Yam Lau: Tour China at Hamilton Artists Inc.

Canada has a strong history of artist-run spaces; from Montreal to Vancouver, Winnipeg to Halifax, alternative spaces for displaying art are as Canadian as hockey. Hamilton Artists Inc. is a key voice in this tradition of noncommercial spaces directed by artists. What is innovative about their current exhibition, Yam Lau’s Tour China, is that the gallery space is turned outward; the show consists of a single piece installed on the exterior of the building. This eversion of the artist-run space creates new viewership and extends the relatively small gallery space into the fabric of James Street.

Yam Lau. Tour China.

Yam Lau. Tour China, 2013; vinyl print; 8 x 36 ft. Courtesy of the Artist and Hamilton Artists Inc.

Lau’s piece is a large-scale PVC banner—a common sight in urban centers throughout China. In Lau’s home country, these banners have a variety of functions, from advertisements for new housing projects to informational texts put up by the government explaining construction work. Lau appropriates the format of the banner and uses digital images mashed together to suggest the blurriness of ink washes. The unfurled banner can be imagined as a handscroll, overgrown and oversize as if on steroids. This interpretation of the banner is reinforced by the textile “mountings” that frame the central composition. Their rich, reddish brocade patterning is reminiscent of traditional painting mountings, which were intended to prepare the viewer to contemplate the full scroll. Because Tour China is already fully unfurled—a state in which traditional handscrolls were never meant to be seen—these textile images serve instead to bookend the central images and text.

Beyond referencing the format of handscrolls and contemporary banners, Lau pushes allusions to China through layers of stereotypical “Chinese” images and text: a spray-painted character, chai (拆, meaning to demolish); the infamous “Tank Man” photograph from the 1989 Tian’anmen Square massacre; the limestone mountains of Guilin; and a cartoon female figure dressed in traditional flowing robes holding a fan, inscribed with “Tour China” in a font that evokes the overtly Orientalized signage from Chinese takeaways.

The mash-up of text and images is intended to be ironic, querying our preconceived notions of the mystic and mythic Other that is China, or at least the China of glossy travel brochures. This sense of implied irony is in keeping with Lau’s practice—see, for instance, his donkey-cum-traveling gallery.  But unlike his other China-focused works, which prod viewers to re-perceive spaces, times, and notions of his native country, Tour China’s irreverent mixing of text and image, coupled with the concept of cultural tourism, ultimately renders the piece unresolved. The choice to install the work on the building’s exterior without any signage or additional context leaves this viewer needing more.

Tour China is on view at Hamilton Artists Inc. through February 22, 2014.