By Kate Gartrell
James Sham’s visit with grad students last Thursday was everything an artist’s visit should be: engaging, generous, and thought provoking. A second year MFA student at VCU working in video, Sham‘s work raises questions that ultimately challenge the foundations of our Western world view and epistemology. As a dual citizen of Hong Kong and Canada, Sham described how shocked he was as a student in the US by cultures of racism that seemed to stem from an entrenchment in binary ways of thinking: us/them, black/white, Democrat/Republican.
As a dual US/Canadian citizen, I was curious what he would say about US-Canada differences – a favorite pet topic over the years that I have only fairly cursory ideas about. Sham’s answer fascinated me. He said that the US seems more heavily weighed down by the Cartesian legacy of dualistic thinking and binaries that have been the basis of the Western world view for centuries. In my thinking about the two countries, I have always come back to the different ways they gained their independence from Britain: the US in a bloody revolution, Canada peacefully and gradually in increments, and not completely until the 1860’s. A bloody war can only happen out of a dualistic idea of “us” versus “them.” The philosophical underpinnings of these different histories had never occurred to me in such clear terms. Thank you, James Sham!
The range of Canadian political parties exemplifies a non-binary multiplicity, ranging from the mainstream Liberal and New Democrat parties to the fringe Marijuana party. In a parliamentary system, even the “losers” in an election get seats in Parliament. This isn’t to say that the majority of debate does not still occur between two or three main players: it does. But the presence of third parties and rogue elements in a parliamentary system is very different than in US politics. Had the 2000 Nader-Gore-Bush contest taken place in Canada, liberal vote splitting would still have been an issue, but with the assurance that the loser would still have a significant voice in Parliament even if he did not become Prime Minister.
In his work, Sham positions himself as a third, or “rogue” element with the potential to disrupt dominant binary-based systems of thought and discourse. I can’t say how firmly I believe that this vein of questioning is critical for artists to pursue today. I would go as far as to say that the legacy of dualism is THE problem we face today as citizens of the west, socially, politically, artistically, in all realms. It is a history of both explicit and implicit violence, it is encoded in our language, and it must be confronted.
I don’t know HOW this can happen, but Sham’s adding third and rogue elements seems like a good starting place. I wonder if “tertiary” relations could not, though, become a permutation of dualism – where the terms of the debate are preconceived and predictable.
Where do we go from here?
*Note from Artifice: Check out James's work at www.jamessham.com