Seeing Symbols: Karen Tam at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau

Karen Tam
Silk Road: Storm-Detectors, Blood-Sweating Horses, and Constellations
Galerie Hugues Charbonneau
November 12 – December 22, 2016

Walking trepidly around Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, wincing as shoes crush the foil Chinese coins in silver and gold, is like tiptoeing out of a child’s bedroom when bedtime stories have lulled them at last. It is a sweet and inviting space: bright pastels, tactile objects, animals, constellation prints on the walls like day-glo stars. But there is something slumbering that we know will rumble when it wakes.

It’s the napping political significance, of course. Karen Tam presents a beautiful critique of the contemporary art world’s tendency to blend and appropriate cultural forms until their history and politics are lost. The meaning isn’t overt when just looking, but her work is imbued with a questioning of the relationship between Asia and the Americas and its disoriented representation. “Yet,” the exhibition guide nuances, “the artist maintains a subtle distinction between the original source of inspiration and her own interpretation from which emerges a clear critique that activates cultural and identity issues relating to racism and the globalization of trade.”

The walls of Tam’s second solo show at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau are lined with cyanotype paper works: a color palette of rich blue and white traditional to Chinese ceramics, and galactic patterns that reproduce the first visualizations of Chinese astronomy. These early constellation graphics were used by merchants along the Silk Road, relating the ancient trade of goods and culture to contemporary commercialism as embodied in the piñatas, the centerpiece of the room. The pastel horses are literal and metaphorical bricolage, using Mexican piñata tradition as well as Chinese funerary elements of horse and camel imagery and papier-mâché offerings.

Whose funeral is Tam constructing? The floor sparkles, but it’s the commodification of Chinese bodies we are stepping on. The unbeaten piñatas beckon us to tear their corpses, but it’s the reality of conditions of labor and trade that we are shredding into unrecognizable pieces. It’s a funeral for our ignorance.

Tam constructs a room meant to symbolize worlds through their stereotypes; the world through the rudimentary, child’s eye. It’s inviting yet so much more lies beneath the aesthetics, a truth of our capitalist and globalized society that Tam is illuminating. It takes more than a walk around the exhibition to not just view, but to see.

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