We dream of weddings. The lush decor, the elegant dresses, the intricate mehndi, the promise of love and belonging. Search for #wedding on Instagram and 198 million posts instantly rise to our fingertips, ready to sell us our dream of a perfect union. This is but one corner of the wedding industrial complex: an industry that feeds on the proceeds of manufacturing ever more expensive fantasies, often while reifying cis heteronormative and patriarchal standards. Central to this fantasy is the wedding dress, one of the most powerful symbols of the wedding, and a portal into the world of UNION.
UNION is a deeply personal work for Nancy Lee 李南屏 and Kiran Bhumber ਕਿਰਨਦੀਪ ਕੌਰ ਭੰਬਰ, whose complicated desire for wedding dresses became the impetus for the creation of the distant, post-apocalyptic future of the exhibition. As queer and diasporic subjects, Lee and Bhumber are drawn -- reluctantly -- to weddings as a ritual and a rite of passage integral to their respective cultures. However, homophobia, sexism, classism, and the challenge of growing up in single parent households complicate their access to this tradition, which compels compliance with oppressive gender norms and social expectations. Paul Connerton’s description of the transmission of tradition as “meeting its preformed ideologies at ‘the horizon of expectations’” captures this tension. Under this description, “tradition is seen as a far reaching, foreign landscape with which [members of the diaspora] long to unite.” Yet understanding and reconciliation is only possible through compliance with its terms, and feelings of displacement, loss, and yearning inevitably arise from non-adherence and endless scrutiny by those who mandate the rules. For the queer, non-conforming body that finds itself on this horizon of expectation, then, the wedding dress becomes not merely a garment, but an instrument of coercion encoded in logics of capitalism, patriarchy, and xenophobia.
“The story UNION tells is set in a distant, post-apocalyptic future precisely because my experience as a Taiwanese, non-binary femme in the present feels so constricted that I felt it necessary to abandon the present world entirely.” - Nancy Lee
In order to interrogate and subvert these systems of oppression, UNION unravels the wedding dress to expose the silent but powerful engines that not only propel us toward Instagram’s picture perfect weddings but increasingly drive every aspect of contemporary social life by co-opting our desires for belonging and acceptance. While the effects of neoliberal cultural production, surveillance capitalism, and biopolitics are magnified in the world of UNION, the dystopian future it imagines bears a troubling resemblance to our own. Media technologies have overrun every aspect of our lives as humans living in physical isolation turn to the new cyberworld for connection, as well as experiences of pleasure and intimacy. GAEA -- a large tech corporation whose name is eerily reminiscent of critics’ acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) -- operates the massive memory industrial complex through which memories are harvested and sold. Our bodies and behaviours have become the final frontier for resource extraction and exploitation.
Through the creation of this post-apocalyptic universe, Lee and Bhumber seek to shed light on the ramifications of mass-mediated technology in culture and everyday life, and carve out a space of resistance amidst surveillance capitalism’s wholesale commodification of individual identity and experience. Drawing upon Mieke Bal’s definition of “cultural memory as the process of linking the past, present and future through performed cultural practices” , UNION imagines cultural memory as a construct of the spiritual and ancestral past, encoded not in the wedding dress as a cultural artefact, but in the genes of the human body. Passed down from generation to generation, it remains dormant until accessed through sacred rituals of spiritual union, such as weddings, and physical intimacy. As Lee and Bhumber enact their ritual union, joining through the physical language of touch, “knots of memory” are tied across the fabric of time and redefined by the presence of the queer diasporic body. Through the cultural act of performance, the meaning of the wedding ceremony is woven anew.
“With each stitch on our gowns, movement of our skin, and bodies cemented into sculpture, we are defining who we are within our respective cultures and bringing awareness to younger generations that their existence and practices can also influence the evolution of culture.” - Kiran Bhumber
Amongst other things, UNION is a disavowal of the view that culture is a static set of rules. Rather, Lee and Bhumber assert, it is ever-changing and must always be performed in the present, subject to intervention and reimagination.
 Notes on exhibition themes, page 4-5, 2021. Nancy Lee on the message behind the exhibition and the concepts that were explored in the creation of UNION.
 Excerpt from Phulkari by Kirandeep Kaur Bhumber, page 14, 2018. Paul Connerton discussing Gadamer's notion of tradition. Quoted in Plate’s Performing memory in art and popular culture, 2013.
 Notes on exhibition themes, page 2, 2021. Nancy Lee on Biopolitics, surveillance capitalism, and neoliberal cultural production.
 Excerpt from Phulkari by Kirandeep Kaur Bhumber, page 15, 2018. Discussing Mieke Bal’s notion of memory from Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, 1999.
 Notes on exhibition themes, page 3, 2021. Kiran Bhumber on cultural performance and diaspora.