Plexig, powder-coated lacquer, aluminium, enamel paint.
Flexible letters, approx 198 x 199 cm
Grant Arnold: The subject in Question
Since he began exhibiting his art in the late 1970s, Vancouverbased artist Ken Lum has developed a complex body of work that includes performances in public spaces, sculptures produced from rented furniture, studio portrait photographs that merge with faux corporate logos, paintings of incomprehensible language, mazes made of mirrors inscribed with texts, and works that mimic the signage found in low-end strip malls. With each of these varied forms, Lum engages with the structures, systems and ordeals that shape our lived experience of the everyday world and position us as social subjects. His strategies often involve manipulating the mechanisms deployed to attract attention in consumer culture-by using an unexpectedly personal or political statement on a commercial business sign, for example -in order to articulate the anxieties and contradictions that mark those social spaces in which disparate traditions collide and mutate in a globalized world.
Lum consistently evokes the micro conditions-the gestures, utterances, tensions and often mundane exchanges-that mark the intersection of public and private space in everyday life. Often drawing upon established conventions of portraiture, his work locates the individuals he depicts as subjects whose desire for autonomy sits in tension with the conditions that shape their position as social subjects. While Lum's life experience as a Canadian of Chinese descent has informed his consideration of the way individuals are situated in contemporary culture and has played a significant role in his practice, his work does not simply declare "I am this ethnicity" but instead turns the question of what that means and what role it plays in forming identity back to the viewer.
Lum's work began to attract widespread attention in the 1980s. At that time he was closely associated with an influential group of artists-which included Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham-who have been central in positioning photography as an important field in contemporary art and have become known as "the Vancouver school" As Wallace has noted, these artists worked within a context "typical of those regional centres where the combination of a weak market and the presence of an informed artistic and academic community encourages sectarian groups and audiences, each more or less self-sufficient, but never totally self-enclosed." Within this environment they were drawn together by "a mutual attraction to avant-garde negativity, identifying with the history of its transgressions and its ciphers for a combative, antagonistic and sometimes even reclusive and melancholic response to the insufficiency of the world."1
Although the work of Lum, Graham, Wall and Wallace undeniably shares a bond with the critical traditions of modernism and the interrogation of the autonomy of the art object in conceptual art, the geographically based label applied to their work has sometimes obscured differences in their production.2 What makes Lum's work distinct is its orientation toward the everyday, its ironic humour and especially its use of forms, genres and motifs taken from popular culture to insistently occupy the ambiguous territory between art and non-art. Significantly, Lum's work within this territory, and his persistent challenges to the limits of good taste, place his artwork in a somewhat uneasy relationship to the grand tradition of Western art and the institutions (in the broadest sense of the term) through which that tradition has been constructed. As the artist and historian Robert Linsley once observed, Lum "continues an ancient and important tradition, one that is critical of the grand themes, important statements, and philosophical and political generalities found in the 'great' art of the museums. This tradition is not anti-art, but it is anti-establishment art, and it has always inhabited popular forms."3
From the book „Ken Lum" published for the exhibition of Ken Lum by the Vancouver Art Gallery, Grant Arnold is Curator at this Museum, ISBN 978 -1-55365-498-8
1 Ian Wallace in "Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace", (New York: 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporar Canadian Art, 1985)
2 See William Wood: "The Insufficiency of the World" in Interdial: Vancouver Art and Artist Antwerp and Vancouver: Mueseum van Hedendaagse Kunst, 2005)
3 Robert Linsey from the catalogue: "Ken Lum: Recent Works" (London: Camden Arts Centre, 1995