Talking Past Each Other: James Sham’s Culture Shock

James Sham distills both meaning and materials from his subjects. A 16th century alchemist lost in the 21st century, Sham’s sculptures, photographs and videos result from the same intense experimentation once used in an effort to transmute lead into gold. In Culture Shock, Sham extracts Chinese kitsch cork models and treats them like biological specimens. The models in their test tubes are at once beautiful and mystifying fragments.

The seriousness of both purpose and process demonstrated in Sham’s Extract: Goldfish stands in sharp contrast with the inherent ludicrousness of the project. It must be as difficult as it is absurd to distill pure color from goldfish cadavers, something Sham has spent years in doing—an absurdity the artist underscores when he calculates the value of this extracted pigment according to the current international gold standard. As a transplant first from Hong Kong to Canada and now from Virginia to Texas, Sham is acutely interested in such instances of crosstalk and miscommunication. While you can’t trade the gold from his deceased goldfish on the commodity market, the homographic items cost the same.

In other projects, Sham has interfered with communication directly, by tying the hands of a deaf performer as they sign, for example. Confining his performers, he forces them to fail in their efforts to interact and then releases them, thus making their now-successful connections all the more powerful. Sham’s sculptures read as surreally dislocated but in that dislocation, he finds a key to connection. If the complexity of acculturation itself is absurd, maybe we all have something in common.


Essay by Elizabeth Welch, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, whose research focuses on 20th century American art and visual cultures of performing arts. She served as the 2014–2015 Curatorial Fellow at the Department of Art and Art History’s Visual Arts Center.