Karen Tam: The Chrysanthemum Has Opened Twelve Times (Koffler Gallery)

23 January – 29 March 2020, Koffler Gallery (Unit #104-105)

Curator: Mona Filip
Opening Reception: 23 January 2020, Thursday, 7–9 pm (free admission)
Artist Talk:
26 January 2020, Sunday, 2 pm (free admission)

Montréal-based artist Karen Tam creates immersive installations exploring the way physical experiences of spaces and objects can provide a deeper understanding of specific places, histories and communities. Her recent projects investigate the spatial aesthetics of early 20th century North American Chinese restaurants, opium dens, karaoke lounges and curio shops as sites of cultural interaction. Playing with notions of authenticity, Tam reimagines venues and their material culture, fabricating detailed sets and fake antiques with everyday methods and ordinary materials, bringing them to life.

At the Koffler Gallery, Tam creates a new series of immersive installations to evoke the early Chinese Canadian and other historical photo studios that served Chinese communities in Canada. Her intricate recreations of portrait studio settings and backdrops integrate found and fabricated objects, archival images, 1940s vinyl recordings of Cantonese opera, and mookyu song performances, revealing layered experiences of immigration, displacement and longing.

Tam’s personal impetus for this project is a photograph of her great-grandfather Wong who had migrated to San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century. Like other immigrants at the time, Wong had his portrait taken to be sent along with letters to his family back in Toishan, China. Prompted by this portrait, Tam investigates the emotional and documentary significance of such photographs in revealing the realities of immigration through the implicit tensions of a wishful, reassuring image meant to alleviate separation anxieties by conveying the health and prosperity of the sitter.

Early Chinese Canadian studio photographers and their subjects actively shaped the representation of Chinese identity in North America. Retracing their overlooked existence and restaging the physical environments of these portrait studios, Tam’s installations attempt to piece together and embody absented historic narratives. Furthermore, they seek to evoke similar personal experiences in viewers, positioning these small constructed settings as sites where memory is both encountered and created.

About Karen Tam
Karen Tam lives and works in Montréal and holds an MFA in Sculpture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths (University of London). Since 2000, she has exhibited her work and participated in residencies in North America, Europe and China, including the Deutsche Börse Residency at the Frankfurter Kunstverein (Germany), Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (Canada), and CUE Art Foundation (USA). She was a finalist for the Prix Louis-Comtois in 2017 from the Contemporary Art Galleries Association and Ville de Montréal, a finalist for the Prix en art actuel from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in 2016, and long-listed for the Sobey Art Award in 2016 and 2010. Her works are in museum, corporate, and private collections in Canada, United States, and United Kingdom. Tam is a contributor to Alison Hulme’s (ed.) book, The Changing Landscape of China’s Consumerism (2014) and to John Jung’s book, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants (2010). She is represented by Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.