Courtyard Gallery Opening: Culture Extracts by James Sham

Opening reception: September 16, 5–7 p.m.

Exhibition dates: September 16 – January 23, 2016


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 Extract, 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.


“Culture Extract is a collection of liquid specimens, obtained directly on site in the wake of

Hurricane Ike. The event devastated local cork and pigment plants, sending contamination

throughout the adjacent water supply. For weeks, each time the toilet flushed, various cork and

pigmented specimens washed back into the bowl from the sewage system. These specimens

were collected, sterilized and catalogued by the artist and represent a cross-section of minerals,

rocks, vegetation and architecture from a fictitious and lost culture.” –James Sham


—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.


James Sham is an inter-disciplinary contemporary artist whose research focuses on interfacing

technologies and material processes from a variety of disciplines within contemporary art. His artwork has

been exhibited in venues as diverse as the Tate Modern (London), Appetite Gallery (Buenos Aires),

Kunstprojects (Berlin), The Open Works Institute (Bucharest), White Box Gallery (New York City), and the

Asian Arts Initiative (Philadelphia) and has screened and published on European Cable Network

Broadcast (Germany and France), the Ellensburg Film Festival (Seattle) among others. Having received a

MFA in Sculpture and Extended Media from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008, and a BA in

Studio Art and Philosophy from Dartmouth College in 2005, Sham is now based in Austin, Texas and

Washington, DC, where he is Assistant Professor of Sculpture in the Department of Fine Arts and Art

History at George Washington University.


The Courtyard Gallery is located in the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at The

University of Texas at Austin and features artwork from faculty and alumni of the Department of Art and

Art History in the College of Fine Arts. It is the result of a collaborative effort between the Office of the

Vice President for University Operations and the College of Fine Arts and is curated by Visual Arts Center

Director Jade Walker.