#930 The relevance of Ken Lum

Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991-2018
by Ken Lum, with an introduction by Kitty Scott

Montreal: Concordia University Press, 2020
$64.95 / 9781988111001

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve


Where on earth is he?

The Vancouver Art Gallery is staging an interview with Vancouver-born art star Ken Lum. It’s May 2020, deep into the age of Covid 19, and VAG is using Zoom to bring together interviewer, interviewee, and audience. Most attendees are in Vancouver; but some are in Toronto, and I am on a Gulf Island. Lum is in Philadelphia, where he serves as Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. At least, we think that is where he is. His ambience seems to be less an Ivy League office and more a Japanese teahouse. Perhaps he is working from a home that includes a Zen garden? I am too involved in listening to worry about his location. Then, about three-quarters into the interview, he suddenly disappears for a flash and returns in front of the Vancouver skyline. A small boy runs past. I am forced to pay attention to the game. Ken Lum is indeed at home in Philadelphia, with his family, and playing with Zoom’s virtual backgrounds. By the conclusion of the interview he is backed by a Newfoundland fishing village.

Ken Lum with his “East Van Cross” (Monument for East Vancouver), February 2020. Photo by Rafal Gerszak, courtesy The Globe and Mail
Ken Lum, Captain Vancouver’s ship, one of his Four Boats Stranded, Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo courtesy Louise Aird

I have been reading his new book, and I realise that this mischief — like everything else — is relevant. In her introduction, Kitty Scott (Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Canada) writes of Lum’s shape-shifting ability to extend his roles far outside Canada. “By constantly changing his vantage point,” Scott notes, “his writings open up new perspectives and bring his readers along on journeys of discovery of artists working beyond the art world’s so-called ‘centres’….”

In his hometown, Lum’s best known work is probably his Monument for East Vancouver at the intersection of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way, a much enlarged LED-lit adaptation of the East Van Cross, a graffiti symbol from his childhood. But there are others. To mark the Millennium, Lum’s Four Boats Stranded: Red and Yellow, Black and White was installed on the roof of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where, according to a VAG press release from September 2001, it serves:

The Komagata Maru, one of Kum’s Four Boats Stranded, Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by Jeramey Jannene

… as a directional, geographical and historical marker. The four boats represent scaled down versions of a First Nations Longboat, Captain Vancouver’s ship, the Komagata Maru (the infamous 1914 Indian immigrant ship), and a cargo ship that recently carried migrants from China’s Fujian Province. The boats are each painted a single colour that speaks to a colonial stereotyping of cultural, racial and historical identification. The First Nations boat is red, Captain Vancouver’s ship is white, the Komagata Maru is black and the Fujian ghost ship is yellow.

Earlier this year The Retired Draft Horse and the Last Pulled Log was installed in the plaza at the new Kings Crossing development site in Burnaby.

Ken Lum with The Retired Draft Horse and the Last Pulled Log, Kings Crossing, Edmonds and Kingsway, Burnaby. Photo by Julie MacLennan, courtesy Burnabynow.com
Ken Lum, Northwest Coast canoe, one of Kum’s Four Boats Stranded, Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo courtesy kenlumart.com

This book is not about Ken Lum’s art. An essay that focuses on one of his works — Melly Shum Hates her Job — is less about the art than about the relationship between the art and the people of the city (Rotterdam) where it is installed. Elsewhere, “The difference between art and fact” considers another of his photo-conceptualist works Don’t Be Silly, You’re Not Ugly as part of a discussion of free will.

As a conceptual and representational artist, Ken Lum works in painting, sculpture and photography. He is also a curator, teacher and writer. In all these roles he performs on an international stage. In this book, the first in the Concordia University Press series Text/Context; Writings by Canadian Artists, Lum presents himself as an artist who writes. No fear of being subjected to the “artist’s statement” that artists often provide to accompany their work, to the detriment of meaningful communication. Lum writes because he can, and he is good at it. He writes for varied publications — from the National Post to Canadian Art to the Senegal-based Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art. And he writes about “Art and Life,” i.e. about pretty much everything.

