Ho Tam: Cover to Cover
by Kegan McFadden
We are rarely told the story of a little boy who would make his own fun by cutting up newspapers and magazines only to collage them back together into a world that made sense only to him. What would that boy fantasize over? Lying on the living room floor or concentrating at the kitchen table, too-big scissors in his still-tiny hands, his imagination would conflate the allure of faraway places or experiences equally as foreign to his young eyes with the way men fit together when they aren’t engaged in war; or how he might become someone, anyone, different than who he was, if only the ads in those cut-up magazines showed his skin tone. That little boy we are rarely told about knew at an early age that popular culture was a road map and that when you deviate from those glossy confines you can create your strategy for living.
Ho Tam doesn’t exhibit very often these days. He has had a career of note, having immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong when he was 14, coming of age during the late 1970s, being employed as a social worker for many years, only to make art his full-time pursuit at the age of 30. And now, some 25 years later, after a decade spent teaching on the west coast, his engagement with the world of contemporary art is through the publishing of artist books (his own and by other artists who interest him).
The story of the little boy continues. He grew up to be so ambitious as to attempt to photograph everyone in the world. This is how Ho Tam’s series, Posing, started. First there was a trip to Six Flags Amusement Park where he asked strangers to pose depending on their attire (white shirts or black shirts). Then there was Grand Central Station, where he documented the “casual Friday” uniform of the desk jockeys who traded in their drab wools, en masse, for blue shirts and khakis. This indexical analysis continued to encompass monks in Thailand whose golden yellow robes and shaved heads have a similar but opposite effect to a group of men documented at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition grounds proudly displaying their recently won stuffed animals. The series comprising this body of work, viewable for the first time as unbound book pages teamed with the original photographs, leads to thoughts about class and race; about post-9/11 mob mentality; about gender and multiple as well as mutable masculinities. This is how Ho Tam navigates the world, using the lens as a means to capture likenesses and as a tool for further categorization. The Posing portraits are contrasted by three distinct but equally inquisitive projects: Barbershops (2014), Medical Cabinets (2014– 2016) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (2015). From a pictorial investigation of storefront shops in New York City’s Chinatown that might as well have escaped a black-and-white LIFE magazine spread to covert snapshots of friends’ bathroom cabinets to the fantastical reimagining of fables based on world currency, these recent projects show a further meandering through the world.
The Greatest Story Ever Told displayed as an opened bookwork pinned to the wall (as is all the printed matter in this exhibition), reveals a cohesiveness in approach that acts as a key with which to open the entire exhibition. The book is a collage of figures, animals and architecture selected from global currency and arranged to illustrate brief stories of the artist’s making (or is it the other way around?). There is “The Elephant and the Frog,” a fable of miscegenation and the reality of limitations, in which the denouement sees both animals weighing the same amount on a scale. Here, their two-dimensional qualities become an equalizing factor instead of an impediment or weapon of alienation. Ho Tam’s critique of the world and its power structures is furthered when the question of what exactly constitutes a city is posed in “City Planning.” A list of amenities is rattled off – houses for our citizens, hospital, schools, a fire hall – which quickly jumps from amenities to luxury: “In the years to come, what else should we ask for? A nuclear plant and an Olympic stadium for all.” The conspicuous gender imbalance on bank notes, as depicted through the portraits of generals, philosophers, prime ministers and royalty (all male), is made clear with “A Place Called Harem.” The artist once again collages smiling and serious faces of men into a single scene in order to contextualizes the fantasy of a house full of powerful and revered figures all gathered to serve the pleasure of a single woman – in this case, Bubusara Beyshenalieva (1926–1973), one of the founders of the Kyrgyz ballet. Of course it doesn’t really matter that it’s Beyshenalieva; it could just as easily have been the Queen of England, or now Harriet Tubman.
Each of the photographic projects described above made their way into artist books under the imprint of HOTAM and now they are once again released from their covers to make up the exhibition Cover to Cover at PLATFORM centre for photographic + digital arts in Winnipeg. It’s worth noting that even though his exhibition is at PLATFORM, the artist doesn’t think of himself as a photographer in the formal sense. Ho Tam identifies, at least these days, as a maker of books.
The aping of the magazine format is something Ho Tam has all but perfected. He stops at the cover, and maybe rightfully so. The checkerboard-patterned installation, Magazine Covers (2014), is humorous in its surreal juxtaposing of original photographs the artist has taken with real-world titles familiar to most newsstand browsers. The appropriated titles – Artforum, Brides, Dwell, Interview, National Geographic, Popular Science, Vanity Fair – run the gamut and the photographic pairings are jarring only when we allow our expectations to tell us what should be on these covers, instead of imagining what a little boy with a pair of scissors – now a middle-aged man with Photoshop – might make us see.