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, is easily interpreted as a tale of the artist’s romance with the sea, or perhaps his romance with seamen. Tam, currently based in Victoria, BC has created an exhibition comprised of 33 painted portraits, a short video and a handful of photographs.
Given Tam’s significant history working with all three media, the show avoids feeling clumsy or awkward; the pieces 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 him to travel on a Navy ship for 10 days, from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Esquimalt, BC. With an evocative starting point like Pearl Harbor you might expect Romances to be about war or history. But it’s really about people, places and the fictions surrounding them. And it’s about looking.
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. As viewers we not only 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. Tam displays a grid of painted portraits of 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, theoil on masonite panels come with a sense of familiarity. Not a great deal is being said about these people, but that’s the point. It’s a way of looking at the attitudes we all project onto the military, and similarly, at the images the military itself projects. Their flatness allows these people to be anything we want them to be.
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 does Tam’s Romances.