Xtra!

Number 576, Nov 23, 2006

Life at sea.

Ho Tam unmoors our preconceptions.

There seems to be a certain style of documentary image making that says more about the author, or the process than it does about the subject. When an image isn’t directing us to think in a particular way maybe the question to ponder is not so much, “what is this about?” but rather, “why this image, why here, why now?” Ho Tam’s latest exhibition, Romances, at Paul Petro Gallery, is easily enough interpreted as a tale of the artist’s romance with the sea, or perhaps his romance with “seamen.” Tam, currently based in Victoria, B.C. has created an exhibition comprised of 33 painted portraits, a short video, and a handful of photographs.

Although this collection presents a diverse range of working methods, none of them are unfamiliar to the artist. Having a fairly significant history working with all three processes, the work doesn’t feel clumsy or awkward as one might expect from an artist picking up a brush for the first time. Instead of this collection feeling disjointed as a result of the different mediums, the works come together fairly cohesively, each having their own particular strengths.

The starting point for Romances was Tam’s acceptance into the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP). An opportunity that allowed the artist to travel on a Naval ship for ten days, from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Esquimalt, B.C.. An evocative a starting point such as Pearl Harbor might lead one to believe Romances would be about war or history. However, it’s really about people, places, and the fictions surrounding them. And it’s about looking.

According to the National Defence website (www.forces.gc.ca) the goal of CFAP is “to allow artists from across Canada, working in various mediums, to capture the daily operations, personnel, and spirit of the Canadian Forces” and to “help usher in a new era of Canadian military art.” This all leads me to wonder just how critical an artist can afford to be of the very institution making their work possible.

Unlike the heroic or violent images we are used to seeing of military life in the media, Tam’s Romances seems quite the opposite. There are neither guts, nor glory in his photographs. Instead, it seems he’s in awe of the sea and its sheer size. In Untitled (Wave) we see a man looking out onto the choppy ocean, the saturated blue monstrosity makes it seem as though he is in front of a film backdrop.

Untitled (Sunset), is a piece that at a quick glance might be confused for a Steve Walker painting. In it, two men sit calmly, quietly gazing out onto the ocean. With no land in sight, and the bright sun beginning to set, it is a picture of tranquility. Backs to the viewer, the men are not concerned with performing for the camera, but appear lost in thought, present in the moment. Part of what makes this photograph interesting is the fact that as viewers we see the characters, but also what the characters are looking at. As a result, this isn’t just a photograph about two men, or about an ocean view, but also about the very acts of seeing and looking.

Like Tam’s past work, Romances is an examination of identity, both in terms of what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be part of a group. Here Tam displays a grid of painted portraits of the Naval personnel from the ship he travelled on. Each uniformed face is captured like a snapshot. These mostly smiling faces could be any smiling people anywhere. Painted in a rather flat cartoon style, the oil on masonite panels come with a sense of familiarity. Not a great deal is being said about these people, but that’s just the point. It’s a way of looking at the attitudes we all project onto the military, and similarly, at the images that the military themselves project. Their flatness allows these people to be anything we want them to be in our minds. Rather than simply praising or condemning the military, Tam opts for a more observational approach to life in the Navy. As filmmaker and cultural theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha once stated in her film, Reassemblage, "I do not intend to speak about, just speak near by," so too do Tam’s Romances.