"What I was interested in originally was to somehow bring in elements that I saw, dominating elements in public streetscapes, to draw them in, collate them together, and transfer them into the gallery context."
Ken Lum uses combinations of photographic images and text, sculptural components, and ideas about language to produce art that addresses contemporary life. He is of Chinese ethnic origin and lives in Vancouver. In his art he considers the individual's place in society while investigating race and class distinctions. He often pairs an image with text in ways that he hopes will invite the viewer to ask questions about social issues and the visual world.
Lum turned to conceptual art after receiving his undergraduate degree in science. He drew a great deal as a child, but it was not until he took a course from Vancouver photo-conceptual artist Jeff Wall that the world of contemporary art, beyond traditional drawing and painting, opened up to him. He completed a Master of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia in 1985. He believes that his lack of early formal art training enabled him to be more receptive to the influences of other conceptual artists, such as Martha Rosler and Dan Graham. Lum asserts that, by the late twentieth century, concepts rather than the artist's technical skill were most important in creating a work of art. Like many artists of his generation, he uses mass-produced consumer materials, diminishing the boundary between "art" and "popular culture." Lum rarely fabricates his own art but works with studio photographers and tradespeople on his projects.
When much contemporary visual art about identity politics declared "I am this gender, sexual preference, or ethnicity," Lum instead put the onus on the viewer to define what these attributes might mean. In Untitled (Language Painting) (1987), one can only make visual sense of the strung-together letters XTBGO? and BDTSHG and ZZZ! Unable to decode the meaning of these emphatic messages, the viewer stands in the shoes of the immigrant who is overwhelmed by a language that is incomprehensible.
Amrita and Mrs. Sondhi (1986) is part of a series in which he combines logos and commercial studio portrait photography. The stylized globe can be interpreted as a comment on the distance the family has travelled to be in Canada. The logo and photograph combine to represent the family.
Come On, Get Up! (1991) also combines text with a colour photograph. The text "Come on, get up!" relates to his thinking about Andy Capp comics. It looks like the woman in the photograph is speaking these words to the man on the sidewalk. In addition to being simply a captioned image, Lum sees this work as an ironic commentary on the political climate of 1991, which was dominated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" politics.
In addition to the juxtaposition of text and photograph, Lum is also known for his furniture sculptures. The National Gallery's Trough (1986) consists of four small modular couch units. The arranged objects resemble minimalist sculpture in their simple forms. Lum argues that the connection between furniture and sculpture is natural, since each is an aesthetic unit occupying space.
Lum has exhibited extensively in Canada and internationally and represented Canada at the 1998 São Paulo Bienal. He currently teaches in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.