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Sci-fi exhibition in Richmond showcases a world where touch is forbidden

A new sci-fi art exhibit, UNION, is currently showing at the Richmond Art Gallery until June 5.
Lee said UNION is a very personal work for her and fellow artist Kiran Bhumber. 

It’s the year 3000 -- human touch is forbidden, cultural memory has been lost and the environment is largely inhabitable. This is the premise of a new sci-fi art exhibit, UNION, currently showing at the Richmond Art Gallery until June 5.

While the work may seem to be in response to the current pandemic, artist Nancy Lee told the Richmond News she and fellow artist Kiran Bhumber had the idea three years ago. The pair are artists featured by Cinevolution, a Richmond-based grassroots film and media arts organization, which has partnered with Richmond Art Gallery to feature the exhibit. 

UNION imagines a dystopian world where the nation state has collapsed, air pollution limits habitable space and viral infection renders physical contact deadly.  Add to that, access to cultural memory has been lost. Propaganda posters hang from the gallery walls, telling people to sell their memories for currencies with which they can buy happy hormones to experience pleasure.

“These hormones are related to our addiction to social media nowadays. If someone likes something you post or sends you a message, you will experience the same pleasure,” said Lee, adding that the pandemic has even magnified the problem. 

“Before COVID-19, people were interacting with each other mostly through mediated technologies, such as social media. Human connections exist primarily through our phones or the internet. The pandemic makes that even more real.”

But amid this bleak, futuristic world, the exhibit features two human beings who do touch and through their union, as well as wedding ceremony, begin discovering their ancestral memories. 

Lee said UNION is a very personal work for her and Bhumber. 

Lee was born in Taiwan but at the age of two moved to Richmond, where she grew up.

As a Taiwanese, non-binary femme, Lee said she’s well aware that homophobia and patriarchy exist within Asian culture. However, she aims to send a message to other artists, especially to those from the Asian diaspora, that they can have the power to tell their own stories.

“The big part of the struggle for people like me, who came here at two years old and for Bhumber who were born here, is that we feel a sense of culture longing and the distance between our culture and us. 

“We want audiences to feel that they can participate in creating culture and traditions. We want them to feel the power of taking control of their own stories and be their own protagonists.”

The exhibit incorporates 3D printed sculptures, 16-channel interactive sound, and visual projection maps to immerse audience members the shows apocalyptic world. 

For more information, visit Richmond Art Gallery’s website.