The promise of the Asia Society Triennial had been to launch a new event, something spectacular enough to compete with the Whitney’s Biennial and the New Museum’s Triennial, but with a spotlight on styles of art coming out of Asia’s booming, diverse art worlds that had not yet been seen in NYC. Five years in the making, the show’s grander ambitions of a sprawling event loaded with immersive installation had to be scaled back—for now at least—due to COVID.
“To say there was not some heartache would not be true,” co-curator Michelle Yun told the New York Times. (A part 2 will open in February, conditions permitting.)
Yet, all things being equal, a less-punishing scale and an end to pointless gigantism are actually positive developments when it comes to the universe of international biennials. The central part of the show at the Asia Society’s HQ on Madison Avenue gives you a manageable selection of works by twenty-some artists, spaced out over two floors. (There’s an auxiliary section installed at the New York Historical Society, which I’m not getting into.) Yet in rolling back the tide of ambition, the event also ends up spotlighting some of the dilemmas of this style of show as well.
Take a work like that by Xu Bing, commissioned by the Asia Society for the Triennial. Xu is an already famous Chinese artist, and a good one. Here, he’s been asked to respond via art to the US Declaration of Independence, a reproduction of which is hung on the wall, for a show-within-a-show called “We the People” (it also features Sun Xun’s folding album depicting Donald Trump as an evil dragon).
Xu presents a copy of Confucius’s Analects, inspired by the fact, previously unknown to me, that the Founding Fathers were interested in classical Chinese philosophy. Displayed beneath a plexiglass box, the book has been coated in a fine cobweb of silk, via a process that involves letting live silkworms extrude on them, documented in a nearby film.
The silk-covered book is an interesting object. The idea behind the gesture, I think, is to point to a deep, wholesome cosmopolitanism, as if asking people who fetishize “American” identity by appealing to mythical Founding Fathers, in a time of anti-Chinese xenophobia, to think again—a fine idea, albeit one unlikely to move anyone who doesn’t already agree.
As a whole installation, though, these two parts don’t really connect. Silkworm Book ends up reducing to the contemporary-art formula: “interesting object + piece of trivia + text explaining connection.” And has been a general problem with new commissions made in our (temporarily slowed) production-for-production’s sake biennial circuit, with its bottomless hunger for made-to-order meaning.
Overall, this first Asia Society Triennial spotlights an immense geographic area in its handful of figures, from Israel to Japan, passing through countries that represent the bulk of the world population in between. Yet despite this staggering breadth of different geographies and national cultures, artistically, the overall tone here is set by a music box version of It’s a Small World emanating from Japanese duo Ken and Julia Yonetani’s small installation featuring little glass Tinkerbells in jars, affixed with real butterfly wings, which a text explains is a commentary on Walt Disney’s role in promoting nuclear power.
Which is to say that this is a biennial that looks like it is full of biennial art. Its themes feel broadly representative of those acculturated to what is effectively its own cosmopolitan, educated, and mobile global subculture. These tropes include globalization itself as subject matter; a distanced but not aggressive irony towards traditional practices and beliefs; and respectful, semi-conceptual work documenting marginalized groups and political trauma.
For my taste, the artwork that pops out to me here is a corner full of ink drawings by Nandalal Bose. Having passed away in 1966, he hails from a totally other configuration of culture than today’s hyper-interconnected one. In his home country, Bose is an artist of immense stature. He, in fact, was in charge of illuminating India’s first, hand-written Constitution in 1950.
Despite the fact that he was born literally a century before some of the other artists here, the modest presentation gives only a whisper of a sense of Bose’s status as having helped define India’s modern artistic identity. But the small suite of late-career ink wash drawings explicitly show the way his art was shaped by his encounter with East Asian artistic traditions. They give a sense of the pan-Asian artistic foment, one outside the circuits of she 21st century East-West narrative, and that’s worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned.
For myself, aside from the Bose and Shahzia Sikander’s The Scroll—a storybook-like work, made when she was a student, that evidently launched the well-known artist’s career back in the ’90s—what most interested me here was how the show helped throw into focus a larger contemporary-art trend.
No less than three works at the Asia Society involve delegated craft production, where the fact that the object in front of you is the product of a commission by the artist from artisans in a specific, symbolically charged culture is part of the meaning.
Seoul-based Kyungah Ham’s series of embroidered panels feature renderings of luxuriantly glimmering chandeliers at different levels of abstraction, and are the work of unknown North Korean artisans, “an attempt,” the text says, “to connect the common people whose lives continue to be dictated by the partition of the Korean peninsula.”
Israel-born, New York-based Ghiora Aharoni makes garments stitched with ironic religious slogans in self-invented languages (“Thank God for Making Me a Women,” reversing the line “Thank God for Not Making Me a Woman” from Orthodox Jewish prayer), having them embroidered by male Muslim artisans in India.
And New York-based Jordan Nassar, whose family background is Palestinian, has embroidered cotton-on-cotton panels made in traditional patterns by women artisans in the West Bank, then elaborates these so that they appear to have enigmatic images poking into their grid (a show highlight).
These are very different projects, with a common trope. They neither fit the type of the recent “return to craft,” nor are they purely cynical conceptual commentaries on the unequal power balance of center to periphery. So what symbolic work does “delegated handicraft” do that has brought it into the foreground?
First, it opens a back door to the aesthetic pleasures of craft and traditional arts.
Second, handicraft is a signal towards senses of place and tradition absent from global commercial art, with its focus on individual expression and signature product lines.
Third, by making an explicit theme of its own manufacture, it charges the object with a sense of bigger political and conceptual consequence. The artist appears as a facilitator figure who connects to that sense of rootedness but also puts it to work in the terms the art circuit can work with, as a commentary on its own status.
Fourth, by highlighting the relationship between the artist, as commissioner, and anonymous artisans, this kind of work thematizes the importance cultural exchange—the ur-topic of global biennial culture which is rooted in hyper-mobile creators.
In that sense, “delegated handicraft” reflects the project and the dilemmas of something like the Asia Society Triennial itself. On the one hand it advertises a sense of opening up new cultural vistas; on the other it offers something that fits right into the global landscape.
More images of the Asia Society Triennial, below:
“Asia Society Triennial, Part 1: We Do Not Dream Alone” is on view at the Asia Society in New York through February 7, 2021.
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