Ken Lum, Melly Shum Hates Her Job, 1990 to present, Rotterdam. Photo from Everything is Relevant. Editor’s note: the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam will officially be renamed the Kunstinstituut Melly in 2021
Kitty Scott wrote the introduction to Everything is Relevant. Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario

He is not writing memoir. His preface provides all we need to know about his origins in a “small area of Strathcona in Vancouver, a heavily multi-ethnic and working-class neighbourhood just east of Chinatown,” about his encounter with the art teacher who punished him for his “implicit belief … that the power of art lies in its disruptive potential,” and about his evolution out of a promising scientific career. Autobiographical episodes occur throughout the book, when relevant. For a person who throws so much of himself into every task and every encounter, such relevance comes naturally.

In “Seven Moments in the Life of a Chinese Canadian Artist” he narrates seven brief, racially charged vignettes from experiences in France, England, Martinique, and Canada (Fort St. James, Montreal and Vancouver). Here is what happened in his hometown, also the hometown of photographer and film artist Stan Douglas, whose work has frequently referenced the Downtown Eastside and who will represent Canada at the 2021 Venice Biennale:

Ken Lum, Chinese cargo ship, one of his Four Boats Stranded, Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo courtesy Vancouverpublicart blog

Vancouver, Canada. This is a story recounted to me by several friends. There is a protest rally on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the city’s major contemporary art venue. An artists’ coalition is demanding that the exhibition programming reflect more minority voices, particularly visible minority artists. The curator bravely (or foolishly) confronted the gathering and cited then recent exhibitions by Stan Douglas, an African-Caribbean-Canadian artist, and myself. Although I was embarrassed to hear that I was used as an example in such a context, what was recounted to me next shocked me. Several voices from the gathering shouted that they no longer considered Stan Douglas and myself artists of colour.

A stunned reviewer is tempted to write a commentary of too many hundred words, but Lum presents the moment without comment. So all I shall add is, “Think about it.”

Ken Lum, Don’t Be Silly, You’re Not Ugly (1993). Photo by Tim Bonham, Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo from Everything is Relevant

Another revealing story, which wants to be quoted at length, occurs several times in this collection. It concerns his grandmother, who “led a hard life, moving from China to New York in the early 1960s …, living with her family of six in a tiny apartment in a cockroach-infested tenement building in the Lower East Side, working in a Chinatown sweatshop, and passing away in 2005 at the age of 91.” As a young artist, Lum was often part of the family household, “bossed” by his grandmother who “always larded me with as much support as she could give me.” Shortly after Lum’s move to Philadelphia in 2012, he visits New York and unexpectedly finds a backlit photograph of her in the foyer of a labour union building on Seventh Avenue. She is representing the former International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. He is transported back to 1986 and his first solo exhibition in New York:

She surprised me at the opening by attending. I was chatting with some attendees when I heard her calling out my name in Cantonese. A crowd that had quickly formed around her near the entrance to the gallery obscured her.

She must have seemed like a novelty to this crowd, which was unaccustomed to encountering such a woman in this context. I could not believe that my grandmother (who spoke not a word of English) had managed to navigate herself from Chinatown to the East Village. I later learned that she had done so by showing the invitation card to strangers who simply pointed in the direction that she should go.

As I stood in the gallery in a state of disbelief, the crowd suddenly parted and my grandmother walked over to me. “What’s all this? who are all these people?” she asked in Cantonese. These are two very good questions. I was speechless for a moment and then responded in Cantonese. I felt a tremendous tenderness toward my grandmother. But I also felt utterly unmasked. I was unprepared for such a dramatic collision of worlds whereby an integral part of my identity (as exemplified by my grandmother) was put on view.

To be revisited by my dead grandmother so soon after my move to the East coast was haunting. But it was also like a circle that has taken almost three decades to close. After I left Dia following the end of Wilson’s Discussion, I immediately went to 275 Seventh Avenue to offer my grandmother a Buddhist blessing.

It is an oddly moving conclusion to a complicated article, “From Chalk Circle to Full Circle,” about artist Ian Wilson, and it tells a great deal about Lum’s own complicated self.

Ken Lum with his replica of a Vancouver Special (a postwar residential house), Union Street, Vancouver, 2015. Photo by Jason Payne, courtesy Kingston Whig Standard
Ken Lum, Amir Thrift Shop

Then what does Ken Lum write about?

He writes about Art — its nature and problems. He writes about the “idea of art,” which is “always larger than any art system;” about the “importance of art, which “lies in its relationship to the world as we live it,” about the “ways that art is defined and circulated in different parts of the world,” and about art’s “intersection with social, political, and economic realities specific to the history of a given place.” He worries about “the problem of the bureaucratization of the artist.” As an artist, he is interested in “issues of identity, especially along the interface where language and cultures meet and often collide.”

