Art exhibit challenges stereotypes

The Robert Langen Gallery at Wilfrid Laurier University has been visually and atmospherically transformed into an area of confrontation between Asian and Western cultures.

The exhibit Pagoda Pads: Opium Den, created by Karen Tam, displays many of the stereotypical assumptions of foreign cultural identity perpetuated by Western society.

Curated by Suzanne Luke, the exhibit depicts various objects and arrangements that display the typical appropriation of Asian culture, which is stocked full of misconceptions.

“While Asian culture has consistently been negatively stereotyped, people still try to incorporate their practices as commodities,” Luke comments.

This practice suggests the colonialist tendency to dominate another society, in some form or another, is still prevalent.

When walking into the exhibit, visitors are transported into a dissonant environment that forces them to question the presumptions of foreign culture.

The installation plays upon Westernized expectations of what a traditional opium den should contain, while also indicating the artificial nature of these expectations.

“I like working with installation and creating installations, it’s challenging because you’re creating an environment in a 3-D space that you can’t completely see how it will look beforehand,” says Tam. “It is really when you’re there in the moment that it comes to life.”

The installation itself contains a mixture of created, borrowed and purchased items that are intermixed into a single space.

There is a low table that contains two fake opium pipes, a tea-set and a perfume blend “Opium,” still packaged in a flowery decorated box.

The hand-crafted wooden cut-outs and hand-painted scrolls, contrast items like the popularized style of kimono robe from Chinatown.

From the ceiling hang dimly lit lanterns and dark purple fringe curtains cover the side walls.

There is an overall mystifying effect, which ironically appeals to the sense of the romanticized Other.

Within the installation, items such as a gong stand from Ikea, terracotta warriors from Wal-mart and various figurines of “traditional” Asian icons.

Some objects, such as the glass dragon and “Opium” blend perfume, still have their price tags from Homesense and “Made in China” labels.

This aspect of the exhibit demonstrates the materialistic quality that Asian culture has been reduced to through subtle colonialist practices in popular culture.

“This is part of the Pagoda Pads series, which was partly inspired by home improvement shows and interior design projects, which tell you ‘this is how to create an eastern flair in your home.’ I am poking fun at that,” Tam continued.

The arrangement has the overall effect of being aesthetically pleasing, with quaint mats and pillows, to reflect how notions of the infamous and provocative subculture of Chinese opium dens have been misunderstood and romanticized by the West.

“In reality, opium dens were not dainty and pretty the way it is depicted here,” remarks Luke. This arrangement reflects Tam’s criticism of the illusions of Asian culture.

“The exoticism of the Other, you cannot get away from. There is a fascination there, which is due to curiosity and repulsion because it is alien in a way. In today’s popular culture you still have that but it’s definitely more subtle,” Tam concluded.

Tam’s exhibit successfully articulates the contrast between authenticity and artificiality, and the lack of
distinction between the two in contemporary Western society.

The installation provides a unique way to expose the subtle workings of colonialism that still exist today.

Art installation “Pagoda Pads: Opium Den” will be open March 2 and will run until April 9 at the Robert Langen Gallery on campus.