Melbourne, Australia, and Ghiora Aharoni is a New Yorker who grew up in Israel.
Yet if the project is meant to be an antidote to stereotypes born of ignorance and xenophobia, and to give the Asian “minority” in America a voice, its all-embracing concept of Asia may risk obscuring the plurality of a continent where two-thirds of the world’s population live, and achieve the opposite of what is intended.
Tan believes the diversity of Asia will come through the art naturally. He also considers a narrow definition of Asia to be dangerous. If a Syrian-born, New York-based artist like Kevork Mourad is not considered Asian, that would show how there is a tendency to mentally marginalise fellow human beings, he says.
“That’s why we include the paintings by Bose, which were influenced by Japanese ink wash techniques, and Lahore-based Hamra Abbas’ miniatures using Chinese gongbi techniques. Artists are like sponges. They absorb everything from everywhere and do things that politicians hate,” he says.
Art and politics are rarely, if ever, divorced from each other. The timing of the triennial, which deprives most of the participating artists of the chance to meet visitors face-to-face in New York (because of quarantines and travel restrictions), is striking because it will open a week ahead of a divisive presidential election. So is the exhibition, titled “We Do Not Dream Alone”, explicitly political?
“Art is one of few civic spaces left where disagreements can be discussed peacefully. It is very important to keep the power of art in such an arena and not let it captured by the political arena,” Tan says. However, there is a pivotal message in the exhibition and it is one that stresses the global nature of all cultures: two commissioned works, by Chinese artists Xu Bing and Sun Xun, are based on the incorporation by America’s founding fathers of Confucian philosophy in the Declaration of Independence.
Tan says: “In the 1990s we spoke of the end of history. Ten, 20 years ago, the art world was all about post-identity. Well, identity politics have certainly come back in a big way. And given the renewed interest in minority voices in America today, we need to seize this moment and create a space for Asians in the narrative.”
More Articles from SCMP
‘I really want to know why he had to kill my daughter’: mother of Hong Kong woman whose killing sparked extradition saga speaks out
Dominican Republic study shows how coronavirus misinformation is spreading
‘New arms race’: border roads put India and China on route to conflict
China relies on private security firms to keep workers and projects safe in Africa, report says
Hong Kong residents queue for coronavirus tests as city faces six new Covid-19 cases
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.