Unsettling the Viewer: the Art of Ken Lum
Ken Lum’s Trough is a pair of pale blue sofas pushed face to face. The arms and backs are of uniform height; their meeting encloses the plush seating in a perimeter of seamless, waist-high velour.
Lum made it in 1986, one of his furniture sculpture series, and in 1993 it was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. Without its title, it might just be an absurd formalist joke, but like almost any of Lum’s work in a breadth of media over almost 40 years, absurdity and language combine into a wry and knowing social scold. Trough is funny, but the implication — of drinking from the same well, of conformity at all costs — is one loaded with consumer critique.
Mass-produced furniture may have its merits, although it surely lacks individuality; uniqueness yields to sameness and becomes normality if everyone else is doing it. Injecting a bit of absurdity to bring forth the strange, the uncomfortable and the outright wrong has been Lum’s M.O. from the very beginning.
Best known for his unsettling photo-text diptychs, or "portrait logos", Lum has always poked at festering divisions that lie underneath the skin of polite Canadian society. Melly Shum HATES Her Job is one text, set next to the portrait of a smiling young Asian cubicle worker. In a goofy cowboy-style font, Mounties and Indians is another text, placed under a photo of a pair of RCMP officers posing stone-faced with a family of smiling Indigenous Canadians.
In each, the tension is thick: Melly, who is Asian, maybe steered into menial work as the subject of offhand discrimination faced by many people of colour (by popular demand, Melly Shum HATES Her Job is now a permanent installation in the wall at Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam). We don’t have to look too far into Canadian history to understand how uncomfortable Mounties and Indians should be for its subjects, and for us: From disproportionately-high incarceration rates for Indigenous people to the lead role the RCMP played in the forced removal of Indigenous children during the residential school period, Lum’s work bristles with unsettling disconnects. And yet we laugh, both in shock and disbelief, because sometimes laughing is all we can do. It’s funny – and awful – because it’s true.
Lum came into view in the 1980s in Vancouver, along with a cohort of artists working in photography who loosely became known as “The Vancouver School.” While artists like Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham would largely elide the political implications of their work, Lum collided with it head on. His diptychs were unflinching. They used the language of advertising — bright, saturated-colour photos with subjects in stagey, melodramatic poses — to lampoon blithe and arbitrary rifts created by race and class. Their acid wit made them penetrating, and popular. Gleefully experimental and formally promiscuous, Lum has carried through with those priorities with a career’s worth of work.
In the fall of 2018, I met Lum as he prepared for his International Dumpling Festival installation at Nuit Blanche in Toronto. For the work, Lum had enlisted dumpling makers from across the city’s vaunted ethnically-diverse communities (dumplings, Lum reasoned, were one of very few cross-cultural foods that most culinary traditions had in one form or another). On the night, an array of dumpling stands, from China to Africa to Poland and many others, set up next to the old City Hall building, each with a towering portrait of the dumpling-maker looming overtop (Lum maintains his fondness for portraiture). The effect was to damn in celebration: As Toronto's real estate continues to increase beyond reason or comprehension, that celebrated diversity withers more and more by the day. International Dumpling Festival, in that context, became almost a wake for the cosmopolitan city vanishing in front of our eyes.
With it, Lum honoured his priorities in yet another form — social practice, a real-life participatory scenario. His willingness to shift from one strategy to the next is the hallmark of his long career. He has explored ideas through a dizzying breadth of media. He moves easily from one to the next. Massive public installations like From Shangri-La to Shangri-La, in which he built shacks as homage to squatters evicted from Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet mud flats, timed to the city’s mass expansion of luxury condos. His Four Boats, installed on the roof of the Vancouver Art Gallery, includes a Haida longboat, Captain Vancouver’s ship, a freighter found to be smuggling illegal migrants and the infamous 1914 Komagata Maru (in which a boatload of Indian migrants were denied entry and forced to return home).
Lum's sculpture Trough seems less burdened, perhaps, by the social divisions that charge much of his work with their furious, uneasy energy. Yes and no. Trough is nothing if not aspirational: An exercise in marketing group-think that suggests luxury — or opulence, or aesthetic value — can be only one thing. With Trough, Lum re-casts it as an echo-chamber and a trap. His entire career has advocated for a breadth of difference as not only the reality of our social make-up, but its natural state. Of course Trough makes you laugh, because it’s funny – and because it’s true.
Click through for details of Ken Lum's works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. A collection of writing by Ken Lum, Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991–2018, is being published by Concordia University Press in January 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.