Karen Tam is a Montréal-based artist and curator whose research focuses on the constructions and imaginations of cultures and communities through her installations in which she recreates Chinese restaurants, karaoke lounges, opium dens, curio shops and other sites of cultural encounters. Since 2000, she has exhibited her work and participated in residencies in North America, Europe, and China, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, He Xiangning Art Museum, and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Most recently, she curated the ‘Whose Chinatown?’ exhibition at Griffin Art Projects in 2021, and had a solo exhibition at the Campbell River Art Gallery. She has received grants and fellowships from the Canada Council for the Arts, Conseil des arts du Québec, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Tam was a finalist for the 2017 Prix Louis-Comtois, a finalist for the 2016 Prix en art actuel from the Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec, and long-listed for the 2010 and 2016 Sobey Art Awards.
Tam holds a MFA in Sculpture (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and a PhD in Cultural Studies (Goldsmiths, University of London). She is a contributor to the Asia Collections outside Asia: Questioning Artefacts, Cultures and Identities in the Museum (2020) publication edited by Iside Carbone and Helen Wang, to Alison
Hulme (ed.) book, The Changing Landscape of China's Consumerism
(2014) and to John Jung's book, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese
Family Restaurant (2010). Her work is in museum and corporate collections such as the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Collection Hydro-Québec, Collection Royal Bank of Canada, Microsoft Art Collection, and in private collections in Canada, United States, and United Kingdom. She is represented by Galerie
CV// Download CV (updated July 2021) //
Through my sculptures and installation work where I recreate spaces such as the Chinese restaurant, opium dens, Chinatown curio shops, early Chinese Canadian artist studios, and other sites of cultural encounters, I look at how the corporeal experience of space allows one to understand its history and community. In works such as Terra dos Chinês Curio Shop (2015) and Gold Mountain Restaurant (2004-2018), I deconstructed and
reconstructed different ‘ethnic spaces’ to see which elements signify meaning for the public and
thus, play a role in influencing Western perceptions of the Chinese, or the Other. Using a cultural
studies framework, I invite a critical view of contemporary chinoiserie, the impact of the Chinese
export trade, and goods produced for the ‘Western’ taste. The fascination with the East dates back
the days of the Silk Road, and even at the height of chinoiserie as the Western market was being
flooded with Chinese products, Chinese people overseas were targeted by racist laws and deemed
unassimilable aliens. I am questioning and playing off notions of authenticity and the copy by
producing my own fake antiques. These are based on the East Asian and chinoiserie objects in various
museums, local collections, and eBay, using everyday materials and methods (seemingly genuine jade
ornaments are sculpted out of soap, porcelain is fashioned out of papier-mâché, and silver objects
created out of aluminium trays, etc.). This hopefully highlights the encounters that occur between
specific locales and East Asian-influenced material culture and refer not only to mass production
of pirated consumer goods in China but also to the questions that are always present where artistic
production is concerned.
A deep engagement with archival and collections research has also led me to question whose histories get to be collected and told, and to interrogate the narratives that have been constructed around the Chinese diaspora. How do we remember, represent, support, and simultaneously deny the erasures of our stories, spaces, and community? If there are minimal traces of the existence of an individual or organization, what are ways that this life can be made visible again? By actively bringing to light overlooked aspects of Chinese Canadian communities and culture through my artwork, my intent is to create counterpoints to accepted canons, official histories, public archives and collections.