Talk to Ken Lum about the fanfare surrounding his upcoming major retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery and he’ll say, “It’s nice.” Ask him about being a first-time father at the age of 54 and he’ll respond, “It’s fantastic! I’m elated. I’m elated 24/7.” Making tea in the loft apartment he shares with his partner, Paloma Campbell, and their nine-week-old son, he laughs, “That’s because I’m up 24/7.” He looks devotedly at his little boy and talks about how alert he is, how he holds his head up already and looks around him, how he makes crawling motions when placed on his stomach. “It’s fantastic.”
Still, as Campbell whisks the baby away for a feed, Lum insists that his subdued reaction to the 30-year survey of his work, which opens at the VAG next Saturday (February 12), is not about false modesty. It has nothing to do with the fact that this internationally acclaimed artist has had more than 100 solo shows, from Stockholm to Buenos Aires and from Seoul to Saskatoon. Nor that he’s won numerous prestigious awards, that his work is coveted by public and private collectors alike, and that he is represented by commercial galleries in New York, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo, and Beijing. No, it has more to do with a broader understanding of his vocation.
“The more I’m an artist, the more I realize that being an artist is a long trajectory and it goes beyond having shows,” he says. For Lum, “beyond having shows” has included travelling widely, teaching internationally, organizing important exhibitions and symposiums in the developing world, cofounding the Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and committing himself to demanding public-art projects—some 10 now, in Canada and abroad.
“Of course, you have to make art—that’s the minimum—but living the life of the artist is about much more than just making art,” Lum says. “It’s about thinking about art, how to expand artistic language, how to think about the world in the Edward Said sense of ”˜worldliness’.”
This reference to Said, the late Palestinian-American scholar best known for his writings on the relationship between culture and imperialism, is not incidental. Lum’s art has taken many forms, from performance to sculpture and from photo-text portraits to mirrors etched with emotionally loaded phrases. And much of it has been concerned with the aftermath of colonialism and the complex ways in which language and culture intertwine in the construction of identity. An example in the VAG show couples a snapshot-style portrait of a middle-aged man, standing in front of three brightly coloured totem poles, with the words Mohammad and the Totems. Immense as Lum’s knowledge of language, literature, history, and cultural theory may be, he has the rare gift of making his scholarship completely accessible through his art, often employing elements from popular culture such as commercial signage and exuberant typography. In his “Shopkeeper Signs” series, Lum uses low-end adjustable signs to juxtapose fictional retail advertising (“Amir Thrift Shop”¦Closing Out Sale”) with personal and political messages (“Moving Back 2 Eritrea”).
He’s made his life accessible, too, willingly talking to the media about his childhood and family background. At the same time, he’s acutely aware that whatever he innocently said about himself in the early years of his career has established the template for everything that has been written about him since. The template looks something like this: Vancouver-born son of impoverished immigrant parents; mother worked in a sweatshop, grandparents in the fields of Cloverdale; raised in Strathcona and on Kingsway; fascinated by visual culture but without any exposure to contemporary fine art; early pursuit of a career in science; later awakening to his true vocation.
“My mother really wanted me and my brother to succeed, because we were just so poor growing up,” Lum recalls. He also had high expectations of himself. “When I was six years old, I said to my mother—in a semipublic situation, with her friends—”˜I’m going to take you out of poverty.’ ”
Lum Nin, Ken’s paternal grandfather, arrived in Canada from China in 1908 at the age of 15 and worked as a labourer for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Young as he was, Lum Nin left a wife behind in his home village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong; his son, Ken’s father, was conceived on a much later return visit. Because of Canada’s blatantly racist Chinese head tax and exclusion law—and because 90 percent of the wages Lum Nin sent home were skimmed by corrupt officials and middlemen—he was not able to bring his family to Vancouver for more than four decades. Both of Ken Lum’s parents were born in China, a somewhat confusing fact, he says, when he’s asked whether he is first- or second-generation Canadian.
Confusing or not, Lum’s childhood seems to have seeded in him a keen sense of social justice. The issues of class and race he addresses, the nature of home, the expectations of parents, the anxieties of children, the conditions of sorrow and alienation and the self-questioning that accompanies them, all these themes and emotions resonate with his viewers. “I think sadness, isolation, ontological questions about who one is—these are universal,” he observes. “It’s part of living—you can’t progress through life unless you question who you are, constantly.”
Lum’s initial distance from the privileged aspects of the art world has imbued him with an enduring skepticism about the role of the artist. He doesn’t confine what he does to museums and galleries: he takes it to the streets. In Vienna in 2000, he mounted billboard-size hoardings that used the idea of home to confront growing anti-immigration sentiment in Austria. Covering the façade of an art museum, the enormous image-text works portrayed six individuals of different ages and cultural backgrounds. Each expressed a different emotion, from “I’ve never been made to feel at home here”¦” to “Why don’t you go home?” And in the Dutch city of Utrecht, he has been working on an ambitious public sculpture for what he describes as a “troubled” immigrant neighbourhood; it’s an immense steel globe that makes visible the recent history of decolonization.
Public art interests him partly because of its ability to engage a wide audience. “My work has always had a public address to it,” he observes. “Public art is an expansion of that address.” In Vancouver, Lum’s “expanded” works include A Tale of Two Children, two big photo-text panels located in the National Works Yard in Strathcona. It matches photographs of two young kids with examples of different parenting styles: one child is showered with praise, the other is pummelled with verbal abuse. In Four Boats Stranded: Red and Yellow, Black and White, installed on the roof of the Vancouver Art Gallery, scale models of historic vessels condense a local narrative of aboriginal and migrant peoples. And in from shangri-la to shangri-la, reproductions of three Maplewood Flats squatters’ shacks were temporarily sited last year at the foot of one of downtown Vancouver’s most expensive hotel-condo developments.
Most recently, Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver, at the intersection of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way, has drawn the public’s eye. A greatly enlarged, LED–lit version of the “East Van cross”, its vertical EAST intersects with a horizontal VAN at the letter A. Lum first encountered this folk symbol—a declaration of both identity and suffering—in the form of graffiti when he was a kid. His public-art treatment of it now suggests the socioeconomic division between the city’s East and West sides.
“It’s about that divide, obviously,” Lum says, “but it’s also about travel across time, across space, in the city, by different peoples.” His intention is to “complicate” our assumptions about the social, material, and psychological ways in which Vancouver has been occupied. “That complication,” he adds, “is interpolated by the question of who constitutes the audience for that piece. People who are going to VCC? People who are going to the suburbs on the SkyTrain? People who are just driving through?”
Who, indeed. Lum’s home, in a light-industrial area that sits strategically close to Vancouver’s East-West divide, seems to symbolize both the place he came from and the realm to which his art has led him. It is also, of course, the scene of his latest collaborative work: his infant son. As the Straight gets up to leave, Campbell reappears, the baby in her arms smiling precociously. Or is it gas? “No,” Lum says with conviction, “he’s smiling.”