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With new exhibit Montreal artist Karen Tam conjures the city’s historic Chinatown

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The exhibition features photographs and documents from the city’s historic Chinatown as well as Tam’s own creations inspired by traditional Chinese art forms.Laura Dumitriu/McCord Stewart Museum

Montreal artist Karen Tam has mounted an exhibition at the McCord Stewart Museum entitled Swallowing Mountains. Drawing on the McCord’s archives as well as donations from the community, it features photographs and documents from the city’s historic Chinatown as well as Tam’s own creations inspired by traditional Chinese art forms such as shadow puppets and western Chinoiserie. The Globe and Mail spoke with Tam about the exhibit.

Tell me how your family came to Canada.

The first person to come was my great-grandfather on my dad’s side in 1907. He came to find work: You could make more money in two months in Canada than you would in two to three years in China. He went back twice to China, first to get married, the second time for my grandfather’s birth, but after my grandfather was born, he never went back. He was based in Montreal and separated from the family from 1923 until my grandparents and my dad and his siblings came in 1967. The family was reunited then.

So, your great-grandmother, his wife, always remained in China. You describe the Chinese immigrant community in Montreal as a bachelor society. Why?

Because of the disproportionate number of men in the first waves of Chinese immigration; migrants came to work for the gold rush and then for the construction of the railway. Once the railway was completed in 1885, the government imposed a head tax.

It went up to $500 by the early 1900s. It was exorbitant, only the wealthy could afford to bring their wives or their children.

And those are your great-grandfather’s real head tax documents in the show?

I believe it was a replacement for the original that he lost. But yes, he had paid the head tax.

How did you find it?

When I was in high school, it was a history class assignment to find something related to Canadian history. I just started asking my family and asking my grandfather. He produced it and eventually he let me have the document because I was the only grandchild who was interested in these things.

Tam’s own grandfather’s head tax documents feature in the show.Laura Dumitriu/McCord Stewart Museum

Where did you find the other people’s documents?

The other ones were lent to me. The other gentleman is the father-in-law of a friend of my mom. And the third certificate I find absolutely fascinating: It’s very rare because it’s a head tax for a woman. She came in August, 1923. So, the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned virtually all forms of Chinese immigration was passed July 1, 1923. She was probably one of the last Chinese immigrants that were allowed into the country. It’s actually the certificate of the grandmother of a museum member who read about my project and got in touch.

And the portraits, those are your great-grandparents? That’s the man who came to Canada?

Yes. They are ancestral portraits that were hung in the family home in China, in a village now on the outskirts of the city of Taishan.

It hung there until 2004 when my dad finally sold the restaurant and had his first vacation. (It was called Restaurant aux septs bonheurs, it was a typical chop suey kind of restaurant in the east end just behind the botanical gardens. He ran it from 1976 to 2004.) So, we went back to China with my mom to the village and we saw it and we thought we should bring this back home.

First there was this head tax and then a period of complete exclusion that coincided with the revolution in China. The later documents you found are the citizenship papers for the generation in the 1960s. Did it isolate the community in Montreal, the lack of new members?

Well, it’s definitely small, but I think that the community here was very much in contact with Chinatown communities across the country and in the States too. When I talked to some of the lenders of the photographs and other materials, they all knew each other, they all grew up together.

Tam says she wanted to talk about Canadian art history and Chinese art history and ask who gets to be included in both.Laura Dumitriu/McCord Stewart Museum

Was it different from the Chinatown in Toronto or Vancouver?

There are very similar experiences, but the Chinatowns in Vancouver and Victoria are much older and more established. Everything that we’re experiencing now in Montreal, such as gentrification and real estate development, it’s a little behind what Toronto or Vancouver have experienced. Another thing that’s unique is that it’s a minority within a minority, factoring in the French language. In the photos that I borrowed, you’ll see the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in Chinatown. It’s one example of a kind of hybridization.

You straddle curation and making your own art. How did that come about?

It comes out of my own installation practice. The first exhibition I did, With wings like clouds hung from the sky, in 2017 at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, I didn’t really see as curating. I looked at the Chinese immigrant artist named Lee Nam who worked in the 1930s in Victoria’s Chinatown. We only know about him through the journals of Emily Carr.

I wanted to talk about what is Canadian art history and Chinese art history and who gets to be included. There are ink-brush art communities that are really vibrant, but they have their own networks different from the contemporary western-based art ecosystem. I wanted to parallel some of the experiences of those ink brush painters now with Lee Nam. I started inviting local community artists to show their works next to Emily Carr paintings and Chinese masters. Kind of putting everyone on this equal standing. That’s where the curatorial aspects started creeping in.

At the McCord, you’ve placed some of your own work in alcoves around the gallery, as though they were mini storefronts. Tell me about the installation.