Looking at art in different places, experiencing the collision of languages and cultures, Lum imagines the artist as nomad or wandering minstrel: “The world is a small place and I am thankful that being an artist affords one the vantage point of seeing all the disparate dots that can be connected.” He notes “the multiplicity of modernities in the world.”

The “London Diaries” section covers one year, 1999-2000, in the course of which he examines conceptualism in Poland and tradition in Paris, notes the “very large presence of African-Italians in the small Tuscan centre of Parma,” and wonders at the “great paradox” of Toronto’s deep insecurity despite its world class status. He experiences harvest season in Saskatoon, a season which “means people in Saskatoon can talk about art in the same breath as gauging the progress of the wheat fields. In bigger cities, we in the art world are often at a loss to talk about anything other than art.” He is in Hong Kong on December 14 and Winnipeg on December 17, and within a few weeks he darts from Vancouver to Tokyo and Fukuoka in Japan to Kitakyushu and Hargzhou in China. In 2005, while associate curator of an art biennial in the United Arab Emirates, he has side commitments in Miami, FL, and Kelowna, BC. In airports outside the “so-called West” arrival and departure points may be Addis Ababa, Delhi or Colombo more often than Paris, London or Rome. In the UAE the trope of the artist as Nomad encounters Bedouins who are the actual Nomads.

The Pazyryk Carpet, preserved inside a glacier for 2,500 years, fifth century BCE. Photo from Everything is Relevant

Not surprisingly, then, Lum’s essay “The Other in the Carpet,” which begins with the Pazyryk Carpet trapped inside a glacier for 2500 years, takes off to speculate on flying carpets and the Arabian Nights, as well as Sherlock Holmes, Henry James, Johannes Vermeer, Henri Matisse and feminist fabric art. He explains:

As an artist, I have found both discovery and self-discovery in extending my practice to beyond just making my own works of art for exhibition. I have found that the true heart of art beats strongly in many parts of the world, often more strongly than in the so-called centre, and often it does so in the furthest reaches of the world, places such as Senegal, Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, Cuba, and many other points of the so-called periphery. Being an artist often means a life of non-identity with one’s environment. Artists also long to belong, but the curse and saving grace of art are that it can never entirely belong.

Adolphe d’Hastrel, Maison de la signare Anna Colas à Gorée, 1839. Photo from Everything is Relevant

Recalling a visit to the House of Slaves on the island of Gorée, a short ferry ride from Dakar and once an administrative post for the embarkation of slaves destined for the Americas, he is moved to contemplate, not for the first time, the possibility of “withdrawing from art in order to find out what I did not know.” Instead of withdrawing he expands into curator, teacher, writer, but always artist: “Ì saw all these projects as extensions of my artistic practice, as I no longer saw artistic practice defined solely in terms of the production and exhibition of my art.” Refusing to be confined by the parameters set by the art world, endlessly creating and defining himself, Lum is constantly asking, “Is this all there is to art? to ask such a question is to remain forever dissatisfied, a necessary condition for an artist.” Remembering Dakar and Martinique, he is reminded of Franz Fanon and Bertolt Brecht. Then in a virtuoso demonstration of his belief that “the role of the artist is to give expression to his or her experiences in a continuous act of self-definition,” he evokes Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the scene is which the narrator eats a madeleine biscuit with lime-blossom tea: “The passage articulates the centrality of sensory experience to artistic consciousness. Being an artist entails the assumption the everything in life is relevant.” Everything, even a biscuit or a cup or tea.

Ken Lum in front of his Hanoi Travel, 2000

That is also why he teaches. Whether the class is in Martinique or Hangzhou or Philadelphia — “What students need to be taught is that art is about making everything in the world relevant,” suggesting that if something does not seem relevant it is up to the artist to make it so. “Looking Up,” a lecture in Hong Kong, is a concise course in art history from modernism to Pop Art to minimalism to conceptualism to whatever it is today — perhaps “a globalized contemporaneity.”

Wandering minstrel or not, Lum writes about home, or homes: Canada, especially Vancouver, where he was born and raised; Philadelphia, where he lives now; and China, where both his parents were born.

