Ho Tam

TITLE: Sweet Slices of Life At Sea - Still Clouds, Sunsets, Part of the Navy Routine




Photography is having some grand moments around town, with the heroic-romantic American landscapes from Ansel Adams at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “Two Photographers: Two Visions” show (along with Alfred Eisenstaedt) and the romanticized environmental devastation shown by Ed Burtynsky in Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, Manufactured Landscapes.


Then there’s Ho Tam. The photographer/painter/video-making constructs romanticized visions, too. “Romances” is the name of his show at Paul Petro Gallery with its large digital photographic prints and the 33 nearly identical oil-on-masonite portraits. There’s also a six-minute DVD loop, Threshold (2006), with it’s grumbling, near sub-sonic audio track from sound artist S. Lyn Goeringer.


The seafaring nature of each of the three well-integrated components – all those integrated components – all those waves, pellucid skies and snappy uniforms – leads you to think the romances is about the sea. Well, it is and it isn’t. In part it’s about the Hong Kong-born artist’s idealized vision of the sea. It’s also in part about his “intensive seeing,” in the words of photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The blues of Tam’s skies and seas pop right out of the video monitor.


It also shows Tam’s imagination running in a minimalist groove. “Romances” gets its impetus from ordinary, everyday fantasies that come from sappy, wish-you-were-here postcards, from homey snapshots taken of ordinary scenes, or any of the feelings that go with being a tourist in a longed-for ideal setting.


This is the magic of the mundane, like a lot of slacker art around these days. Adams and Burtynsky see the epic and primal in the great outdoors. Tam sees it as the backdrop for a personal, quiet moment.


The source for “Romances” was a voyage the 44-year-old artist – a former Torontonian now teaching art at the University of Victoria – took in March 2005 at the invitation of the Canadian Forces Artists Program. He was on board the HMCS Calgary from Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, to the Esquimalt Navel Base in British Columbia.


The Navy wanted Tam to record the practices and procedure typical of a Navy ship at sea. “They were always trying to get me to look at the loading of some machine, of all the action,” he says. And initially, that seemed fine to him. He remembered epic storms in some of Turner’s sea paintings. All sorts of big, dramatic moments were possible.


“But I found slices of life (on board) a lot of more interesting,” Tam now admits. “My other photo work is about leisure. The work (in ‘Romances’) is reflexive and contemplative.”


To say the least. The three colour photographs in the Paul Petro front gallery, although each is over a half-meter long and wide, could otherwise be taken for picture-perfect posters from some Pacific Rim tourist bureau.


Untitled (cloud) (2006) shows the least threatening cumulus cloud in photographic history, as a great big meringue of vapour suspended over a peaceful stretch of land. Untitled (wave) (2006) points our gaze toward the frothy white crest of a wave so gentle that the sailor leaning over the rail of the Calgary doesn’t bother to look its way.


Untitled (sunset) (2006) takes postcard-like idealization to new heights of stylized purity, the kind Tam suggests is found in the great Japanese artist Hokusai’s woodblock prints. Two youngish sailors, in crisp, clean summer-white uniforms, their haircuts trimmed just so, watch the pink glow of a distant sunset as they sit near the ship’s railing, their hands folded quietly in their laps.


The 33 photo-based paintings of the crew members – Tam’s own self-portrait among them – are equally idealized to the point of caricature. Most everyone has the same skin-tone, the colour of pale almond butter. Everyone’s eyes are bright, their lips reddish.


Looking at this you wait for the penny to drop to notice the sarcasm buried somewhere in front of you. It’s not there. Tam’s approach to such scenes of perfection lacks any hint of cynicism. For all his broader concerns about his subject – “ ‘Romances’ examines the various constructs of masculinity, military and nationality,” he says – he mostly buys entirely into the idealism inherent in his subject.


“Idealism was in the air,” he tells me. “ I thought this trip was going to be great and perfect.” And so it was. “ It became this romantic idea of being out there on the sea.”


“Romances” also shows Tam’s rediscovery of himself as a multimedia conscious artist. “I’d not done any drawing in along time before this,” he says. Only last month, his feature-length film documentary Book of James was given a spotlight showing at the Reel Asian film festival. He now plans work based on the Nanking (Nanjing) massacre in 1938 of Chinese citizens by Japanese troops.


“Romances” also suggests a new, mellowed-out Ho Tam, far from the days when he was a cheeky provocateur who had a spread of photos – one including a gay threesome – in Suggestive Poses: Artists and Critics Respond to Censorship, a 1997 collection edited by Lorraine Johnson.


“When I first made work, it was always about me and how I interpreted the world, “ he says. “Now I want to turn that around and let the world talk to me.”


(Toronto Star, December 9, 2006)