I love playing with architectural features of a given space; that gallery space has these four alcoves or niches. I was thinking about Chinese diaspora spaces, and thinking about how in the ‘70s and ‘80s the government expropriated acres of land from Chinatown to build the Montreal Convention Centre and the Complexe Guy-Favreau. This is something that occurred in other Chinatowns too: The first Chinatown in Toronto was razed to construct Nathan Phillips Square. In Vancouver, parts of Chinatown were torn down for the Georgia Viaduct. So, I was thinking that this exhibition, even though it’s temporary, could be one way of reclaiming that diaspora space.

Swallowing Mountains continues at the McCord-Stewart Museum in Montreal to August 13.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Home + Away artwork opens in Vancouver’s Hastings Park

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A new art installation now towers over Vancouver’s Hastings Park fields in celebration of the city’s history of spectators and sports.

Home + Away is a sculpture by Seattle artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio, which opened Monday in the southeast end of the historic park.

It’s a 17-metre-tall structure that resembles a narrow set of bleachers — similar to the stands of the Empire Stadium, which stood on the site of the park from 1954 to 1993 and hosted The Beatles, among many others. It recalls a covered ski jump that stood there in the 1950s and the nearby wooden rollercoaster at the PNE.

The city says the public is invited to walk the stairs and sit on the benches.

“In addition to being visually striking, this artwork is intended to be ascended, sat on and experienced. It offers exciting experiences of height and views and provides 16 rows of seating for up to 49 people, making for a unique spectator experience when watching events at Empire Fields,” the city said in a release Monday.

The idea for the park to include public art was outlined in the Hastings Park “Master Plan,” first adopted by the city in 2010. The city says Han and Mihalyo first presented their design in 2015.

“It’s wonderful to see this piece realized within the context of such a well-used public space,” said Han.

Home + Away was inspired directly by the site history of spectatorship, and we hope it will connect Hastings Park users to that history and the majestic views of the environment for many decades to come,” added Mihalyo.

The artwork features a large light-up sign, in the style of a sports scoreboard, that reads “HOME” and “AWAY.”

 

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Bill Viola, Video Artist Who Established the Medium as an Integral Part of Contemporary Art, Dies at 73

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Bill Viola, whose decades-long engagement with video proved vital in establishing the medium as an integral part of contemporary art, died on July 12 at his home in Long Beach, California. He was at 73 years old. The cause was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. The news of his passing was confirmed by James Cohan Gallery.

Viola’s works are centered around the idea of human consciousness and such fundamental experiences as birth, death, and spirituality. He delved into mystical traditions from Zen Buddhism to Islamic Sufism, as well as Western devotional art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in his videos, which often juxtaposed themes of life and death, light and dark, noise and silence. These explorations were achieved by submerging viewers in both image and sound with cutting-edge technologies for their time.

“I first used the camera and lens as a surrogate eye, to bring things closer, or to magnify them, to experiment with perception, to extend vision and make lengthy observations of simple objects,” Viola said in a 2015 interview. “Once you do that, their essence becomes visible. So I suppose I was always interested in the inner life of the world around me.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Viola created videotapes, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, flat panel video pieces, and works for television broadcast—all of which expanded the scope of the medium and established Viola as one of its most notable practitioner.

Video still of a man diving into water that has been reversed. The image is mostly black and teal.

In 2003 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Tate, London; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris jointly acquired Bill Viola’s 2001 three-channel video installation Five Angels for the Millennium.

Photo Kira Perov/©Bill Viola Studio

Bill Viola was born in 1951. He grew up in Queens and Westbury, New York, and attended P.S. 20 in Flushing, before receiving his BFA in experimental studios from Syracuse University in 1973. There, he studied with visual art with the likes of Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris.

Following his graduation, between 1973 to 1980, Viola studied and performed with composer David Tudor in the music group Rainforest, which later became known as Composers Inside Electronics. He also worked as technical director at the pioneering video studio Art/tapes/22 in Florence, Italy from 1974 to 1976. During that time he encountered the work of other seminal video artists like Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci.

Viola was subsequently an artist-in-residence at New York’s WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory between 1976 to 1983, wherein he created a series of works that premiered on television. He traveled to the Solomon Islands, Java, and Indonesia to record traditional performing arts between 1976 and 1977. Later that year, Viola was invited to show work at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, by cultural arts director Kira Perov, with whom he married and began a lifelong collaboration.

He was appointed an instructor in advanced video at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California in 1983. He was the Getty Research Institute scholar-in-residence in Los Angeles in 1998 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000.

In 1985, Viola received with a Guggenheim Fellowship for fine arts, and later that decade, in 1989, he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. His work was also featured in some of the world’s most notable exhibitions, including Documenta VI in 1977, Documenta XI in 1992, the 1987 and 1993 editions of the Whitney Biennial, and the 2001 Venice Biennale.

