Ho Tam


980 Queen Street West
May 1–May 30, 2020

Ho Tam, The Yellow Pages, Z (Zen) A-bomb explosion, 2020, ink-jet print on Xuan paper, 13 x 19″.

Western imperialism requires an ideological substrate, a web of signifiers that establishes illusions of ethnic and cultural superiority. A Canadian immigrant from Hong Kong, Ho Tam has been attuned for decades to the accompanying stereotypes permeating North American mass media, his observations on which culminated in four projects made between 1993 and 2020 that are currently on view at Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Tam’s artist’s books, magazine, video, and set of prints are formal variations on a single theme and structure: All include twenty-six components corresponding to the English letters A to Z, each of which is complemented by a collage of images (Bruce Lee appears next to Mulan and Astro Boy) and a caption (such as “M.S.G.,” “Yellow Fever,” and “Whiz Kids”). Together, the projects explore Western representations of Eastern culture, which, though diverse, is often lumped into one threatening, alluring, or ridiculous entity. Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, eviscerated gendered language; Tam makes alphabet soup from a mash-up of racialized (and often racist) signs.

The exhibition’s title, “The Yellow Pages,” and the 2016 magazine’s bright color lend a playful air to Tam’s response to Asian stereotypes. But bemusement gives way to anger with some of the text-image pairs: “Invasions” is illustrated with a New York Times front page proclaiming US victory at Iwo Jima, and “Zen” captions an image of an atomic bomb explosion. In the most recent project, Tam registers affinities with other racial and gendered groups: A Black Lives Matter poster is captioned “Solidarity”; an illustration of “How to Wear a Hijab” is keyed to “Choice”; and montaged banknote portraits are subtitled “Patriarchy.” The old stereotypes, repeatedly refreshed for political expediency, are resurfacing today. Hate crimes against Asian North Americans are rising due to their imagined connection to the “Chinese virus.” Tam’s project reminds us just how ingrained these stereotypes are, and how urgent their dissolution is.

— Jill Glessing

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