L’ART S’AFFICHE x Technopôle Angus

Discover this series of paper cutouts by artist Karen Tam, on the fence surrounding the Place Michel Hébert construction site, at the corner of Molson and William-Tremblay streets.

Art Souterrain
Technopôle Angus

L’art s’affiche is a public display project, with the objective of making contemporary art accessible while visually energizing the urban space. Emerging and established artists, from multiple practices, are selected and invited to exhibit their works in an unexpected environment.

Karen Tam

Biography

Karen Tam 譚嘉文, a Tiohtià:ke/Montréal-based artist has exhibited her work and participated in residencies nationally and internationally since 2000, including at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Frankfurter Kunstverein. Winner of the 2021 Giverny Capital Prize, Tam holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths (University of London) and a MFA in Sculpture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is represented by Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

Artist statement

Through my sculptures and installation work where I recreate spaces such as the Chinese restaurant, opium dens, Chinatown curio shops, early Chinese Canadian artist studios, and other sites of cultural encounters, I look at how the corporeal experience of space allows one to understand its history and community. A deep engagement with archival and collections research has led me to question whose histories get to be collected and told, and to interrogate the narratives that have been constructed around the Chinese diaspora. I ask: “How do we remember, represent, support, and simultaneously deny the erasures of our stories, spaces, and community? If there are minimal traces of the existence of an individual or organization, what are ways that this life can be made visible again?” By actively bringing to light overlooked aspects of Chinese Canadian communities and culture through my artwork, my intent is to create counterpoints to accepted canons, official histories, public archives and collections.

The series
“For every mile of track laid…” (2024)

This series of paper cutouts is inspired by the the site of the CPR Angus Shops and presents six views that delve into the multifaceted historical Chinese connections to Canada’s railway system. From “The ‘Other’ Last Spike / L’Autre dernier clou (1885)” and “Chinese Labour Corps / Corps de travailleurs chinois (1917-1920)” that honours the contributions of Chinese labourers, to “C.P.R. Tea Shed / Remise à thé du CP, Vancouver (1887),” and “The Silk Trains / Trains de la soie (1887-1939)” that once raced across the nation, each piece offers a glimpse into pivotal moments. “For every mile of track laid… / Pour chaque mile de voie construit… (1881-1885)” is a poignant reminder of lives lost and reveals the human stories behind Canada’s iconic railways. Along with the light-hearted “Pâté chinois,” these cutouts form a compelling exploration of history, labour, and trade.

Detailed description for each piece:

The ‘Other’ Last Spike / ‘L’Autre’ dernier clou (1885)

The Last Spike ceremony in 1885 marked the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), a monumental project that linked Canada from coast to coast. However, the absence of Chinese labourers in the iconic historic photograph of this event, driving the ceremonial “last spike” is a stark reminder of their significant yet often overlooked contribution to the railway’s construction. Thousands of Chinese workers toiled under harsh conditions, enduring discrimination and danger, yet their efforts were essential to the railway’s completion. Their omission from the photograph reflects the prevailing attitudes of the time, but their legacy remains an integral part of Canada’s history. This work offers an alternative perspective by imagining the ‘Other’ last spike, where the Chinese labourers drove their last spike.

Silk Trains / Trains de la soie (1887-1939)

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Canadian railways played a vital role in the silk trade, facilitating the rapid transportation of raw silk from Asia to New York via Vancouver. Silk trains, characterized by their speed and specialized railcars, raced across Canada, with every minute meticulously accounted for and given ultimate priority over all rail traffic, even royal trains. Despite the lucrative nature of the silk trade, challenges such as the Great Depression, the emergence of synthetic alternatives, and competition from shipping routes through the Panama Canal led to a steep decline in the demand for rail transport of silk.

Chinese Labour Corps / Corps de travailleurs chinois (1917-1920)

The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) was made up of approximately 140,000 Chinese labourers who were recruited by the British and French during World War I to support the Allied war effort. These labourers performed crucial non-combatant roles, such as digging trenches, building roads, handling supplies, and cleaning up the battlefield. The labourers arrived in Canada by ship, before being transported across the country on secret trains to the East Coast. From there, they journeyed to Europe where they served on the Western Front during and after the war.

Pâté chinois

Pâté chinois, a classic Québécois dish consisting of layered ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes, remains a beloved culinary staple. While its origins is shrouded in mystery, one popular theory is that its roots can be traced to the 19th century when Chinese labourers worked on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It is speculated that Chinese cooks, catering to railway workers, may have created the dish. However, historians dispute this theory, citing the lack of comprehensive records about the Chinese railroad worker experience. Documented accounts reveal that they did not eat very well, and many succumbed to malnutrition, raising questions about the veracity of the theory.

C.P.R. Tea Shed / Remise à thé du CP, Vancouver (1887)

This cutout is based on a William Notman photograph of the CPR warehouse that held crates of tea waiting to be transported across the continent.

For every mile of track laid… / Pour chaque mile de voie construit…(1881-1885)

Between 1880 and 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway brought over approximately 17 000 Chinese labourers for its construction. Despite their indispensable contribution, these workers were subjected to inequitable pay and faced severe working conditions. Tragically, between 600 to 4 000 Chinese men lost their lives working on the CPR, succumbing to accidents, harsh winter conditions, illness, malnutrition. The Chinese workers were given the most dangerous tasks, including handling explosive nitrogen to break up solid rock. It is said that there is one dead Chinese man for every mile of track.

L'art s'affiche Technopôle Angus - 2600 rue William-Tremblay