Inside Ho Tam’s Uncategorized Cabinet of Curiosities
BY HENRY HENG LU
Vancouver-based Ho Tam is a veteran artist whose career has spanned over twenty-ﬁve years. The versatility of his practice brings his vision into multiple disciplines including print media video, photography, and painting. Born in Hong Kong and educated in Canada and the US, he worked for advertising companies and community psychiatric facilities before settling into art. In his work, he reﬂects upon past and present everyday experiences in North America and beyond from the perspective of an Asian individual, and oftentimes in a gently humorous and satirical manner. Ho Tam has a keen eye for things that can be easily overlooked in the quotidian. He often plays the role of an instigator to make connections between a variety of genres of visual information, and this is particularly obvious in his recent self-publishing endeavours such as hotam press, 88Books, and XXXzines.
While focusing in earnest on his independent print projects, Ho Tam also presents his publications in alternative formats such as the gallery setting (or “the gallery scene,” as he may prefer). In May, I made my way to the artist’s solo exhibition Cover to Cover at the Richmond Art Gallery near Vancouver, Canada (April 3 to May 27, 2018), on a pleasantly sunny Tuesday afternoon. According to the 2016 Census published by the City of Richmond, people of Chinese descent make up ﬁfty-four percent of the city’s population, and the gallery has over the years aimed to establish closer connections with the local Chinese community. As I was entering the gallery, I was greeted with two painting installations on the walls facing the entrance. The one on the left, The Salary Men (1995–2014), consisted of a series of portraits of Asian-looking businessmen. They all wear glasses and suits, and they display a spectrum of smiles. Strict, bookish, and seemingly old-fashioned, each one of them looks like he could be a real estate broker or politician of the type one ﬁnds in Chinese newspaper ads (and each of the men portrayed actually is such a person). The other installation, titled Matinee Idols (1995–2014), is a collection of portraits of younger Asian men. In an instant, I recognized several pop icons who are household names in Hong Kong and mainland China—Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, and Leon Lai. The skin of these men, all of them with bare shoulders, is painted with an exaggerated yellow against a grey background. Combined with that, their posture is captured in a way one may consider sexualized and, with their hollow gazes, potentially produce an uncomfortable feeling in the viewer. My response to these two works, neither of which I was expecting to see, encouraged me to venture further into the main gallery space with a question in mind: Is this a retrospective of Ho Tam’s paintings and not his artist’s books? I was slightly perplexed as I wondered if his career might have been reduced in this exhibition only to his drawings and paintings.
The answer was a clear “no” as I found myself surrounded by walls of print-based photographic arrangements, almost all of it drawn from his published works. The Richmond Art Gallery does not have a standard white cube space that would give one a sense of order or direction, and I would argue that is part of its charm. Rather, the physical space, with its multiple corners, offers the artists the possibility of contextualizing their work within an unusual spatial experience. Indeed, the layout of the works installed in the main gallery managed to create the sense of various portals in which visitors were able to experience Ho Tam’s print-based works from the 1990s to the present on a larger scale and in a format that is different from books. Through these portals, the nonlinear narratives that he constructs give the viewer insight to his particular world. Moreover, these projects intersected with each other and subsequently wove together a panoramic view of a complicated present that we live in.
