by Candace Mooers.
Self-publishing is about taking up space. It's about not asking permission from a committee of jurors or peer-reviewers or editors. It's about autonomy; it stems from wanting to engage with the world on one's own terms. Its ‘do-it-yourselfness’ is rooted in self-determination, and in not waiting for someone else to do it for you.
Ho Tam returns to articule, since his last show at the gallery in 1995, with an exhibition that focuses on his publishing practice. Combining photographs, video, posters of pages of his publications, as well as a book collection display, Ho Tam shares with us his perspective. “In my work, I often explore my identity as a gay Asian man living in North America,” he writes from Vancouver. “The books are about how I, as an artist, insert myself into the world.”
Ho Tam was born in Hong Kong, educated in Toronto, and worked in advertising and community psychiatry before turning to art. He began making books with other artists and distributing their work independently before making his own artist books the centre of his art practice. “Publishing has become my primary art practice and my preferred way of creation and distribution of work,” he says.
From the initial concept, to the written text, to the selection of artworks, Ho Tam has produced more than 30 solo works. He spoke to this role of artist as publisher at one of his recent visits to Montreal: “The publications are very much about the assertion of artistic autonomy through the use of publishing as an archive of the artist's practice.”
While some of his works can be found online or housed in art library collections, Cover to Cover is a rare presentation of the artist's collected works, spanning more than two decades. His earlier art books resemble zines, employing various printing and binding techniques, such as offset, screen-printing or architectural blueprint technology.
Recent publications include the digital print-on-demand Hotam and Poser magazine series, which include playful photos designed like glossy advertisements. In pop art style, there are repetitive images of the artist himself (in Hotam) or of people the artist meets in the street (in Poser). There is an invitation, in these recent works, to consider print publications' use of visuals, and the now common tendency to reproduce stock photos. We are reminded in Ho Tam's framing that pictures tell us stories about ourselves, our expectations, and desires. Staged scenes ask us who gets to be a meme? Who gets to be on the cover of a magazine?
These recent publications are also experiments in digital graphic design. Originally derived from a photo series, the artist “set out to photograph all people of the world and ended up with a study in typography.” Ho Tam's statement is a testament to the kind of “happy accident” that can occur when playing with pictures, as fellow graphic artist Lynda Barry names her process when an image falls into place.
Cover to Cover displays a wide range of ideas: personal stories, cultural conceptions, ethnography, and gender studies. Known for his presentation of Asian male identities, it's hard not to see the artist’s body of work as a reaction to homogeneous stereotypes. “Sometimes, the 'magazines' are seen as a response to the counter reaction to the misrepresentation and stereotypes in mass media,” he writes in regards to his ability to subvert the viewer's gaze. Yet he insists that each work stands on its own, and is not limited to questions of race, masculinity or sexual identities. Cover to Cover, including his more recent publications Hotam and Poser, enables us to consider the role of publishing as practice. As an archive, each publication extends the life of an idea in an ephemeral digital age, and, in Ho Tam's words, provides a call to “invite the audience to contemplate upon the contradiction and complexity of our very existence in our time.”