Karen Tam
Curated by Mary Jane Jacob
January 31 – March 8, 2008

Since receiving a BFA from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Karen Tam has exhibited her work in Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom and the United States. She has participated in residencies across Canada, as well as the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, United Kingdom and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.

In 2006, Tam was awarded the Joseph Stauffer Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts for most outstanding young visual artist. She has also received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, and Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l'Aide à la Recherche, Québec.

Recent activities include solo and group exhibitions: LAB 7.3: Pagoda Pads (2007)at Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia; REDRESS Express at Centre A,Vancouver, British Columbia;Orientally Yours (2007) at The Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Alberta; and Portraits d'artistes, a Conseil des arts de Montréal initiative. Upcoming activities include participation in the Triennial of Québec Art at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, and a solo exhibition, On Rock Garden at AKA Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The exhibition at CUE marks Tam's first solo show in New York.

Mary Jane Jacob's projects rethink the nature of curatorial practice while advancing the parameters of artists' creative and public practices.  In addition to numerous museum shows ? including the first retrospective of such figures as Gordon Matta-Clark ? her innovative exhibitions have included Places with a Past, for the 1991 Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, SC; Culture in Action, Sculpture Chicago, Chicago, IL; Conversations at the Castle, Arts Festival of Atlanta, Atlanta, GA; and the ongoing Evoking History: Listening Across Culture and Communities for the Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, SC. The critical questions at stake in these shows and others now form the core of the exhibitions and curatorial practices she leads at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she is a Professor and Chair of Exhibitions. Current projects there include The Other Modern, a look at the International Style by today's global artists, staged in the great modernist city of Chicago (2009-10).  Jacob also frequently writes on art.  With Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (University of California Press, 2004) and a new anthology entitled Slow Art: Experience Into Art in 2009, both co-edited with Jacquelynn Baas, she furthers research into the art experience that joins artists and audiences. 


I have been working with subjects of cultural identity and authenticity, (mis)perceptions and (mis)communication through the genres of installation and video since 2001. I am particularly interested in the history of the Chinese Diaspora, especially its close connection to the emergence of the overseas Chinese restaurant and cuisine both in North America and internationally.

To me, the Sino-restaurant is a metaphor for Cathay or the idea of China in the minds of

Westerners. In installations such as Big Wok (Big Trouble) Café (Kelowna, 2005), Gold Mountain Restaurant (Montréal, 2004), and Shangri-la Café (Toronto, 2006), I deconstructed and reconstructed the Chinese restaurant to see which elements signify meaning for the public and, thus, play a role in influencing Western perceptions of the Chinese. In conjunction with each restaurant exhibition, there were also musical performances and special events were held (for example, "Pirated Movie Night," "Martini Night," "Coffee and Games Night").

These projects can also be seen as an attempt to document a changing restaurant culture as embodied by 1940s to 1960s old-style, family-run Chinese establishments that have made the way for more diverse, newer types of cuisines in larger cities. In fact, one can argue that it was the pioneering Chinese cuisine that opened up the doors (and palates) to other ethnic foods. While the parallel existence of other "immigrant cuisines" evidences family histories similar to the Chinese restaurateur experience, the Chinese version is singular in its predominance and popularity, perhaps owing to its exoticism and taste.

Parallel to my interest in the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant is the idea of producing objects that appeal to Western taste. The fascination with the East dates back the days of the China export trade and Silk Road (14-19th centuries). Chinoiserie of the 18th and 19th centuries was developed specifically by and for the European market, leading to the massive export of Chinese papers, silks, tea, and porcelain wares. Whereas Americans traded bouillon, fur, and ginseng, there were relatively few items (for example, mechanical clocks) which Europe could offer in exchange for the Chinese goods to reverse the massive flow of silver leaving the Continent. The British solution was to export opium, leading to humiliating and catastrophic ends for the Chinese (namely, addiction, Opium Wars, ceding of territory and forced reparation).