The works on display consisted of a selection of images from Ho Tam’s well- known Poser series (ﬁrst developed in 2002, printed as bookworks between 2013 and 2016), Hotam series (2013–2017), and his latest project, titled The Greatest Stories Ever Told (since 2015). The Poser series brings together volumes of photographs depicting individuals in a particular location or context. Poser #4, for instance, comprises images of strangers whom the artist approached for their portraits at Grand Central Station in New York City; what connects them is that they are all wearing blue shirts. Poser #2: Toronto pictures men with cute stuffed animals in their hands, shot when the artist was roaming around the Canadian National Exhibition in 2003. Wherever Ho Tam went, he would decide upon an attribute that he found in common within that speciﬁc space; another example is an entire wall of photographs of monks dressed in orange for Poser #1: Bangkok. Hotam is a series featuring ﬁfteen issues of relatively personal “artist’s journal[s].” Hotam #7: Haircut 100, for example, is a compendium of photographs of hair salons in Manhattan taken from numerous angles. Hotam #13: Ghost Image, installed in the gallery right next to the hair salon images, is a collection of artistically processed photographic negatives of the artist’s deceased lover. Obscure and eerie, the images create an incredibly uneasy ambience in contrast with the intimate nature of the original printed photographs and to the humour evident in some of the other work. The Yellow Pages, ﬁrst published as a photocopy book in 1993 and now issue #12 of the Hotam series, has one page for each letter of the alphabet and was created at the peak of Asian Canadian cultural activism and identity politics in the 1990s to confront stereotypes—Dog Meat, Head Tax, I Ching, Laundryman, M.S.G.—often associated with Chinese culture and East Asian cultures in general as perceived by the West. It was a critical response to the anti-Asian sentiments situated in the post-Yellow Peril eras. In the gallery, an updated 2016 version with images and texts indicating recent events such as the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and Black Lives Matter is deconstructed from its original form of a magazine and spread out, bare, for one to take in whole. Shown in a large scale for the ﬁrst time, The Greatest Stories Ever Told is an ongoing project for which Ho Tam writes dark fairy tales, pairs them with images taken from fragments of banknotes, and has had them translated into different languages. In this particular installation, clippings from the project are enlarged, connected together with wooden sticks, and installed like the toys one ﬁnds hanging above a baby’s crib. I can imagine how Ho Tam works in his studio: collaging images together, pairing them with texts, and then moving different pieces around. This kind of mapping is essential to his creative process as they transmute his subject position to a personal-is-political consciousness within a public context.
Complementary to the photo installations, the gallery lounge was set up so one could review Ho Tam’s career. Centred in the space is a selected archive of his publications and interview articles. Besides working on his own artistic projects, he has also launched a few collaborative publications with Canadian and international artists. Frontline, published in Beijing in 2011, includes Chinese-translated interviews in which eighteen Canadian photo- based artists share insights into their practices. In the lounge is another gem: Selected images from Hotam#11: Curious Cabinets, where he has literally opened his friends’ bathroom cabinets and shows you the inside of them. In an interview video playing in the room, Ho Tam dresses exactly like one of the businessmen he has painted. One may ask: Is this a subtle critique of the necessity to perform Chineseness under a national Multicultural agenda?
With the resurgence of global conservatism and nationalism, identity politics has again emerged as subject matter employed in a wave of artistic practices that attempt to function as gestures of resistance. In a cultural and political landscape of disempowering narratives imposed on racialized and disadvantaged communities, one can imagine how directly anger and dismay can be expressed through the channel of art. Ho Tam’s work perhaps cannot escape such a framework; however, he knows how to involve his own agency in the face of an immense sociological terrain. At the heart of his practice is the act of surveying samples of a broader fabric of our society (but, also, whose society is it?), bringing into play a whole spectrum of social typologies, and he counters the usual approach of artwork addressing identity politics. In lieu of proposing a speciﬁc answer or directly commenting on certain politics, his works act as a window to the artist’s own cabinet of curiosities where he shows you what he has seen, loved, and lost. Rather than express his frustration toward the ups and downs of everyday life, he reverses the Western gaze and embodies it with his own sensibility and visual language.
On my way out of the gallery, I saw a few visitors taking selﬁes and pictures of the works. One of them pointed at Poser #4 and turned around to tell his friend with a giggle “Hey look, I have an outﬁt exactly like this!,” as if he saw a reﬂection of himself in the photograph. At that moment, I realized that this was a show for whoever tried to ﬁnd an introspective moment to face who they are. Ultimately, the exhibition was not simply a showcase of Ho Tam’s oeuvre. It functioned as an open concept as it revealed many paths for spectators to take in accessing their own “self” as well as to have an experience of how to see the world through the artist’s eyes. People come and go. But Ho Tam will always be there to show you what is in his camera.
(Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 17, No.5, Sept/Oct 2018)