In 1995, he represented the United States at the 46th edition of the Venice Biennale. For the pavilion, Viola produced the series of works “Buried Secrets,” including one of his most known works The Greeting, which offers a contemporary interpretation of Pontormo’s oil painting The Visitation (ca.1528–30). The Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and New York’s Guggenheim Museum commissioned the digital fresco cycle in high-definition video, titled Going Forth By Day, in 2002.

Viola’s work was the subject of a major 25-year survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, which subsequently toured internationally. His work has been the subject of major museum retrospectives in the years since, including at the Grand Palais in Paris (in 2014), the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (2017), the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (2017), and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (2019), as well as an exhibition pairing his work with that of Michelangelo at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2019.

Viola is survived by his wife Kira Perov, who has been the executive director of his studio since 1978, and their two children.

“One thing that’s very exciting about video that has turned me on since I first saw this glowing image way back in 1970 is that it can be so much,” Viola said in a 1995 with Charlie Rose on the occasion of this US Pavilion at the Biennale. “Furthermore, what’s really exciting is I don’t think it’s been since really the Renaissance where artists have been able to use a medium that one could say is the dominant communication form in society.”

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Couple’s winning art projects adorn overpass

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Annabelle Harvey and Corbin Elliot are partners: in life, love, and art. Thanks to their creative pursuits, now they are also joined in the recognition of their work along the Lakeshore overpass.

The City of North Bay, in collaboration with the Public Art Advisory Committee (PAAC), recently held an event to acknowledge the successful applicants for the Lakeshore Drive overpass banner project. This initiative features 14 artworks created by local artists, highlighting the ongoing commitment to bringing public art to the community and celebrating local talent. The banners were installed early last week.

On behalf of PAAC, Katie Bevan noted that 71 submissions were received for the banner art project. “Selecting just 14 artworks from such outstanding submissions was no small feat. It truly highlights the incredible creativity within our community — and it’s only growing.”

Bevan acknowledged all who submitted their work and congratulated the 14 winners:

  • Caitlin Daniel
  • Corbin Elliot
  • Adam Fielder
  • Ian Gauthier
  • Ruby Grant
  • Annabelle Harvey
  • Penny Heather
  • Robert Johannsen
  • Robyn Jones
  • Gerry McComb
  • Victoria Primeau
  • Tessa Shank
  • Rana Thomas
  • Claudia Torres

“This is the first time I’ve participated in something city-wide, and I’ve been really interested in getting more involved in the art community,” said Harvey, a teacher by vocation when not helping to beautify North Bay. “I’ve worked a lot with the WKP Kennedy Gallery and I’ve been putting in submissions for some of their group shows. So, this is a cool opportunity to try something new. This is the first time I have done digital work. Usually, I like painting and collage. So I was interested just to try something new.”

In September 2023, public art gained more prominence in North Bay as 12 pieces by eight local artists selected by the Public Art Advisory Committee were placed on aluminum panels mounted onto the public buildings in both Champlain and Sunset parks.

Harvey’s partner Elliot is an emerging artist and a Fine Arts graduate from Nipissing University who says his passion for bringing his vision to life has only grown, thanks, in part, to these public art initiatives.

“There is so much opportunity to have a lot of different public art in different spaces,” he says. “So, when I saw that there was a variety of different artists and voices being accepted, of course, I wanted to have my vision out there in the city, to make my mark and be a part of that kind of trajectory of building the art scene within the city.”

The couple share a studio space, often working on separate projects at the same time while collaborating with encouragement and ideas.

“We are working on different mediums, a lot of the time,” Elliot said. “We have our own corners set up in the studio and I’ll usually be on my easel and Annabelle will be doing something…”

Harvey picked up his thought, “I’m usually at my desk doing pottery, jewellery, collage — I do a lot of different things.”

2024-07-12-lakeshore-overpass-banner-art-elliot-harvey-2-campaigne
Couple Annabelle Harvey and Corbin Elliot each earned a spot among the 14 winning banner art projects. Stu Campaigne/BayToday

For Harvey, working so closely together is her “favourite part, especially watching his creative process.”

Elliot added, “I think I’m more non-verbal as I’m creating. I often hear you saying, ‘Oh, I think I like this.'”

Both have active Instagram pages featuring their artwork, Harvey’s can be found here, and Elliot’s here.

Elliot has a show at the WKP Kennedy Gallery, entitled “Upon a Star,” opening Sept. 13. “I’ll have my own solo exhibition. I typically work in painting. I have a big body of work with paintings,” he said.

The City of North Bay and PAAC encourage everyone to take a moment to appreciate these works of art when passing by the overpass.

Harvey and Elliot are thrilled about the banner art project.

“It’s like seeing your vision come to life. We’ve had lots of friends, even before we saw them today say excitedly, ‘I saw your work on the overpass,’ it’s just a proud moment to have so many eyes on our work.”

 

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