CURATORIAL REPORT - Gerard Choy: November 6, 2006
We visited Gerard Choy at his home outside of Halifax on Monday, November 6. It was
an open-concept home nestled in a wooded area overlooking a bay. The house,
designed by Choy himself, is a reflection on his minimalist and conceptual art practice as
well as on his passion for the geographical openness offered by the Canadian
We discussed questions of multiculturalism, pluralism and Canadian identity for about 45
minutes and then discussed his work for an hour.
Choy moved to Canada in 1995 to study at NSCAD. He had lived in Singapore prior to
this, where he worked in advertising. His father inherited Choy’s grandfather’s violin and
piano tuning business in Singapore, where he still works.
Discussion and Theory
In discussing multiculturalism in Canada, Choy’s first instinct was to compare Canadian
policy to that of Singapore. In the latter, different ethnicities are located within one of four
categories – Indian, Chinese, Malay and Other. Within this system, the language you
learn in school depends upon with which cultural category you are associated. People
are forced to learn a new language and change their name if they do not speak one of
the four official languages (for example, if you are Chinese, Mandarin is the only
language you can speak). This exposes the limits of translation in terms of a loss of self
in the process of re-naming. Thus, Choy discussed the freedom he felt in Canada, both
spatially and mentally, compared to Singapore, where he felt as though freedom of
thought, movement and culture were limited by both space and nationalist government
policy. He said, “I am always breathless by the idea that I can just walk out and walk
1000 steps and still be able to walk another 1000… and within 1000 steps I can think.”
In Canada, Choy recognized the limits of diversity, in terms of the so-called polite racism
he encounters in his everyday life in Halifax. He noted, after moving to Halifax, that
people treated him differently – nothing easily discernable, but there was a definite
disjuncture between the way white people were treated in, for example, the grocery
store, and how he and his wife were treated. Although he recognizes this tension, he
also finds that there is a supportive community in Halifax for negotiating issues of identity
within Canada – particularly within the arts. He was especially impressed with the
diversity amongst the students at NSCAD. It is interesting to note how different Choy’s
perception of Halifax and NSCAD is from that of Lucie Chan, who finds both to be very
white and out of touch with issues of race and identity.
Choy spoke of the ‘great homogenizing stamp’ that is the stereotype of ‘Chineseness,’
which encompasses notions of linguistic ability and ‘Eastern spirituality.’ He questioned
why these stereotypes are created, expressing an intuitive fear on multiculturalism’s
tendency towards ‘the idea of the pure.’ He believes that purity is an impossibility, even
within the normative category of whiteness that is often taken for granted, and that
everyone’s differences should be negotiated together, examined and questions. True
multiculturalism is a complicated entanglement, a process of asking questions. It was
very moving to hear that Choy had not had the opportunity to discuss these issues with
too many people. Nevertheless, his insights proved to be very evocative and deeply
personal. He is drawn to the open and dialogic approach adopted by Complicated
These are large-scale carvings out of stone and marble of seashell fragments gifted to
Choy from friends who have traveled around the world. They express his interest in
mapping the ocean floor, and locating his own experience of time in juxtaposition to the
time lived by these found objects. As fragments, with the broken pieces now making up
part of the ocean sands, these shells testify to time – in the juxtaposed terms of longevity
and ephemerality. Also, translated into the medium of stone, these shells take on a
weightiness and permanence foreign to their original form.
The Weight of 30 Minutes
Bronze and aluminum castings of carving hammers to give physical form to the
perceived weight of a carving hammer held for thirty minutes.
One Ton of Won Ton
This work is incredibly interesting and would suit either the community or translation
themes of the exhibition. However, my only reservation is that it requires a lot of space.
Perhaps it would be well paired with Heloise Audy and Julie Faubert’s Hive Dress which
can hang above it. However, this would undermine its minimalist structure. We need to
ask Gerard what the final dimensions of the work are. The work has also been exhibited
for the past 2-3 years, and has thus never been given to those who communally own it.
Perhaps Gerard will want to give the piece some rest for a while?
One Ton of Won Ton employs the readily recognizable symbol of the won ton bowl in
North American society as his point of departure. Casting as many bowls as possible out
of one ton of cement, Choy created 279 separate pieces – each glazed a vivid shade of
blue. In citing this form, Choy is referencing its easy recognizability within North
American society as a symbol of Chinese food. However, although automatically linked
with ‘Chineseness’ in this context, if the work were to be transferred to China, its
meaning would be lost. Although it draws its form from 15th century Tang court fish
bowls, the object has been relocated into its new context through a series of translations
and (mis)appropriations. Choy articulates this as being part of a continuous process of
degeneration. Coated in the rich blue glaze, each bowl is individually sumptuous, yet
empty of meaning. The reason for this is that this particular shade of blue is, when
employed in photography and film, an easily erasable colour. It thereby stands out in its
almost velvety richness, yet can disappear in an instant with the click of a mouse in
Won Ton translates into ‘to swallow clouds.’ This reveals Choy’s ongoing engagement in
the relationship between ephemerality and materiality. In a group of 279, a single
missing bowl stands in the way of the formal completion of the structured grid.
Take Out One Ton
Like One Ton Won Ton, this work is a playful exploration of the relationship between the
weightiness of a given material and culturally stereotyped form. Here, marble and
cardboard Chinese take-out boxes are brought together to create a web of significations.
Choy purchased one ton of marble from the Han Bayou quarry outside of Beijing – a
quarry that was in imperial service in the 11th century during the construction of the
Forbidden City – and had it cut in Shanghai in the form of 114 simplified take-out boxes.
Take Out One Ton maintains the natural pigment and veining of the marble so that each
box is unique. However, located in a grid format, the final effect is one of homogeneity. It
is an interesting metaphor for the tension between assumed homogeneity and actual
internal difference. Like the previous work, it plays against North American and Chinese
understandings of these culturally stereotyped forms. Choy is adamant that these
translated forms have distinct cultural origins, and believes that the shape of these
boxes derives either from oyster traps or rice measuring boxes.
While this work is simple and elegant in form, it is less visually interesting than One Ton
Won Ton. However, because of it contains fewer overall pieces, it would be much easier
White Violin (in progress)
Choy’s current project incorporates elements from both his maternal and paternal
ancestry. Having recently traveled to China to visit his mother’s village, Choy discovered
the country to be a source of white violins – violins which are in their rawest of forms,
unfinished and unvoiced. This, interestingly, coincides with his father’s business in
Singapore of tuning violins and pianos. Having grown up in an extremely musical family,
Choy felt ‘plagued’ by the violin and the need to achieve perfect pitch. Rather than
picking up a violin, Choy opted to follow in the footsteps of his ‘crazy’ uncle-in-law who
was an artist.
The white violin is intriguing because China produces 80,000 of these instruments
annually, and they are only voiced and completed in their final destination. Not only does
this illustrate the contemporary international division of labour which is a core facet of
transnationalism, but it also points towards the formation and translation of meaning (or
voice) through travel. It is Choy’s hope to acquire a white violin, take it apart and cast it
in concrete, plaster and stainless steel. After this process, he would like to rebuild the
new violins and voice them. However, one can assume that he will not achieve the
perfect pitch that has plagued him since childhood!
Choy works through a process of researching and asking questions. He finds that it is
often only after the fact of production, exhibition and discussion that the links and true
import of his work become evident. For this reason, Choy remains rather unsure of how
to think of this new work. However, it seems to be a powerful visual shift from his earlier
work and theoretically fascinating.