YAM LAU, installation view of Between Past and Present: Lived Moments in Beijing, 2012, at Darling Foundry, Montreal, 2013. Courtesy Darling Foundry.

“The World is a Model of the World”

Yam Lau

Darling Foundry
Hong Kong Canada China

Yam Lau has a beautiful vision. With the eyes of a scholarly monk, the Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based multimedia artist creates works intricately steeped in allusions to Chinese literati practices, examining the space where long hours of meditative labor allow reality and fantasy to merge. Taking the artist’s home and workspace as his focal point, Lau envisions the studio as a site of resistance. Videos in which the immediacy of the digital image contrasts with the slow rhythm of the painterly process demonstrate the tensions inherent in this utopic vision. Through these, Lau negotiates living in an idealized model of the world while, paradoxically, disengaging from it completely.

Currently on view at Montreal’s Darling Foundry, a spacious exhibition hall located in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods,  “A World is a Model of the World,” comprises two videos, each situated within an elaborate white wooden frame. The first, Room: An Extension (2008), records the artist engaged in his morning routine in his former Toronto apartment. Lau created this work at a time of personal withdrawal, when he wished to distance himself from the art world. The screen itself sits within a white frame that replicates the layout of the artist’s apartment, inviting the viewer to co-inhabit the space. But the viewer’s presence is decidedly removed—his or her shadow being highly visible on the screen as the artist goes about his daily activities—emphasizing the often reluctant relationship of the artist to his spectators.

YAM LAU, installation view of Room: An Extension, 2008, at Darling Foundry, Montreal, 2013. Courtesy Darling Foundry.

Situated some six meters away, Between Past and Present: Lived Moments in Beijing (2012) begins with a 3D-animated rendition of what Lau calls “a dream home in contemporary time.” Modeled after a 17th-century Chinese scholar’s studio, this space is offered as a retreat from society. As the camera pans the studio, a screen unfolds to reveal a Beijing cityscape. The artist therefore positions himself to be psychologically in two places at once: within the urban landscape and in the seclusion of the studio, underscoring the impossibility fully leaving the public domain.

Lau draws his inspiration from a Buddhist metaphor which conceives of the universe as a grid composed of pearls. Each pearl and its reflection is a model of every other pearl, the model of the universe as contained within these pearls therefore expanding infinitely. This metaphor is echoed in the gridded layout of the artist’s apartment, as well as in the stark contrast between the white frames and glowing projections displayed throughout the Foundry’s vast space.

And yet, while “A World is a Model of the World” reflects, absorbs and brings disparate conceptual nodes into convergence, many of its underlying meanings remain invisible to the untrained eye. Just as the 17th–century Chinese literati painters developed an artistic intuition that facilitated communication exclusively among the educated and privileged class, Lau’s installations run the risk of alienating those unfamiliar with a more conceptual vocabulary. Without prior knowledge of certain Buddhist metaphors, the viewer is thrown into an abstract cave without the power of literacy. Still, this immersive and tedious style of video projection is relatively new to Lau’s installation work and may perhaps prove transformative, leading to more legible messages in projects to come.

YAM LAU, installation view of Between Past and Present: Lived Moments in Beijing, 2012, at Darling Foundry, Montreal, 2013. Courtesy Darling Foundry.

The World is a Model of the World is on view at the Darling Foundry from June 6–August 25, 2013.