Focus on the collection: Ho Tam

For nearly three decades, Ho Tam has focused on issues of race and sexuality — in particular, how Asian masculinity is depicted and stereotyped in North American culture. A number of earlier works explored these subjects in a direct manner. The Yellow Pages (1994) was a compendium of racial slurs, and the oil painting series The Salary Men (1995) portrayed middle-aged Asian car salesmen and real-estate brokers taken from newspaper images. In Fine China (1998) blueprints depicted bowls and vases decorated with the “signature” blue ceramic design that the West associates with Chinese culture. In all of these works, culture, race and gender are understood to be objects that gain value through socio-economic exchange systems — from which, as Tam once observed, he cannot escape.

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #3, 2016. Ink jet print

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #3, 2016. Ink jet prints, 28 x 21.6 cm each. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Ho Tam. Photo: NGC

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #27, 2016. Ink jet print

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #27, 2016. Ink jet prints, 28 x 21.6 cm each. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Ho Tam. Photo: NGC

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #3 / #27, 2016, ink jet prints, 28 x 21.6 cm each. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Ho Tam. Photo: NGC

 

In A Brief History of Me, Tam addresses gender, identity and race within a broader context of history and historical events. The work was conceived when the artist turned fifty. At that point, he began to consider the many cities in which he had lived, his relationships, and his careers, and asked: “How am I to place myself in a world among inequalities and contesting views?”

His response was to create a timeline with each year represented by a single sheet of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper. Using family and personal photographs, Tam “re-creates” his life. He is seen as the “cute baby,” the attentive sibling, on his way to school, posed with family and friends, and then as a young gay man, a traveller, an artist and publisher.

Beneath many of the photographs is a text reference to an event that occurred that year. The choice of event is random, but often well-known and sometimes traumatic. For example, under a photograph showing what appears to be a high school dance or prom, the text reads “Earthquake in Turkey kills 1,200.” Beneath a photograph of a teenage Tam, “Star Wars opens in cinemas” appears. As an adult traveller posing in front of Machu Picchu, “Columbine High School massacre, in Colorado USA.”

In this way, Tam creates a jarring relationship between text and image — one not in keeping with the accepted use of captions, which traditionally strive to stabilize the meaning of an image. In addition, the choice of text from this broader social context disrupts the codes of vernacular photography, such as smiling for the camera and choice of subject matter — usually documentation of significant family events and social gatherings. Through his presentation, Tam displays his life as a gay, Asian man within a larger historical context, showing how identity is shaped and affected by both personal and historical circumstances.

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #31, 2016. Ink jet print

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #31, 2016. Ink jet prints, 28 x 21.6 cm each. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Ho Tam. Photo: NGC

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #47, 2016. Ink jet print

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #47, 2016. Ink jet prints, 28 x 21.6 cm each. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Ho Tam. Photo: NGC

Ho Tam, A Brief History of Me #31 / #47, 2016, ink jet prints, 28 x 21.6 cm each. Purchased 2019. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Ho Tam. Photo: NGC

 

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Biography

Ho Tam is a multimedia artist who works in painting, photography, print-based art (tangible and virtual), and video. He has participated in a number of video festivals across North America, and his experimental film/video works have been shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, and the travelling exhibition Magnetic North: Canadian Experimental Video, organized by the Walker Art Center in Minnesota.

Tam also runs hotam press, which produces artist books. In addition, he publishes artist zines, such as 88Books (works by artists in China) and XXXzines, queer zines from international artists. Tam’s work can be found in permanent collections around the world, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.

In the words of the artist:

“Juxtaposing personal images and public facts, and placing sombre events with more light-hearted ones, I invite viewers to join me in a journey to revisit the recent past. The artist matures and ages in front of the eyes of viewers, perhaps while the viewers are themselves reflecting upon their own timelines.”

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