On ViewAsia Society
We Do Not Dream Alone
Part One: October 27, 2020–February 7, 2021; Part Two: March 16–June 27, 2021
On ViewNew-York Historical Society Museum & Library
October 23, 2020–July 25, 2021
The exhibitions We Do Not Dream Alone, the inaugural Asia Society Triennial, and Dreaming Together at the New-York Historical Society bring together works by over 40 artists selected from the collections of both institutions in a thoughtful and very welcome showcasing of the work of Asian and Asian-diasporic artists still underrepresented in mainstream Euro-American contexts. When we read about this ambitious two-part project—the first collaboration between the Asia Society Museum and the New-York Historical Society—we thought that perspectives from multiple reviewers were needed. At this moment, when the movement of people and even artworks is difficult, the mere existence of this two-museum show is a major accomplishment. We are immensely thankful to our colleagues at both institutions for providing essential support for our review of the first part, which had to be organized remotely.
Walk straight west from the Asia Society on New York’s Upper East Side, go across Central Park, and then uptown seven blocks on the Upper West Side, and you get to the New-York Historical Society. This isn’t a long walk, but though close geographically, these are very different institutions. The Asia Society’s collection includes both contemporary and traditional art by artists of Asian identity, and it regularly organizes shows of Asian and Asian-diasporic, including Asian American, art. The New-York Historical Society holds a distinguished collection of American art and artifacts. Dreaming Together is an important opportunity for the New-York Historical Society to showcase works by artists of Asian identity in New York.
Starting with the Venice Biennale, first held in 1895, and continuing more recently with countless international surveys of contemporary art worldwide, including major biennales and triennales across the Asia-Pacific region such as those of Shanghai, Gwangju, Taiwan, Busan, and Sydney, large-scale international exhibitions have become an enduring and important art world ritual. Announced themes of “urban and natural environments,” “protest and rebellion,” “individuals and identities,” and “borders and crossings” at the New-York Historical Society show strike familiar notes. But what’s distinctive about We Do Not Dream Alone and Dreaming Together is their shared and timely concern with anti-Asian xenophobia as well as wider issues of disadvantage and exclusion raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. Appropriately, the titles of the exhibitions are derived from a passage in the Japanese-born Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit (1964): “A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.” There are further titular resonances with the group known as the “Dreamers”: migrants to the USA protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act, and by association the contested idea of the “American Dream.”
At the New-York Historical Society, standout juxtapositions include the proximity of Huang Yan’s Chinese Shan-Shui (landscape)—Tattoo (1999), showing a body seemingly tattooed with a representation of a traditional Chinese landscape painting, and Thomas Cole’s 19th-century luminist epic, “The Course of Empire” (1833-1836), reflective of contemporaneous fears that America’s Eden-like pastoralism would eventually be overrun (as perhaps it now is) by the decadence of empire. Resonant between the two is a shared trans-cultural desire to arrive at a harmonious reciprocity between humanity and nature. Equally notable, not least because of their sheer, presumably ironical, scale, are hanging scrolls by Dinh Q. Lê featuring distorted images of the World Trade Center in flames on 9/11 (2016), the significance of which also riffs on Cole’s paintings.
At the Asia Society Museum, Xu Bing and Sun Xun’s individual responses to the American Declaration of Independence will almost certainly be an epiphany for many viewers. Both make references to the under-discussed impact of Chinese thinking on ideas developed by the US’s “founding fathers” during the 18th century. Xu Bing’s Silkworm Book: The Analects of Confucius (2019), a work using threads woven by silkworms as an intervention with a printed copy of the Chinese classic text the Analects, and Sun Xun’s July Coming Soon (2019), an interpolation of Americana into the format of a traditional literati-Confucian landscape, also resonate with Daoist ideas of a spontaneous reciprocity between culture and nature as well as the hubris of over-rationalizing human intervention.
Ghiora Aharoni's Thank God for Making Me a Woman, III (2019) features an assemblage comprising Islamic religious jewelry and a muslin robe worn traditionally by men in India, with the eponymous phrase hand-embroidered on its interior in a mash-up of Hindi, Urdu, Hebrew, and Arabic; it is spectrally emblematic of the shifting cultural cross-currents running through these exhibitions. Similar entanglements also pervade Australia-based artist Nasim Nasr’s video 33 Beads (unworried) #1 (2018), which deconstructs, while paradoxically highlighting, the differing/intersecting cultural significance of beads used in conjunction with prayer, contemplation, or distraction from worry.
The Asia Society show’s sheer diversity and the quality of individual works is certainly impressive, though audiences less familiar with Asian art may have gained greater insights from a sharper focus on specific themes common to works by a smaller group of artists. The New-York Historical Society’s strategy of juxtaposition points successfully to durable similarities as well as differences between the visual cultures of Asia and Euro-America while also drawing attention to pressing present-day concerns with social justice. Questions also remain, however, as to just how accessible the particular cultural contexts and significances of the “Asian” works included in Dream Together have been made to visitors, and indeed, to what extent a unifying trans-institutional attention to current political struggles, no matter how important and pressing, serves to overwrite those contexts and significances.
Exhibitions representative of particular cultural identities face an inescapable dilemma. Cultural identities can no longer be considered as “pure” or “isolated;” they are more open and fluid than ever before, intersecting with each other through the intense global connectedness of everyday life. This is highlighted by contemporary art where diverse cultural elements give shape to distinct lived realities while conspicuously informing creativity in a now globalized context. An emphasis on cultural distinctiveness may make for clarity but may also downplay the complexity of less definable trans-cultural resonances. Attempts to reconcile the two are hugely problematic and, indeed, politically loaded. It would be invidious to find too much fault with We Do Not Dream Alone and Dreaming Together for their entanglement in that dilemma. It is with respect to these intractable tensions—as well as others between clarity and complexity of messaging—running through both exhibitions that their most telling significance lies. As Yoko Ono suggests, the idea that no one is dreaming entirely alone is grounded in the reality of intersections between differing individuals and cultures.