TITLE: Ho Tam: Untitled, Nonspecific
BY WAYNE BAERWALDT
It is on the cultural borders between mass media and fine art. Eurocentric and Asian-specific images and text, that many artists are reversing the flow of information to actively inform the centers of critical discourse about trans-cultural change and renew challenges to what is left of the western canon of High Modernism. In the recent past Plug In has featured artists such as Juan Davila, Glenn Ligon, Colleen Cutshell, Paul Wong, Rebecca Belmore, Shi Yong, Ding Yi, Zhou Tiehai and others; each has contributed considerably to redefining the direction of the flow of information, actively reworking boundaries and subject matter to establish identities beyond ethnic labeling. Artists such as Zhou Tiehai place themselves in what Homi Bhabha has called a ‘third space,’ a fluid, strategic position between cultures, where Zhou Tiehai, among others shuns any label of his work as ‘Chinese artist’ and the identification of his work with ‘Chinese themes.’ He is intent on carving out another international level of production formed via hybrid sources, from Chinese traditional artmaking techniques and subject matter to western subject matter and theoretical concerns. Ho Tam assumed this position many years ago, placing himself in limbo between Hong Kong, Toronto, New York, essentially moving between cultural zones highly influenced by business practices and a strong consumer culture. Naturally his work with subjects such as product labels, Asian businessmen and youthful oriental porn stars are conjured up in these centers and are beamed out to various niche markets in the world.
Ho Tam is a Canadian artist currently based in New York. Exploring the relationship between text and imagery from various mainstream. Western and Asian media and consumer product sources (all loaded with signifiers of stereotyping), Ho Tam’s work seeks to converse with onlookers in a playful, informal and at times satirical manner – very much attached to self-conscious, detached and fragmented memories of the artists. Ho Tam reshuffles iconic texts (e.g., the font used on the KOOL cigarette package) that represent beliefs and values associated with social stereotypes, that is, often repeated myths of dominant consumer groups (white, single, middle-class heterosexuals; elderly Asians, etc.). Ho Tam repositions them alongside a series of Asian male portraits to suggest their narrow cultural specificity in western culture. He is also apt to use his personal history and shifting identities as a starting point to composite images, from human figures to commercial signs and abstract symbols.
Myths and clichés surrounding race, gender and sexuality are communicated and reinforced by mass media and corresponding social conventions that have the power to both create and destroy myths and clichés. Tam addresses these myths and clichés by again shifting the contexts to create a new set of perspectives and possibilities for re-invention and interpretation. He often appropriates the same means of productions as the mass media to reach a broader audience, such as mild titillation (ie., the young men of his Secret Garden series). Media employed by Ho Tam range from painting on board or vellum to limited edition artist books, manga style flip books, photographs and video.
Ho Tam’s most recent work is personal in nature, a literal scanning of his childhood and the present streetscapes of his immediate environments. He covers a widening selection of subjects from desire and attractions, to the power relations inherent in his chosen subjects. The following selection of video stills is informed by notes from the artist on their arrangement and importance as part of ongoing video projects.
(Plug In Cahier, 1998 – 1999)