Lum’s “Canadian Cultural Policy; a problem of metaphysics” traces Canadian art and policy from 1945-1999, updated in a 2011 addendum. He observes that, “the Canadian compact is not between two peoples” — English and French — but “between the centre and the regions.” He is particularly insightful on the inevitable mismatching of multiculturalism and globalization. Elsewhere he calls for the fixing of Canada’s “broken” identity debates. A project in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood of Quebec City reminds him of East Hastings Street in Vancouver, displacement through gentrification, and the role of memory in relation to the experience of space: “I think it in the nature of neighbourhoods to evoke associations with other neighbourhoods. The associations are made across time and space, and across hope and despair. Such is the delicate constitution of neighbourhoods.”

Several essays reflect on Vancouver, “the first Asian city in North America,” and Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love,” as an African-American city.

Ken Lum, Sculpture for living room/public lounge, 1978. Photo from Everything is Relevant

His essays on China puzzle over the great ancient civilisation that had to start over again. In his Inaugural Editorial for Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Lum thinks about the historical context of Chinese cultural influence before and since the 19th century when the nation found itself “awakening into a nightmare” — a nightmare that pitted Chinese complacency about its past, against a West that saw itself as the only legitimate culture, and the rest of the world “as an artefact to be shaped.” The idea of China and the idea of the West became “totemic terms mutually exotic to one another;” “As history has repeatedly demonstrated exoticism is a term soaked in the irreconcilable and the tragic.” But China was never, or not for long, the backwater it may have imagined itself to be. Lum’s “Aesthetic Education in Republican China” talks about Chinese artists of the early 20th century who were influenced by Schiller, Hegel, Dewey, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and the Bauhaus.

If China and the “West” each saw the other as in some way exotic and/or inferior, how were they to learn otherwise? In “Art & Ethnology; a Relationship in Ironies,” Lum examines “the deadness of the ethnological museum,” a project born of 19th century ideas of preeminent civilization and universal civilisation under the shadow of colonialism. And yet the Museum of Anthropology in his hometown is one of Vancouver’s glories, and it is not all that old. What is to be done? Is one of the roles of the museum in the present to look at itself as the museum in the past?

Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky. Photo by Jill Connor

Ken Lum also writes about other artists. He writes about the German Thomas Ruff, whose photographs are “images of absolute arrestment; they are faces that his camera has put into eternal hibernation from the continuing drama of historical unfolding.” He meets Chen Zhen, the Paris-based Chinese artist, and produces a moving account of their interaction, their conversations about ethnicity, migration and self-actualization. He writes about Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky, Canadian artists at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge; and about Ian Wilson, who was born in South Africa, lived in New York, and was represented by a gallery in Brussels — and died this April 2020. And then there is an art-historical meditation on Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) in its context of colonialism and the slave trade, “set against French contemporary ethos of the period,” “an image that upsets power relations,” “an interlocked structure of interchangeable and multiple identities.”

And Lum has a lot to say about monuments and public art, public dialogue, public space and public memory. This was written before the current phase of statue toppling, but is all the more relevant because of that — relevant like everything else. We have mentioned “Monument to East Van” and the installation atop the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Construction of the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square, 1989. Photo from Everything is Relevant

There are monuments in progress, notably Monument Lab, a project initiated by Lum with Paul Farber with the intention of questioning the memorial landscape of Philadelphia, and uncovering “the negated or unacknowledged histories that have been evacuated from the monument and yet remain palpable as an absence,” an absence that turns out to be any commemoration of African Americans and women, and instigating “a shift in the public understanding of monumentality.” Starting with the “the fact that the city is a place of many voices, all of which deserve to be heard,” they invited Philadelphians “to visit places within their city that they had never visited, to experience their city through the lives and spaces of others.” Monuments were proposed and created in neighbourhoods where monuments had not existed, surprising Lum and Farber with “the depth of public memory.” A photograph shows Tania Bruguera’s “Monument to New Immigrants,” a giant blank-faced child holding a teddy bear, the blankness somehow also inclusive.

“Eternal Glory to the People’s Heroes!” an unpublished essay from 2018, looks at Beijing’s “Monument to the People’s Heroes,” “conceived in dialogue with the Tiananmen Gate upon which Mao Zedong’s outsized portrait is installed” and the monument’s short-lived confrontation with the Goddess of Democracy, a 10-metre tall sculpture of foam-and-papier-maché created by students in 1989. The Goddess stood for five days before the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army.

