Ken Lum: from shangri-la to shangri-la
At the Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite until September 6
Michael Lin: A Modest Veil
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 2
A surprising incongruity greets locals and visitors at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite location. Installed in and over the reflecting pool in a plaza at the foot of the city’s tallest building—the luxury hotel and condo development egregiously named Living Shangri-La—are three little shacks. They’re scale replicas of squatters’ cabins that once stood on stilts on Vancouver’s North Shore, on an intertidal site near Dollarton known simply as Maplewood Mudflats.
Vancouver’s renowned Ken Lum is the artist behind this beautifully realized sculptural installation, and the title he has given his work, from shangri-la to shangri-la, calls up a history of utopian communities and idealized architecture on Canada’s West Coast. It also raises the question of progress, Lum said in a recent conversation with the Straight, and of what does and does not meet officially sanctioned ideas concerning housing.
The mud flats’ most famous inhabitant, British novelist Malcolm Lowry, worked on his most acclaimed novel, Under the Volcano, while living there in the 1940s and ’50s. His posthumously published story “Forest Path to the Spring” recalls what he viewed as an idyllic, even paradisiacal life with his second wife and helpmate, actress Margerie Bonner Lowry.
A shifting assortment of artists, writers, fisherfolk, nature lovers, protohippies, and loners squatted on the Maplewood Mudflats from the early years of the 20th century until 1971, when their homes were destroyed by civic edict. The three shacks Lum replicates belonged to Lowry, Greenpeace activist Paul Spong, and contemporary artist Tom Burrows, who lived on the mud flats during the 1960s.
The curatorial line, given on Offsite’s didactic panel, is that Lum’s work is about the contrast between a “rustic conception of the ideal life” and the “abstract perfection” of the towering architecture that characterizes Vancouver’s downtown core. We’re warned against reading from shangri-la to shangri-la as “an overly simplified duality between past and present”. Actually, it’s almost impossible not to read it as an extreme duality—a screaming irony—between present and present.
Squatters’ shacks constructed out of salvaged materials juxtaposed with one of Vancouver’s most expensive residential towers? In a city recently identified as having the highest housing-price-to-household-income ratio in the world? Lum’s work looks a lot like a metaphor for the gap between the marginalized lives of Vancouver’s homeless and the staggering privilege represented by Living Shangri-La. Still, it is more complex and layered than that: some of the mud-flat squatters lived there by choice, including Lowry, who was a remittance man. The son of a wealthy industrialist, he spurned bourgeois comforts and consciously embraced an unencumbered life close to nature.
The Vancouver Art Gallery has been draped in a traditional Taiwanese fabric pattern designed by Michael Lin.
Complexity and contrast also mark Michael Lin’s ambitious mural, Georgia Street Plaza, 23.01–02.05.10, installed across the Vancouver Art Gallery’s north faí§ade. Hand-painted by a team of local artists on nearly 6,000 square feet of particleboard, the work is based on the floral pattern of a length of traditional Taiwanese fabric. It’s an ambitious architectural intervention by an artist who has made an international reputation creating just such projects in major cities around the world. It is also a provocative way of inflecting a public space (the Georgia Street plaza in front of the gallery) that is so often the site of recreation, celebration, and dissent.
Lin’s transnational identity—he was born in Tokyo, grew up in Taiwan, and is now based in Brussels, Shanghai, and Taipei—finds a clever expression here. With its decorative, domestic, and Asian allusions, the mural obscures the symbolism inherent in the VAG’s neoclassical architecture. Built originally as the provincial courthouse, the place has long embodied the power and authority of the dominant culture in a colonial outpost. Even after the courthouse moved in 1979 and the VAG took over the building, an aura of authority remained embedded in the architecture.
Now, the judicial grey of the VAG’s exterior is enlivened by the brilliant pinks, blues, greens, and raspberry red (known as “Taiwan red”) of Lin’s installation. In his curatorial essay (for a yet-to-be-published catalogue), the VAG’s Bruce Grenville writes, “Lin’s use of the pattern in this context and on this scale is clearly intended to provoke a dialogue about cultural identity.” A few architectural features, such as the architrave, balustrades, and two Ionic columns with their characteristic volutes, are left exposed. In effect, they both frame Lin’s painting and are unsettled by it. And some of the building’s ornamental flourishes—carved dog-wood blossoms, for instance—are echoed in Lin’s superimposed floral pattern.
In a related project, Lin has used a similar design on dust covers to wrap the catalogues for the VAG’s forthcoming exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings. That a decorative Asian fabric design should veil and obscure the work of an icon of European high culture is both humorous and heretical. Again, Lin creates a charming intervention, asking us to consider the relationship between the monocultural centre and the multicultural edge.