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Yam Lau (Toronto)
May 2 – June  6, 2014.

A Well Fitted Suit

I first met Yam Lau in the second year of our respective undergraduate studies in Fine Art, some 28 years ago at the University of Alberta. Reflecting on those early years seems like contemplating another life, and as with so many of the students and faculty in Edmonton at that time, we went our separate ways. To be sure, Lau has since developed many formative artistic experiences, just as he has initiated important collaborative projects and artistic alliances from points elsewhere. It would be fair to say that Lau has traversed an expanse, having completed graduate work, later becoming a faculty member in the Fine Art department at York University, and most importantly having continued his pursuit of an artistic practice in rigorous ways, along both formal and conceptual lines. It is to be expected that Lau’s experience has intensified his artistic concerns, and yet at heart there remains a certain quality in his projects, a remarkable consistency that I recognize from all those years ago, a kind of sensitive yet exacting temperament that made him an inspiration to many of us who enjoyed the privilege of studying with him. In the context of his artistic development these qualities have indeed served him well, lending to his interest in media art, and building upon an encounter with the French philosopher Henri Bergson, in turn a philosophical project that combines qualities of rigour and sensitivity.

Entering into Yam Lau’s exhibition at PAVED Arts, entitled Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illumination), one is immediately reminded of the precise intuitive method developed by Bergson, a procedure that works towards a complex understanding of differences that live within composites. For Bergson all of experience is bound up in composites, variable compositions of perception and memory, space and time, and of past and present. Without being illustrative, Lau’s work shares certain pronounced affinities with this philosophical method named intuition. His approach to media art is one that expounds upon the time of the image, drawing out or delineating elements of the composite. For Bergson, in a like manner, the important role that intuition plays has to do with drawing out differences in kind that exist within composites, qualities that are often conflated in experience and thereby mistaken as mere differences in degree. “Thus intuition does form a method with its three (or five) rules. This is an essentially problematizing method (a critique of false problems and the invention of genuine ones), differentiating (carvings out and intersections), temporalizing (thinking in terms of duration).”1 In order to better understand the play of forces that constitute experience, an exacting, precise analysis is required, one that Bergson contrasts to a sloppy (over-generalizing) dialectic and, conversely, likens to “a well fitted suit.” In thinking about Yam Lau’s project the image of the “well fitted suit,” which the artist cited during his talk at PAVED Arts, seems well formulated to relate to both “instances” contained in Inaugurations.

Of the two discrete, single channel video works on view, the earlier work, simply entitled Room (2007), holds up for consideration a furnished apartment space with its occupants, notably the artist himself, engaged in a quotidian moment. As such the work operates on a rather intimate level, privileging the quietest of moments rather than any kind of dramatic flourish, crisis point or building narrative device. The feeling of intimacy is further enhanced by the (literally) transparent nature of the “walls” that inscribe the space, underscoring the generalized context of Room as that of the artist’s own lived space. While Rehearsal is presented as a large projection that commands the majority of the gallery space, Room was positioned near the entryway of the gallery on a flat screen monitor. As with an earlier presentation of Room at the Musee d’art de Joliette, the “furniture” of the 36″ flat screen monitor was covered and thereby neutralized by a plinth-like wall construction with a cut-away hole placed directly over the screen. This was undertaken not only to tidy up the monitor, but to heighten or emphasize the planar aspect of the screen, an element that is mirrored by the “walls” of the ever-rotating room. In fact the “cubic” nature of the rotating room is not due to the shape of the architectural space that is captured or represented, but rather by the planar screens that take up the quadrilateral and rotating vantage points onto an otherwise irregular architectural space. It is a rotating cube of screens that we peer through, capturing the same figure moving through the same time but from different yet overlapping perspectives. One might venture at this point that Lau’s interest in the planar has certain affinities to the cubist program of examining the object from multiple perspectives at once. However, where cubism is ultimately concerned with extension, in particular the intersection of perspectives as they reiterate the extension of a canvas surface, towards a kind of flatness that is decidedly static, Lau’s construction is entirely open to the possibilities of duration. In Lau’s Room, everything that is expressed as a spatial extension is in perpetual movement, always in a process of becoming different even from itself. This is the very capacity of time, philosophically considered apart from space, drawn away from the composite of “spacetime,” in order to apprehend that which is ever-changing.

In contrast to the video screens of Room, the large scale single-channel projection of Rehearsal is drawn much more aggressively out of 3-D imaging software. Many of the elements of Rehearsal retain the undisguised look of computer generated imagery. Virtual rain, itself an overt computer graphic, veils all of the parts of this video as it unfolds within an inscribed space. Two considerations immediately come to the fore in framing Rehearsal as a project that occupies “virtual” space: first there is the formation of abstract “potential,” and then, with this potential, the development of a composite (assemblage) as it comes to occupy a duration. To begin with Lau gives us the term “rehearsal,” denoting a practice run that eventually comes to produce a certain potential. The video begins with component structural parts that look like ubiquitous framed sections of wall space from before it is sheeted with drywall. Revolving around a sheer (virtual) table top, pieces fly in the rain as if caught in a spiral vortex, eventually self-organizing into an ordered architectural space, then a living space, and ultimately a window onto a very particular interior space, one that reveals a small but intimate drama. Moving more slowly onto the frame of the window, Lau integrates actual video that he captured of a woman within a typical dwelling from Beijing, China. Potential is produced on a couple of different levels: first as raw structural components which, operating very much as would a diagram, constitute abstract forms that may be carried off in any direction; and second in the coalescing development of virtual potential that becomes a certain reality, and in this movement an entire social and cultural assemblage is conjured. There is a woman at the window, anonymously observed in a private moment, quietly smoking a cigarette and weeping only to herself. Almost as soon as the subject is developed and given a certain time, it is whisked away and the assemblage disintegrates back into its abstracted component parts. As with Room, the drama that is produced in Rehearsal is restrained to a sense of the everyday, but also as with Room, the architectural space and the rigidity of its component parts give way an assemblage that is subject to a duration. The table top exercise of Rehearsal (all rehearsals being exercises) occupies a creative space that ultimately, inevitably becomes involved with the real.

Lau’s exhibition juxtaposes presentations of Room and Rehearsal as two discrete instances that illuminate the artist’s ontological interest in the “image.” Whereas Room expresses a time that unfolds around interleaving perspectives, lending its quotidian subject multiple simultaneous dimensions, Rehearsal exercises the integration, coalescence and disintegration of the image in time. Both cases lend a virtual metaphysics to space and time that corresponds to an image in movement. Ultimately it is the coalesced image of the woman in the window that haunts us, as but one instance of a multiplicity set into motion but never concluded.

~Text written by David LaRiviere

1. Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. (Zone Books, Brooklyn, NY. 1988) Page 35.