What Does Art Teach Us About History?

In the Republic, Plato argues that the faults of poets are many. In addition to being irrational, they—and this is their gravest fault, he says—“invent” stories about events that never happened. In other words, Plato conflated “story telling” with “telling lies.”

In fact, historians artists approach the past from two different perspectives. Historians are interested in figuring out what happened when and why, while artists explore the past in order to discover future possibilities.

The original artworks commissioned for the “Migrations” exhibition aim to cultivate imagination and enable reflection.

For an artist, “history” is both a means of re-imagining the present and the material for making a future. They are curious about the people who lived here, and their curiosity takes them beyond the pages of a textbook. They want to know if their sensory experiences is the same or different from our ancestors and they use hands and gestures, sight and sound, smell and touch to connect across space and time. Did our ancestors listen to the rainy season storms beneath ceramic tile roofs? As they worked, were they dazzled by the golden flash created when the sun brushes across mature paddy fields? As they embroidered, how did thread feel when pulled through silk? When their teachers first spoke foreign words, did they trust their ears? It may be that what makes us human endures and cannot be protected by cement walls. Those wonderful experiences that made them human also make us human. Artists allow us to ask: what do we lose while we pursue the future? What should we keep?

As we appreciate art, we discover that the artist’s intention and expression are, like historical data, raw materials for the imagination. The rationality of an artwork is its flexibility; conclusions drawn can be re-drawn and re-considered.


The Longheu P+V Gallery is the historic venue of the “Migrations” exhibition.

We often talk about the “cultural and artistic rights” of citizens. In addition to exposure to art and aesthetic education, these rights also include opportunities to create art. Art is a dialogue, we not only learn to listen to others, but also to express ourselves and join the conversation.

Previous Handshake 302 projects such as  “Of a Piece” and “n=distortion” surprised participants and showed the potential of open-ended, collaborative art praxis. “Of a Piece” was commissioned by the Shenzhen Art Museum for the “ThermoMatter: 2015 Contemporary Art Invitational Exhibition.” The project began with a blank canvass, donated clothing, thread, and an invitation for visitors to quilt sections. At the end of the exhibition, the piece had grown organically into its “final” form.


Visitors to the Shenzhen Art Museum working on “Of a Piece.”


The final version of “Of a Piece.”

For “n=distortion,” Handshake 302 invited artists from the eleven cities that comprise the Pearl River Delta to create sculptures that were informed by urban planning indices—population, GDP, and land area. These and other collaborative works have not only brought us into contact with a wide range of people, but also taught us to trust the creative process itself; an art degree is not necessary to create art. Instead, we need time and opportunity to work together.


The completed version of “n=distortion.”

Having experienced the creative potential of participation, we have designed a rich and varied program for visitors to “Migrations.” We look forward to the encouragement and inspiration that arise as artists and friends come together to make art.We anticipate a diversity of voices, an exchange ideas, and the re-consideration of fixed ideas as art allows to re-imagine historic possibility.

“Migrations” is a sub-venue exhibition in this edition of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture \ Urbanism, which will be located in urban villages throughout Shenzhen.



At the Longheu P+V Gallery, we are working with our longtime collaborator, the P+V Historical Association.



Image used courtesy of the Basel Mission Archives.


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