restricted access Hiram To: don't let me be misunderstood (review)
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Reviewed by
Hiram To and Donna McAlear. Hiram To: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood Winnipeg Art Gallery 2004. 148. $35.00

The Winnipeg Art Gallery should be commended for presenting an outstanding overview of the work of contemporary Hong Kong–born and currently Hong Kong–based artist Hiram To in Hiram To: Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. In her introductory essay, 'Performing Attitudes,' Winnipeg's chief curator Donna McAlear (who organized the exhibition) sketches the larger contours of Hiram To's oeuvre. She opens: 'Hiram To's resources are the formal and theoretical styles of late-twentieth century art – minimalism, conceptualism, and post-modern photography – along with today's consumer marketing tactics.' McAlear follows this apt characterization of To's work with a brief overview of it. McAlear then uses close analysis of To's Casual Victim (1990–91) and High Performance (1990–94) to show the reader how To's work engages questions of race and ethnicity, of economic disparity, class, money, consumption, and of moral and epistemological prejudice. In another essay, entitled 'Crimes and Misdemeanors,' named after one of To's installations, McAlear further examines To's interest in questions of love, morality, consumerism, and consumption, linked to his roots in Hong Kong, yet relevant globally.

Sydney-based artist, curator, writer, and educator Richard Grayson's essay 'The Skin I'm In' examines an installation by To of that name (1994, 2002) in which nearly life-size images of a sailors (that appear based on old [End Page 651] postcards) were installed together with sets of drums whose surfaces ('skins') were covered by photographic images of leather garments. Grayson teases out the tension between the presence and absence of a body in To's work, 'a realm where this skin is the inert surface of some dark star.' Grayson then links sensuous clothing and the beat of drums to the sexuality of the dance club, and explores the theatricality of the sailor within the 'nexus of sex' that is the club. Just as Grayson begins his essay by describing Nenah Cherry's reworking of Cole Porter's I've Got You under My Skin (1936) for Red, Hot, and Blue – intended to raise global awareness for aids – Grayson ends by suggesting that To's work balances between love and death, and expressing the sadness of desire.

In his essay 'In Visible Differences,' Hong Kong native, poet, and cultural commentator Cheung King Hung (writing in Chinese, translated for the catalogue) addresses To's installation of the same name (1994–95), which explores the weirdness of Hollywood using Caucasian actors to play Asian roles together with To's exhibition entitled 'Visible Differences' (1995–2002), which examines the strangeness of the straight male actors portraying gay men in cinema. Both installations use round glass discs that contain photographic images – of Caucasian actors made up to appear Asian; of ghostly, haunting images of cinematically constructed gay men – to suggest the odd, Petri-dish like culturing of these hybrid, unnatural images. Although resembling faces on coins, Cheung notes that To's images are profoundly unstable, far from what they seem. Cheung thus probes the volatile relation between appearances and reality, societal and private roles, human agency and disconnection. By juxtaposing these two installations, Cheung traces the notions of racial and sexual identity that inform To's work. Cheung's analysis is followed by '... you don't know how I feel,' an essay by Marnie Butvin, a freelance art writer and curator based in Ottawa, which explores the psychoanalytic dimensions – depression, insufficiency, emotionality, irony – of To's art.

These essays benefit from daring and compelling graphic design that showcases To's work as lushly, sensuously as artwork can be in the medium of a printed book. The catalogue uses graphic design to tantalize the reader visually and synaesthetically, beginning with the rich imagery and Braille lettering found on the cover of the catalogue. The well-considered use of overleafs continues the readers haptic engagement with the book, even as this formatting opens up To's work in larger scale for greater viewing pleasure. The sensuousness of the catalogue mirrors To's own sensual engagement with the making of things...


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