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If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

Will Kwan
Dates: November 6–December 12, 2014
Opening Reception:  November 12,  2014, 5–7pm
Artist Talk: December 17, 2014, 7pm – 8pm


Gendai, Reel Asian Film Festival and Trinity Square Video are pleased to present a newly commissioned work by Toronto-based artist Will Kwan. Titled, If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail, Kwan’s new work forms a part of Gendai’s Model Minority program.

For the premiere exhibition of this work, Will Kwan has created a new three channel video that itself responds to an early multi-channel video installation by the Toronto artist John Massey. Produced in 1982 Massey’s work consists of three screens presenting a staged conversation between the artist and a hitchhiker as they drive down a stretch of highway between rural towns north of Toronto. The central screen is intercut with images depicting disparate mental impressions of the subjects arising in their conversation, capturing the instability of language and meaning.

Kwan’s artistic response to Gendaiʼs Model Minority project re-makes this work from the canon of Canadian video art, replacing Massey and his hitchhiker with a White real estate agent and an Asian home-buyer as the passenger as they travel to visit prospective homes for sale, driving from a suburban neighbourhood of tract housing in Markham, Ontario to Forest Hill, an affluent district in Toronto of primarily White homeowners (according to the 2011 Canadian census). As in As the Hammer Strikes, the divergent mental landscapes of the real estate agent and his Asian client will unfold in incongruent—and at times absurd or troubling—images as they strive to reconcile the identity, expectations, and motivations of the other.

The exhibition develops from Kwan’s ongoing examination of diverse cultural practices and histories of intercultural encounters that haunt contemporary political and economic relations. With If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail the artist complicates concerns and themes rooted in the aspirations of an East Asian diasporic community who are often cast as the “model minorities.” The work offers a refractive mirror for how perceptions of self, other, community, land and the image of “a good life” are culturally interpolated by the multiple actors, state apparatuses, and property dealers who in turn, actively reconfigure and capitalize off of them. Kwan’s work is a particular narrative mapping of such intersections and collisions. The question is what might be done from these webbed relations beyond reflection.

Please join us for the opening reception on Wednesday November 12 from 5–7pm. Trinity Square Video is located at 401 Richmond Street West, Suite 376 in Toronto.

WILL KWAN is a Toronto-based media artist, born in Hong Kong and grew up in Toronto. He received his MFA from the School of Arts at Columbia University (2004) and was a research fellow at the Jan van Eyck Academie (NL). His work has been exhibited at the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, the 2007 Montreal Biennale, the 2003 Venice Biennale, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Art in General, and Cooper Union in New York, Zendai in Shanghai, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, the Polish National Museum in Poznan, the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and The Power Plant in Toronto, and The Western Front in Vancouver. Kwan has been an artist-in-residence at numerous institutions including the Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella, Italy, the Duolun Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai and recently at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England.www.studiowillkwan.com

MODEL MINORITY is Gendai’s screening, workshop and commissioning project that investigates the reality of cultural diversity in Canada today via artistic, collective and intersectional approaches. In collaboration with local and international artists, organizations and researchers, we unpack the construct of “Minority” outside of official state discourse to see if evidence of a more critical or even radical multiculturalism might emerge through conflict, contradiction and solidarity, in the context of our settler-colonial legacies. Running since June 2013, the Model Minority program comes to a close in Fall 2014 with the launch of a publication and the production of new works by Will Kwan, Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen. For more info, visit: www.gendaigallery.org/mm

Image Credit – Still: If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail, Will Kwan, 2014.

Media Inquiries – info@gendaigallery.org

If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail is produced in partnership with the 2014 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, Trinity Square Video Production Residency, and Gendai’s Model Minority Program.

Financial support for this project has been provided by Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.


