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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chinese Restaurant Art

posted by on July 18 at 11:11 AM

When Lawrimore Project opened a year ago with an exhibition that involved SuttonBeresCuller building and then unveiling a trompe l’oeil Chinese restaurant in the gallery, I got an email from a Seattle curator letting me know about another artist who makes Chinese restaurants: Montreal-based Karen Tam.

Tam has been doing it since 2002. Her restaurants, unlike SBC’s, are fully functional. (SBC did occasionally serve Shanghai Garden in theirs.) She builds kitchens as well as eating areas, and she serves.




From August 3 to September 1, Tam will build a restaurant installation at Centre A in Vancouver, as part of a group show about Chinese restaurants called REDRESS EXPRESS:

Providing the starting point of this project, the exhibition brings together recent artworks that explore the Chinese restaurant as an iconic institution and bring forward critical discourses in relation to the head tax redress [the head tax was a fixed fee charged for each Chinese person entering Canada] and identity politics in general. The Chinese restaurant installation by Karen Tam exposes the cultural underpinnings and ethnic stereotypes that define family-owned Chinese restaurants in Canada as well as the evolution of Chinese Canadian cuisine. Kira Wu’s photographic series of the exteriors of Chinese-Canadian restaurants in the neighbourhood initiate a review of signage and cultural arbitrage. Shelly Low’s self-portraits and Rice-Krispies squares sculpture intimates a self-conscious projection and representation of the consumable ethnic or exotic ‘other’. The Yellow Pages (1994) by Ho Tam provides a video primer from A to Z of past and present Asian experience within North America. Gu Xiong’s series of hanging banner portraits of present-day and historical figures important to the development of Chinese Canadian communities gives face to the historical moments of redress.

I wonder whether Tam’s restaurants have misspellings on the menus—the classic misspellings of English words that are so common at Asian restaurants. This is something that arose in my mind when I first saw SBC’s installation. I asked about it, and the artists explained to me that they felt it would be disrespectful to leave the misspellings of local restaurant menus intact in their artwork, even though they said the artwork was an homage to local restaurants. That elision points to a larger question about cultural voyeurism. And one thing missing from SBC’s Chinese restaurant was the Chinese people who live in the surrounding International District and/or work in its restaurants.

I wonder about the conversation that Tam’s installation will kick up. If you’re curious to see, there’s a symposium about the exhibition Aug. 2 and 3 in Vancouver.

RSS icon Comments


Hey, it looks better than most of the Chinese restaurants with horrible flourescent lighting and metal chairs.

Posted by Dianna | July 18, 2007 12:15 PM

it's not at all surprising to hear that sbc are not the only artists out there making the institution of the chinese-american / chinese-canadian restuarant the focus of artistic inquiry.

however, given the following text from the centre a site, i think the comparison ends there: "As a whole, the 'Redress Express' project is an attempt to examine the current politics of representation, redress and recognition in Canada as they relate to art, activism, identity and geography."

as a spectator, it seemed to me that the dual mission of sbc's "three dragon restaurant" was to play with the idea of site-specific art (box-within-a-building, building-within-a-box) as well as to try and break down the formal barriers between art and audiences using a familiar and engaging setting.

i would like to propose that the fact that someone else somewhere else is choosing to use the same raw material as the basis for a valid and interesting jumping-off point for a political, geographic, and social artistic statement doesn't necessarily make sbc's use or experience of the raw material--or its ultimate display--any less valid.

one has nothing to do with the other beyond face value. this is a skin deep comparison and both artistic groups deserve more.

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