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Essay by Peggy MacKinnon
For most Westerners, the word Oriental evokes myriad associations—images and ideas that contribute to our understanding of East Asia, its history, culture and people. Many of these preconceptions about the East are an amalgamation of influences absorbed through generations of representation in Western literature, art and mass media. This battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections forms part of the cultural phenomenon defined by cultural critic Edward Said as Orientalism.
As artists of Asian descent working and living in Canada, Karen Tam and Jihee Min create work that focuses on the social and personal manifestations of Orientalism. Oriental Ornamental brings together Tam’s Pagoda Pads: Opium Den and Min’s Once Upon Camellia Blossoms. In these interactive installations, the artists redeploy Asian stereotypes in ways that provoke questions about identity, place and constructed notions of Asian-ness.
The daughter of Montreal-based Chinese restaurateurs, Karen Tam began her investigation of the cultural significance of interior décor with exhibitions such as No MSG at Friendship Dinner, Gold Mountain Restaurant and Shangri-la Café. In these installations, the artist deconstructs and reconstructs the ubiquitous Chinese eatery as a means of exploring which elements signify meaning for the public and play a part in influencing Western perceptions of the Chinese.
Tam’s preoccupation with contemporary interiors continues with Pagoda Pads: Opium Den—the latest in her installation series of small modern-day Chinoiserie rooms that incorporate faux Oriental furniture and decorations. Presented as show rooms that demonstrate how to give one’s home an Oriental flair, the Pagoda Pads parody the ubiquitous Martha Stewart-style home decorating shows while drawing attention to the cultural belief systems underlying décor choice.
Using design strategies favoured by televised home decorating shows and magazines, Tam transforms the upper gallery into a Victorian opium den, complete with mats on which visitors can lounge. For this particular installation, she borrows the orange, red and blue colour scheme from the opium den scene in the 1946 edition of the Hergé comic book, Tintin and the Blue Lotus–a gesture toward representations of an imaginary China that have served as plot devices in post-colonial Western fiction.
The installation includes music from Tam’s CD, Chinese Firecrackers—an original recording featuring the artist and fellow musicians performing pastiches of popular Orientalist tunes from the early 20th century. In the final song, a woman’s strident shouts refute the stereotypical image of the passive, eager-to-please Asian woman. The music draws the listener towards the beautiful and familiar, only to defy expectations by deviating from accepted form—a playful bait-and-switch that destabilizes preconceptions based on the idea of Oriental authenticity.
As a female artist of Korean descent, Jihee Min creates self-referential works that challenge both the stereotyped image of the Asian woman as submissive, demure and obedient, and the notion of Asian fetish. In the main gallery, she creates an attractive, feminine backdrop consisting of a huge field of over-sized silk camellia blossoms. When the viewer enters the scene, closer investigation reveals that the flowers’ stamens are actually fleshy nylon phalluses and vulvas surrounded by tufts of dark hair donated to the artist by people of Asian descent. By re-appropriating the reds, pinks and fuchsias that have been used as signifiers of race and gender and re-contextualizing them in an explicitly sexual display, the artist both exposes and subverts essentializing beliefs about Asian women.
On the exhibition’s opening night, Min sits on a stool wearing a long, black wig and camellia-pink dress. Gallery visitors fold origami camellia blossoms made from magazine advertisements depicting Asian women in eroticized scenarios and use them to adorn the wig. The wig, dress and origami blossoms remain in the gallery for the rest of the exhibition—residual traces of the artist’s physical presence that draw attention to her absence. Through this performance and its aftermath, Min both submits to and rejects the objectifying gaze, playing out her experience of the Western exoticization of Asian women.
Gently confrontational yet humourously self-examining, Oriental Ornamental offers viewers the opportunity to explore the concept of Orientalism from both sides of the gaze. Each working in her own distinctive style, Jihee Min and Karen Tam combine space, objects and performance to create sites of cultural critique. The installations resonate on multiple levels, combining strong visual appeal with personal insights into the racial coding, cultural constructions and gender stereotyping that feed into to Western ideas about Asia and Asians. Here, the visitor’s individual experience is directly dependent on the expectations that (s)he brings into the exhibition, creating a psychological room of mirrors in which questions become their own answers.
1. Said, Edward, Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979, 8.