On a sunny afternoon in October, interdisciplinary artist Ali Van stood atop a chair and addressed the audience that had gathered inside the Brooklyn Heights brownstone. In a calm and measured voice, Van alluded to the troubled state of things in both the US and in Hong Kong, where she had flown from just two days earlier. ‘But if we give ourselves a moment,’ she countered, ‘again it’s that moment of incredibly conscious solitude, we have the opportunity to recede, which allows us to leap further into the future.’
When Van performed An Intimate Distance in the autumn of 2019 to commemorate Asia Art Archive in America’s 10th anniversary, friends and supporters of the organization were invited to look forward to the next ten years, primarily with a sense of idealism and optimism. The paradoxical title communicates the significance of solitude that Van spoke of, as well as the importance of connecting and coming together. Our capacity to experience both conditions would bear even greater weight in hindsight amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Van initiated the first half of the performance with a blessing. She passed around a wooden box containing 183 pieces of multi-colored, hand-braided string attached to slips of typewritten paper folded into triangular, polygonal shapes. Representative of her engagement with solitude over the course of one year, each time-stamped and geo-located ‘prayer’ corresponds to a specific date and place she had traveled, from Mount Fuji to Hong Kong to New York. After writing down their wishes separately, the roomful of participants collectively worked to hang the prayers, each person adding theirs to the line. The collaborative project simultaneously allowed for the quiet reflection that Van described as being so precious.
In the middle of the crowd, Van proceeded to change out of her street clothes into a floor-length gown in vibrant red—a color of celebration. As she revealed a bow that seemed just as tall if not taller than herself, she demonstrated the Japanese martial art of archery known as kyūdō, which she began studying during her time in Japan. ‘They say that it is never really about the target, that the target is always reached if you have a sense of the stages that come before,’ Van said, partly to acknowledge the uncertain outcome of the performance itself. As spectators congregated around her, she trained her arrows toward two simple geometric forms, a rectangle and circle, stacked between the dining room windows on the far side of the room. Though deliberate in her actions, she also left room for spontaneity. After a false start, she shot three arrows that successfully connected with their target.
Van’s efforts, an individual act buoyed by the silent encouragement of the group, mirror the often-unknown trajectory of the future. Appearing like a distant memory, the documentation of the performance captures that feeling of hopefulness as much as it does the impermanence of moments in history. Though it remains unclear where we may be headed, we can continue to be conscious of our solitude even as we long for the intimate gatherings we once shared.
– Mimi Wong, July 2020
Ali Van (b. 1986) feels motility. Her works mark love, change, spirit, and trees, often spelling one hand across many feet, geometry freeing immersive thought in nature. Her commitment finds absolute through living architectures, gastronomic ancestry, silent geographies, and manner song. With 2020 she dedicates to family in Minnesota, feeding forest, raising flours, writing wind, and bathing grandmother. Recent isolates include Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (Captiva, Florida), Inunso (Mt Fuji, Japan), Yaji Garden (Suzhou, China), SoART (Millstatt, Austria), CCA Kitakyushu (Kyushu, Japan). Her forthcoming publication on occasion of An Intimate Distance assesses collective truths and sovereign memory with respect towards time.
Mimi Wong is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, Catapult, Electric Literature, Hyperallergic, Literary Hub, and Refinery29. Her fiction has been published in Crab Orchard Review, Day One, and Wildness. For her writing on contemporary art, she was awarded an Arts Writers Grant by The Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine The Offing and a part-time lecturer at The New School.
Photos by Haruka Motohashi, Michael Holden, and Hilary Chassé
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.