At the corner of Malkin Avenue and Thornton Street
Ken Lum's new billboard-size public-art piece, A Tale of Two Children, is stranded in an urban hinterland. Mounted on the back wall of an outlying building in the City of Vancouver's National Works Yard, it is distantly surrounded by railway lines, warehouses, scrubby fields, and the southern edge of residential Strathcona. The entire area speaks of past abandonment and future development. At the moment, few people pass by on foot.
Vancouver-based and internationally acclaimed, Lum has worked in many media and materials, from painting, photography, and furniture sculpture to banners, billboards, and advertising signage. Through much of his career, he has explored the conjunctions and disjunctions between visual and verbal imagery. He has also taken on a range of social themes, including the politics of identity and marginality. Around 1993, he began pairing simple, repetitive texts with highly detailed colour photographs, usually of tension-filled moments of daily life. His newest work appears to be a return to this style and format.
Children are conspicuously featured in A Tale's two photo-textual diptychs. Subtitled A Work for Strathcona, the piece also refers to the neighbourhood where Lum grew up. Past interviews suggest that, living within a Chinese Canadian community during the 1950s and '60s, he felt acutely socially circumscribed-almost ghettoized.
Initially, A Tale looks like an admonishment to the public on the subject of parenting. In the left-hand photo panel, a young boy stands, tensed and anguished, behind a fire hydrant on a residential street. The text beside him reads, "What an idiot! What an idiot you are! What an utterly useless idiot you are!" The second diptych gives us a photo of a young girl, sitting relaxed and happy on a bench on a Chinatown sidewalk, smiling up at the woman who stands behind her. The accompanying text reads, "You so smart. You make me proud you so smart. I so proud you so smart."
It can't be an accident that the abusive, unseen parent is a native English speaker and the praising parent a non-anglophone immigrant. Yet it's not clear what Lum is trying to tell us about language and culture as they affect parenting styles and expectations. There's a provocative element in much of his work that does not find easy resolution in the mind of the viewer. Anecdote is pitched against stereotype. At the same time, the repetitive text triggers a kind of perceptual stutter between visual and verbal elements. Interpretation is as open-ended as the area in which the work is mounted-and as charged with history, desolation, and potentiality.