BY SALLY FRATER
Although Ho Tam’s Translations features an array of works that the artist has produced throughout the course of his career the exhibition is not a bona fide retrospective. Instead, it serves as a platform that highlights two particular formats that have preoccupied the artist’s attention over the last few years: poster art and book works. A career in advertising preceded his artistic practice and informed what Tam has produced across multiple genres including painting, drawing, and time-based works. Yet what has remained constant in his oeuvre is an interest in the ways in which images communicate information to us, and how our understanding of these messages changes depending on where we are positioned in relation to them.
The works within Translations are divided into three sections. On two tables that stand within the middle of the gallery are an array of artist books and artist magazines. Hung on the south wall of the gallery behind them are series of posters that have been designed by the artist. Bookending the printed material are two separate monitors hung across from each other on the east and west gallery playing looped videos by the artist. Though at first glance the relationship between the posters and the publications might appear to be more evident than the relationship between the video works to the printed objects, there is a through-line that connects each grouping. Closer inspection of the works reveals a series of concerns that have been consistent throughout the artist’s practice: constructs of masculinity, the relationships between cultural and racialized stereotypes and their effects on both identity and perception, and the differences and the relationship between word and image.
The Yellow Pages (1994) is a video by Tam that was based on his first artist book. The yellow and sepia-toned soundless video features a hand turning the pages of a book. Each page depicts the pairing of a phrase with an image. The imagery that appears throughout the book is drawn from a variety of sources through many are sourced from cinema, and several of them illustrate the limited and problematic perceptions of Asian culture that non-Asians in the west hold. The expectation of the phrases that appear alongside the images is that they will help to contextualize them. Instead, many of the phrases seem incongruous to the images, making what appears before the image seem nonsensical. In this, Tam is able to reveal both the constructed nature of stereotypes as well as disrupt their currency as transmitters of cultural meaning.
The video Fine China is composed differently than The Yellow Pages. Whereas the latter work is a broader overview of the myriad stereotypes of Asians and Asian cultural that circulate throughout the west, Fine China (2000) turns a more focused lens to the culture and history of China. Featuring scrolling (and seemingly hand drawn) images of “blue willow” patterned china, the various forms of dinnerware frame video clips taken from a variety of media sources that reveal different aspects of China’s complex and multi-layered history while accompanied by an instrumental soundtrack of a “traditional” Chinese melody. One moment that is highlighted depicts a lingerie-clad young woman whose poses signal sexual availability to the viewer, addressing the history of sexual fetishization that the West has bestowed upon the bodies of Asian women and men. Another moment features the ubiquitous footage of “Tank Man”, the unidentified protesters who faced off against the tanks in Tianamen Square. By incorporating elements of Orientalism, constructs that depicts Asia as a mysterious and exotic place, the work moves beyond the realm of stereotype, Here Tam is able to also convert and combine the fraught aspects of China history with and avoids overly sentimentalizing it while directing viewers interrogate their beliefs and perceptions about Asia.
Tam has remarked that he started producing books works due to a desire to engage with elements that were evading him in the process of more traditional forms of making art. The book works offer the artist a platform for collaboration and specific forms of engagement that were absent from his works produced in painting or video. The first artist book that Tam produced contained a series of interviewers with Canadian artists that were conducted by him. Published in China and translated by Tam, the books inverted the premise on which Tam’s earlier works operated: as opposed to focusing on the ways in which the “East” is pictured in the West, a particular segment of Asian society, through the portal of his artist book, is presented with a portal into Canadian culture through the lens of artistic production.
Several of Tam’s work are also conceptually invested in undermining the boundaries of separate mediums within his own practice. Some of his recent books, which bear his name, reference earlier works, such as hotam#4, which features a china plate that shares a similar aesthetic to his video Fine China. In hotam#6, he creates a book of magazine covers. Disrupting the expectation of a linear narrative that one comes to expect from reading a book, the book instead reaches a series of successive covers that features inscrutable imagery. Similar to The Yellow Pages in which the relationship between image and text is challenged, the book leads viewers to interrogate the imagery that is presented before them and their relation to it, as well as their role as viewers in the process in making meaning.
(Centre3 Catalogue, 2016)