UNION is a multidisciplinary, speculative sci-fi exhibition set in the year 3,000. Through methodical world-building and use of diverse media, Nancy Lee and Kiran Bhumber create a truly immersive experience, fusing the past and the future to address the issues plaguing us today. Catch the exhibit at the Richmond Art Gallery from April 24th to June 5th, 2021.
You’re living in a dystopia. Movement and physical contact are restricted, and communication takes place exclusively through the cyberworld. A large tech corporation tracks you 24/7.
Turns out, creators Kiran Bhumber and Nancy Lee birthed the story of UNION in 2018 -- long before the pandemic hit.
However, the anti-establishment and anti-capitalist overtones of the exhibit hit particularly close to home in the midst of COVID-19, and the global unrest that came with it.
Through a meticulously crafted, multidimensional exhibit, the artists weave a world that is seemingly distant, yet eerily familiar. As they explore themes of surveillance capitalism and identity exploitation, the year 3,000 doesn’t seem so far, after all.
At the heart of this story lies the spiritual union of two characters, and the deconstruction of the ‘wedding’ as we know it.
South Asian pop culture is saturated with the idealization of the lavish Desi wedding. From Bollywood nostalgia, to Pinterest board, to Indian Matchmaking, it’s inescapable -- and I’d be lying if I said I’ve never pinned a lehenga or two (or ten).
Yet, the exclusive, unattainable nature of this tradition, like most issues in the community, is seldom spoken about. Through UNION, Bhumber and Lee unpack the complex relationship that marginalized diasporic identities share with this elusive fantasy.
Speaking to her experience as a Sikh Punjabi woman with an unconventional family background, Bhumber describes the gatekeeping and rejection she experienced within the community.
“Oftentimes one’s familial structure determines their place in our culture,” she said in an interview with 5X Press.
“The idea of performing a traditional wedding would be far reaching in my life."
The sexism, homophobia, classism, casteism, and scrutiny pervading our community creates a rift between young South Asians and their cultures.
Bhumber said that her and Lee, who have felt disconnected with their communities, shared a paradoxical longing for acceptance, which manifested itself as a desire for a traditional wedding dress.
UNION explores the commodification of this yearning, compelling us to acknowledge the capitalist, patriarchal machinery driving these traditions.
The premise of UNION is that ancestral memory is encoded within our genes, and remains dormant in our bodies until we partake in this sacred ritual, through physical touch.
Since they were unable to perform in a gallery setting due to COVID, Bhumber and Lee wished to replicate the feeling of intimacy. One of the first pieces in the exhibit is a sculpture of the artists, created using 3D scanning and printing in collaboration with sculptor Ian Nakamoto. Through this embrace, they depict a spiritual union, and an intertwining of cultural memories.
With this concept, the artists renounce the idea that culture lives on through convention, by relinquishing their desire for the traditional wedding.
“Cultural memory lives within us,” said Bhumber, posing the idea that a people and its heritage are fundamentally, inextricably bound to one another.
She addresses the disconnect that the diaspora feels from its culture, and rejects the assumption that culture lies outside the self.
"Culture is not a static set of rules. We are all active participants and through performing our heritage, we have the agency to create the communities we want to be surrounded by,” she adds.
The creative process of UNION was a cathartic one, she said, as it helped her to reclaim and redefine her cultural heritage -- a journey that many of us may be grappling with.
Although UNION is a deeply dark, intricate story borne from global catastrophe, it leaves us with a message of hope, by creating a space where queer BIPOC can reconstruct and partake in sacred rituals without scrutiny.
Bhumber’s parting message to the diaspora is one that serves to affirm our South Asian identity, wholly and unconditionally.
“I want young South Asians to know that they can be active participants in their culture, [and] that they can do so by simply existing and creating.”
UNION is presented as part of Cinevolution Media Arts Society's annual event, Digital Carnival Z.
Anuja is an international student at the University of British Columbia, with a concentration in mental health and interpersonal development. When she isn’t having an existential crisis, you may find her dancing, taking pictures of her cat or yelling at unclejis. When she is having an existential crisis, you’ll probably find her in a window seat on the 99, listening to Mohammed Rafi and pretending she’s in a movie.
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