Ho Tam

TITLE: Harder Times, Tougher Spaces




Contrary to what I wrote in 1987 for The Power Plant’s first exhibition, “Toronto: A Play of History,” and despite the city’s burden of calamities and calumnies since, the heat of art-world exchange now arises here as often from empathy as from abrasion.


Good evidence is “Harder Time, Tougher Space: The Migrant Experience,” organized with the help of Paul Bouissac at the Artword Theatre in March, featuring digital video works by Toronto-based artist Ho Tam (Book of James and She Was Cuba) and renowned cultural theorist Mieke Bal (A Thousand and One Days).


Self-congratulation has set in with the United Nations’ designation of Toronto as the world’s most multicultural city, but questions remain as to how different groups relate and how it feels to be an immigrant trying to make a life here. Consider the CBC report on the actor/producer/director Mel Gibson and his religious affiliation, and how the profitable projection of it in his current film seems to have affected the psychic balance of our reputedly exemplary city. Post-Gibson events in Toronto include desecrations of both Muslim and Jewish sacred places and extended self-investigations into police corruption, the latter dialectically related to the former, in my view. All the more reason then on a rainy March evening to welcome this program on the migrant experience, where alterity was comfortably at home with an intergenerational, town-and-gown, culturally diverse audience.


In She Was Cuba, a stereotype-revealing sequence of visual quotations from ten popular films of the past marks the path of Ada Perez Esquivel (1967-1999), a young Cuban woman who sought asylum in Canada and died here. Their cumulative impact takes us into the heart of her dilemma, constructing and at the same time scrutinizing the climate of received ideas which framed her life and death. Books of James, based on the diaries and drawings of exiled South Dakotan James Wentzy, bears witness to a life and work conducted under the radar but worthy attention. (So permeated by lament were Ho Tam’s works that I mistakenly assumed that Wentzy was dead, a response perhaps having something to do with living in a city where artist obituaries tend to upstage exhibition reviews.)


Mieke Bal introduced Ho Tam’s work as “an archive of experiences hinting at life and death in a situation of exile,” a theme explored more conventionally in her documentary A Thousand and One Days. It follows the sometime heart-rending struggle of Tarek Mehdi, an illegal immigrant, to marry Ilhem ben Ali. While it deploys familiar documentary means, Days is distinguished by a climate of exceptional trust and openness. As a confidante of Tarek, her Paris neighbour, Bal perceived in his story not only the personal struggle of two lovers and its political implications, but also the mythic dimensions alluded to in the title.


From another corner of the forest entirely, the booklet Artistic Expression in a Corporate World arrives with a letter from political-science-of-the-arts professor Joost Smiers, parsing the relation between the WTO and UNESCO and offering the prospect of an international convention on cultural diversity. “When we think about regulating cultural markets in favour of the development and the spread of cultural diversity,” he writes, “we should not forget that all markets everywhere and always in history have been regulated. The decisive question, however, is in whose interests.”


Ho Tam and Mieke Bal address the harder times and tougher spaces of that question.


(Canadian Art, Summer 2004)