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Lessons: No. 14

Ho Tam
Lessons: No. 14, 2000
Chromogenic print (Fujicolor)
51 x 61 cm
Purchased 2002

In his series Lessons, Ho Tam investigates the formation of personal history within the framework of larger social and cultural events. The photographs depict the La Salle Primary School in Hong Kong, a Catholic boys' school that the artist attended from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Tam's return to his native city was prompted both by his continued interest in working with imagery of children and his fascination with the transfer of the city from British to Chinese rule on 1 July 1997. Using a low-resolution 8mm camcorder, the artist filmed the grounds, students, and architecture of his childhood school. He then directly photographed the tape as it played on a television monitor. The resulting images are obscure and grainy, with a mixture of realist and painterly effects that convey a sense of dreamlike space. Tam has likened his photographs to memories that combine real and fictional elements; the double process of photographing and then re-photographing his subject matter alludes to the imprecise nature of memories and mediated recollections of past events. The images have the appearance of being both grounded and displaced, and convey a sense of timelessness in their manner of presentation.

The artist's choice of returning to his place of birth at such a critical juncture highlights the effects of the colony's past on individual history. British sensibility is reflected in the functional character of the school's architecture and the required uniform - white shirt, tie, shorts, and jacket. Religion also plays a role, represented by the cross hanging above rows of desks in a crowded classroom. Tam subtly portrays the mixture of discipline and play that defines the boys' school life. In one photograph, a young boy sits upright in his chair, staring intently at his schoolbook. In another, two boys engage in an animated conversation, thoroughly absorbed in each other's company. The activities of the schoolboys are easily recognized and shared across cultures. However, the idea of picking out such images from a moving film and selecting significant moments as "stills" indicates a position of alienation and displacement. Lessons demonstrates that events, objects, and circumstances, often only passively registered in childhood, are given significance later in life by the adult who weaves disparate elements from the past into the needs and realities of the present. Yet the individual as artist who seeks to distil moments of understanding of self is engaged in an ever-elusive process that can only be approximated through surrogate "others."

For Tam to address the colonialism that informed his childhood is an uncertain process: such a system is both foreign to and an integral part of his identity. As he has commented about his journey to Hong Kong: "I went in to film the school with the idea of de-constructing the colonial system - but somehow I ended up feeling emotionally tied to it." The Lessons, therefore, are ongoing, an idea represented in the work by the white space at the bottom of the images. At one point, Tam wanted to include text in the work. He later chose to leave the area blank as a way of suggesting future possibilities of discovery and other lessons waiting to be learned.