Even at the height of chinoiserie, as the Western market was being flooded with Chinese products, Chinese people overseas were targeted by racist laws and deemed unassimilable aliens. Spurred on by a fear of the "Yellow Peril," of the unknown and unfamiliar, riots broke out and legislation was passed in Canada and the U.S. to stem the flow of these migrants.  Head taxes, Exclusion Acts and restrictive laws separated families for decades. The "fear of Chinese" today, while not virulent, is reflected in talk shows, news reports and blogs on China's rising status as a superpower, its economic strength and position as the world's manufacturer. Recent health scares and scandals over Chinese imports in the West have heightened anxieties about Chinese products. As negative attitudes towards the Chinese are on the rise, we also see a return of the exotic "Far East" in Western popular culture, along with the use of relational terms such as "Far East" and "Oriental," which had emerged during the British colonial and imperial past.

I hope to address these issues through my current installation, a series of small modern-day chinoiserierooms, Pagoda Pads. Inspired by the proliferating home improvement and DIY shows on television and the Internet, which seem to treat Asian cultures as commodities, each space would focus on giving one's home an "Oriental flair."  They would include must-have exotic accessories and furnishings as well as photographs, paper-cutouts, music, text, and other objects that have a more critical and racist slant. I also want to play off notions of authenticity and fakery by producing and creating my own faux antiques. For CUE, I propose to present a modern oriental bedroom for those with the discriminating taste; a children's toxic playroom, Kitschy Kitchen Mao for which everything is bought at a discount or by scouring Chinatown, and a serenely white living area. One component of Pagoda Pads is The Karaoke Sessions, a selection of Western golden oldies sung in Chinese, set to random images of landscapes, birds, animals, and dancing. The background soundtrack in the installation is from my Chinese FirecrackersCD, an ongoing project where I have asked people to do cover versions of 19th and 20th century English and French racist tunes. Pagoda Pads has allowed me to explore further how Western notions and reconstructions of China and the Chinese continues to the present day in movies, television, music, fashion, and art.




by Mary Jane Jacob

China's everywhere! In crafting a lifestyle, chinoiserie has been with us for four centuries now. "Chinoiserie is intriguing, alluring, playful, and glamorous," the website www.templetrading.co.uk tells us, "and it is no passing fad." Indeed. Chinese becomes conflated with Asian and it's everywhere-from teas to spas, furniture to food. The historic Yellow Peril, that is Chinese immigrants thought to be grabbing jobs away from Americans-an issue that has taken on different hues-is back, though not on our shores but offshore, as jobs are migrating to China. We're told China makes nearly 80% of the toys that come into the U.S. and is a leading exporter of products from electronics to apparel to auto parts, as Mattel recalls one million lead-tainted toys (Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2007). With three-quarters of a million toys recalled, the Chinese government insists on confidence in Chinese-made products (BBC News, September 5, 2007). Now with more than 20 million toys recalled worldwide due to levels of lead and hazards posed by small magnets (Reuter's November 7, 2007), we find toys coated with a chemical that, if metabolized, converts into GHB, the toxic "date rape" drug gamma-hydroxy butyrate (CNN, November 8, 2007). Yellow peril!

Karen Tam brings us China or the conflated and complex Chinese-ness that surrounds us. Her environments embody it. They are home. They are us. Here a whole house full of installations gives us a living room-ah, the simplicity of Zen; a master bedroom-the opulent dream; a children's room-are the toys safe? And Kitschy Kitchen Mao-we do love Chinese food. And who's on that karaoke video?


One reference, perhaps, says it all. It's present in the exhibition as well as on the pages of the catalogue. It's "Chop Suey." Before we had stir-fry, we had Chop Suey: a transcontinental dish stretching from West to East coasts, and from the United States to Canada-where Tam and her restaurateur-parents reside and where Canadian Cantonese is the Chinese takeout of choice. Maybe because of ubiquitousness, Chop Suey found its way into art and literature, film and music. Tam seizes upon the "Chop Suey" dance sequence, the Flower Drum Song: a novel written in 1957 by Chinese American C.Y. Lee, then just a year later a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical on Broadway, then a movie by 1961 from which Tam takes her image. This rapid translation was, no doubt, an indication of interest in all the exotic Chinese. While not progressive in its portrayal by today's standards, and so yet another evidence of cultural prejudice for Tam's seductive studies of stereotyping, the musical and film were groundbreaking in telling a story about and actually casting Asian-Americans. It's a postmodern story, one of conflict of generations holding on to traditional ways vs. the new and cultural assimilation. Karen Tam tells these stories, too and they are our story.


YOUNG ART CRITICS: French Clements on Karen Tam