Equestrian statue of King Edward VII at Queen’s Park, Toronto, July 2020. Photo by Ernest Doroszuk, courtesy Toronto Sun

Also from 2018 is Lum’s consideration of a Canadian public monument that is not Canadian at all. “Tracking Colonialism from Delhi to Toronto: Edward VII in Queen’s Park” begins on a bench on the grounds of the Ontario provincial legislative building, in Toronto, with Lum looking at an equestrian statue of King Edward VII. What is it doing there? Edward has another statue, without a horse, in downtown Montreal, unveiled in 1914 with much fanfare and a large public attendance. The Queen’s Park statue was first installed in Delhi, India, in 1911, and in 1968 quietly removed from India and brought to Canada by private subscription and without public consultation. Lum writes, “While the statue may seem to be a benign part of a picture-perfect scene in Toronto’s most important historical part, it is vital to look in the shadows of this statue and think about all that lies beneath.”

Ken Lum, Cushion Dinghy, 1987
376 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver harbour, refused entry to Canada, 1914. Photo from Everything is Relevant

The essay concludes with the well-known photograph of Indian passengers aboard the Komagata Maru refused entry to Canada in 1914, the year of Edward’s installation in Delhi. On July 18, 2020, the Queen’s Park statue was among those vandalised by protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The pink paint sprayed on the monument can be removed, but the story Lum tells is to be continued.

Black Lives Matter, the movement that had not exploded in its current form even as recently as this book’s publication date, relates in a similar manner to another chapter. The connections Lum makes, the ironies, coincidences, paradoxes are endless and dizzying. He addresses injustice, colonialism, and ethnicity without overt anger, but with deep calm and determination. His 2012 lecture for the Banff Centre does not intend to talk about monuments. If we were not already sceptical of photographic journalism, his essay, “From Analog to Digital; A Consideration of Photographic Truth,” would clear our illusions. Even John Filo’s memorable image of the dead student at Kent State in 1970 turns out not to be what it seems.

But infinitely more shocking in this particular year is the revelation that a famous full-length photo portrait of Abraham Lincoln places Lincoln’s head on someone else’s body, presumably because a heroic presidential portrait was required after the assassination and there was none readily at hand. The head of the great emancipator is attached to the body of a former vice-president John C. Calhoun — yes, that John C. Calhoun — he whose monument was ignominiously removed this past June from its commanding post overlooking Charlestown, South Carolina. Lum does not refer to Calhoun’s advocacy of slavery; at the time of the lecture in 2012, even at the time of the book’s publication early this year, Calhoun’s politics did not seem relevant. But of course they are. Everything is relevant.

It also seems relevant that Ken Lum is a recipient of the Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award for 2020. I intended to end with that statement, but I kept hearing of other awards — Wikipedia lists at least a dozen — as well as commissions, appointments and something called “Arts service activities.” What strikes me about these awards is their focus on the visual arts; fair enough since Lum is known primarily as a visual artist and everything he does begins with his identity as artist. Yet, the writings in this book are on Art and Life, and engage with the most compelling issues of our time, without polemics or haranguing, sometimes with barely suppressed anger but always with compassion and often with humour. Lum turns chance meetings and conversations into storytelling and paints word-pictures more vivid than any of Zoom’s backdrops.

After describing a visit to Chandni Chowk, a seventeenth-century market considered by the people of Delhi “to be the soul of their city,” Lum has this to say about the relationship between art and life: “Nothing can take the place of what I experienced at Chandni Chowk, not even art. But what art can and should do is evoke Chandni Chowk.”

Chandni Chowk. Photo courtesy TSG Sunday Guardian (Delhi and Mumbai)

Finally, a word about the physical book. While nicely printed, with some fine illustrations, and without pretensions to being an “art book,” it has some problems. After two complete readings and much flippings back and forth (aided by the excellent index), my copy has become noticeably lopsided. It is a fat volume and rather clumsy, refusing to lie open — I don’t require “flat,” only “open” — so I have had to resort to paperweights and much interleafing. For a new book, it looks decidedly dog-eared. Since it is a book of “writings” and not a coffee-table style art book, that is probably okay – and maybe even relevant.


Phyllis Reeve

Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications, including the foreword to Charlotte Cameron’s play, October Ferries to Gabriola (Fictive Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community. More details than necessary may be found on her website. Editor’s note: for The Ormsby Review Phyllis Reeve has reviewed books by Susan McCaslin and J.S. Porter, Ian Hampton, Carys Cragg, Robert AmosJoe RosenblattEileen CurteisNaomi Wakan, among others.


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East Van Sunrise, photo by Kris Krüg. Photo courtesy Flickr

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