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Ho Tam: The Only Asian Boy in New York?

By Anya Wassenberg

“I’m still trying to make sense of all the kinds of work I make,” admits Ho Tam, and to call him simply “film maker” is to ignore all the other facets of his work–painting, drawing, photography. Many of his exhibitions, like Romances that showed at the Paul Petro Gallery in Toronto in late 2006, combine all those forms. Still, film and video as media seem to most truthfully capture the intimate nature of his work, and it’s those forms that seem to bring him the most attention. “They (bring) out a narrative element,” he muses, “a sense of urgency and immediacy.”

Born in Hong Kong, Tam was educated and grew up in Toronto, getting a degree from Hamilton’s McMaster University before embarking on careers in advertising and community psychiatric facilities, then turning full time to art, studying at Bard College in New York State. “I studied social work, did community work for years,” he says, “I had no thought of art. But then I worked in commercial art–I wanted to use their tactics,” he jokes. He began making films in 1994, about the same time as his first solo exhibition and during a four year period when he lived in NYC.

To watch Tam’s videos is to enter his world and sensibilities. Their subject matter rarely strays far from the artist himself, drawn from his everyday experience and his immediate concerns. “It’s “found” imagery,” he explains, “my work is informed by the place I’m at.” His first video, 1994’s The Yellow Pages (7:45), is arranged in 26 short segments from A to Z. The short exemplifies many of the themes and treatments that run throughout his work, showing a series of images that look at Asia and the Asian male in North American society, from Hiroshima to the Boat People, with Tam’s quietly familiar gaze and sly sense of satire.

While in NYC he eventually moved to suburban Washington Heights “as the only Asian!” Tam insists with a laugh. Miracles on 163rd chronicles a friend’s Christmas party in the neighbourhood, done simply without commentary and in real time. “I’m always working as a one man production,” he notes. By observing and documenting the crowd of mostly Latino and African American gay men, he gently but effectively poses questions about race and gender, as well as his own role as the film maker. Who is the outsider here? On somewhat of a side note, typical of his gently prodding sense of humour, the apartment’s gay guy aesthetic brings notions of art and kitsch to mind. Race is the theme of Hair Cuts, an eight-minute short completed in 1999 that takes us on a tour of Chinese hair salons and barber shops in NYC’s Chinatown and Lower East Side, and we chuckle at the quirky humour in names like Rising Sun Nails and Mei Dick Barber Shop just as we notice the storefronts filled with both Chinese characters and pictures of smiling, pale caucasian faces.

Sexual and racial identity–potentially highly charged subjects–take on playful, meditative tones in Pocahantas: Transworld Remix, with larger themes about the naive fable of globalization. Korean American drag queen Pauline Park roams through Central Park to a soundtrack consisting of remixed music from Disney films in French, English, Chinese, and Spanish. In the world of Ho Tam, the outsider takes on the role of observer. “I think I definitely benefit from my particular experience–not from here or there. And in the past 10, 12 years, I have lived in many places and traveled around. Trying to see the world. Tring to go back to places where I came from. At any point of time, I see myself almost on exile, by choice. I do not claim a home, and never feel at home in any places either. I often look into the windows of hotels and fantasize, that is the perfect life. But of course I could not live like that. And I have too much baggage.”

Baggage or no, in Tam, the role of outsider is one of quiet observation, not anxiety. He sees it, in fact, as essential to his art. “I think I am most prolific when I am isolated and my senses are heightened. I often find myself gaining more insights as I move further away from my “home.”

Tam’s most recent works see him in the role of invited observer. Two thousand and six’s Books of James offers a full length (74 minute) treatment of his earlier 16 minute short, based on the handwritten and illustrated journals of friend and AIDS activist James Wentzy. It’s Tam’s first feature length project, an experimental documentary that uses the books as a starting point and narration over a series of still and moving images, found and stock images, footage taken by James himself, and camera work that uses every technique from hand held and jittery POV shots to sweeping perspectives. The gently flowing result leaves the viewer with a real impression not only of James as a person, but of his time and relationship to it.

Romances is a multi media show, including drawings, photography, and a short film, that began with Ho Tam’s acceptance into the Canadian Forces Artists Program, an opportunity that saw him travel with a Naval ship for ten days from Pearl Harbour, Hawaii to Esquimalt, BC. It’s an apt name for both the show, and theme of the accompanying film, Thresholds, a 6 minute DVD loop that features an audio track from sound artist s. Lyn Goeringer. Thresholds gives the viewer an intense view of the sea, with glorious colours, and an uncynically rapt view of both the ocean and the experience. As always, his point of view is intimate, and finds the extraordinary in the ordinary with the eye of a gentle alien observer.

Tam’s videos and films have been shown all over the world, including MOMA, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and TIFF, and the original 16 minute Books of James was the critically acclaimed winner of the 2004 Grand Marnier Video Fellowship awarded by the Film Society of the Lincoln Center in NYC. He’s settled, for the moment, in BC to teach in the School of Fine Art at the University of Victoria..

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