Canadian Art review
by Amy Luo

During Bill O’Reilly’s much-discussed appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last month, the Fox News host denied the existence of white privilege, invoking the economic success of Asian Americans as proof. Asian Americans have a higher median income than white or black Americans, O’Reilly argued, because they value stable homes and good education. This image of East Asian immigrants as respectable upholders of the nuclear family has been around in North America since the 1950s, when such ideas were expedient amid the political milieu of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. Since then, these associations have sedimented into the oft-circulated trope of the “model minority”: the well-educated, financially self-sufficient and politically docile East Asian citizen.

The “model minority” stereotype serves as the point of departure for Will Kwan’s new three-channel video work If All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail (2014), part of this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival. The work is currently showing at Trinity Square Video in Toronto and was commissioned as part of Gendai Gallery’s Model Minority program, a series of workshops and projects seeking to engage critically with Canadian multiculturalism by parsing this particular Asian stereotype.

If All You Have Is a Hammer rather faithfully borrows the formal structure of John Massey’s 1982 film installation As the Hammer Strikes. In Massey’s work, a three-screen installation presents a dialogue between the artist and a hitchhiker, using the flanking screens to illustrate both the speaker and the recipient’s visualization of the verbal discussion—which is complicated in part by the hitchhiker’s speech impediment.

In Kwan’s rendition, Massey and the hitchhiker are replaced by a white real-estate agent and a Chinese-Canadian homebuyer. The latter is a rough stand-in for Kwan–he too is a thirtysomething creative worker and teacher, a Hong Kong native who immigrated to Canada at a young age. Interestingly, Kwan doesn’t align his alter ego with Massey, the artist, but places him in the passenger’s seat in lieu of the hitchhiker—the outsider within the social dynamic. This cognizance of a division of the social world into the norm and the other is reflective of Kwan’s larger practice, which takes an interest in questioning what is perceived as universal and what as culturally or racially particular.

The narrative of Kwan’s 23-minute video begins in a bland, suburban neighbourhood in Markham, where the real-estate agent meets the potential homebuyer at his house. The video then spans the drive to a viewing in an older, affluent neighbourhood in Bedford Park.

Kwan’s choice in borrowing Massey’s car-ride scenario to stage this cross-cultural encounter is evocative. The car interior creates a claustrophobic social space in which both characters are seated facing forward; while they intermittently turn their heads toward one another, there is rarely eye contact. Within this restricted positioning, the two strive to understand each other’s identities and motivations.

The scripted conversation meanders from the trivial to the weighty and back—from Chinese food to factory work conditions in Asia, from home improvement to Toronto’s housing crisis. Images and footage culled from YouTube clips, news reports, films and commercials accompany the spoken dialogue.

In Massey’s video, the use of dialogue and images captures each character’s ongoing mental process of interpreting the conversation’s meaning as it unfolds. Kwan’s version is less rigorous in tracking this process. Rather, the combination of verbal and visual elements in Kwan’s video is most poignant as a reflection of our contemporary visual culture, in which the globalized flow of images mediates our real-life experiences and encounters. For Kwan’s conversationalists, these circulating images both facilitate and skew their efforts to see eye to eye.

As for addressing Canadian multiculturalism and the “model minority” stereotype, Kwan’s work highlights the neo-liberal lens that colours political and mainstream conceptions of immigrants and visible minorities. In the video, the real-estate agent laments the lack of affordable housing in Toronto—in particular for new immigrants, described as “those who want to contribute.” She then relays an inspirational story of her housekeeper, who climbed up the social ladder from toiling at a hotel to owning a successful cleaning business and becoming a homeowner.

Elsewhere, the two characters discuss the importance of good schools and extracurriculars, accompanied by footage of a news segment about “tiger moms.” Their exchanges highlight the tendency for the neo-liberal values of economic self-empowerment and self-realization to become the default common ground in cross-cultural encounters and in understanding others. If All You Have Is a Hammer flags the limitations of this one-size-fits-all logic, leaving open the question of how we can better relate across differences within a multicultural society.