WASHINGTON, DC — Foon Sham’s wooden sculptures often look like large vases or tornadoes. At the American University Museum, he presents three new works, all made from his signature wooden blocks, resembling a giant tunnel (“Escape I, Tunnel,” 2016), a massive industrial chimney (“Escape II, Tower,” 2016), and a small vessel cut in half (“Escape in Dust,” 2017). “Escape II” and “Escape in Dust” are situated in the main gallery space, and “Escape I” is outside, in a concrete courtyard misleadingly called a “garden.”
The tower is the most impressive of the group, partially due to its placement, shooting up 36 feet in the space next to the stairway. Visitors can walk into it at the bottom, one or two at a time, and look up at the interior or climb the stairs, winding around the sculpture, to get an overview. The multiple viewpoints are essential to the experience; I felt like a squirrel, first burrowing into the trunk of the tree, then climbing up to its top.
That analogy is likely one Sham would enjoy. As exhibition curator Laura Roulet writes in the wall text, these sculptures create “the palpable space of a woodland creature’s habitat, or the place of concealment.” But things get much more political outside.
Walking through “Escape I, Tunnel” also makes you feel like a woodland creature, but there is more to it than just the smell of wood after a night of heavy rain, sunlight streaming in to create unique shadows, and multiple holes in the side of the piece, which you can use to duck in and out. The work also references issues of immigration: “The outdoor sculpture’s craggy ridgeline echoes the mountain ranges of the American West and traces the line of the U.S.-Mexico border,” Roulet writes. Of course, it’s also a tunnel, which immediately conjures images of fleeing refugees.
As an immigrant from Macau himself, Sham clearly takes these issues very seriously, but I’m not convinced the tunnel is as political as Roulet would have us believe. Sham’s works tend to be very philosophical, often embodying the Taoist notion of dualism — the balance and interconnectedness of opposites. “Escape in Dust” is a great example. Like the two larger sculptures, it incorporates both natural and processed wood. It’s sawed in half and pressed against the glass wall between the gallery and the hallway to the sculpture garden, so visitors can see built-up layers of sawdust in the middle of it. Remnants of the process of cutting the piece in half remain in the finished product, and man-made sawdust coexists with bark-covered branches. Perhaps that’s where the political subtext really comes in: with the coexistence of opposites.
Foon Sham: Escape continues at the American University Museum (4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW) through August 13.