Ken Lum. Courtesy the artist.
With an illustrious career spanning over 40 years, Canadian artist Ken Lum's first solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Death and Furniture (25 June–2 January 2023), brings together image and text, sculpture, and installations that probe the contours of everyday experience.
The recipient of AGO's 2019 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, Lum is particularly known for biting and satirical image-and-text works that challenge viewers to grapple with what is seen and unseen, while wryly surfacing political and economic impositions that shape the human condition.
Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1989), for instance, is a billboard showing the work's title printed in bold typeface alongside a young woman at her desk.
Melly Shum Hates Her Job is a permanent fixture on the facade of the contemporary art centre formerly known as Witte de With in Rotterdam, where Lum's solo exhibition marked the institution's inaugural show in 1990.
The work was installed as billboards at various locations throughout the city, and when the exhibition ended these billboards were taken down, only for the one at Witte de With to be re-installed due to its popularity with the public. Speaking to the work's place within the fabric of Rotterdam, it was announced in 2020 that Witte de With would hence be known as Kunstinstituut Melly.
The interplay between image and text is on full view in Death and Furniture, which travelled to Toronto from Remai Modern in Saskatoon, where it was curated by Michelle Jacques and Johan Lundh. At Art Gallery of Ontario, it has been curated by Xiaoyu Weng, Carol and Morton Rapp Curator of the Gallery's Modern and Contemporary Art department.
The exhibition includes Lum's 'Time. And Again.' series (2021): photographic portraits of people on the street shown alongside their testimonies printed in bold text, which take the pandemic as a jumping-off point to investigate the vagaries and hardships of modern-day work life.
'I'm interested in the textuality of images,' and 'the pictorialism of text', Lum says. But it's not just about how the font looks; it's about the pictures the language produces and engenders in viewers.
Four large-scale text works rendered in oil, on wood panel, with French text comprise the series 'Four French Deaths in Western Canada' (2002), which reflects Lum's interest in exploring pathways to imagining lives lived.
Death and Furniture also includes Lum's famed 'Furniture Sculptures' series (1978–ongoing), comprised of commercial sofas turned into minimalist works that upend and transform the utilitarian function of furniture, causing viewers to reckon with narrow perceptions of their surroundings.
Likewise, the 'Photo-Mirrors' series (1997) wedges found photographs into the corners of framed mirrors, inviting viewers to become part of the work's composition and reflect—both literally and metaphorically—on what it means to live in relation with others.
Born and raised in a Chinese working-class family in Vancouver, Canada, Lum's roots have formed a worldview that makes him somewhat hesitant about the art world's excesses, having lost his mother at an early age due to her exposure to toxins while working under harsh sweatshop conditions.
Lum uses these experiences to mine the purpose and meaning of objects marking his family history. In Untitled Furniture Sculpture (1978–ongoing), a pink velvet sofa is inspired by those considered luxurious in Lum's childhood—the kind his mother would have both liked and protected from actual use.
Lum has contemplated death throughout his practice. In his 'Necrology' series (2016–ongoing), represented here by five works including Life as a Keypunch Operator (2017) and A Recounting of the Events and Experiences in the Life of Yasir Khorshed (2017), sensational obituaries are derived from amalgams of real and fictional lives.
These obituaries are re-composed and designed using 18th and 19th-century fonts inspired by The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper's front-page reprint announcing U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
Now living in Philadelphia, where he is the chair of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania's Stuart Weitzman School of Design, Lum discusses the many roles he holds in this interview, and there are many to reflect on.
Besides being an artist, writer, academic, and university administrator, Lum co-founded the influential Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and also co-founded Monument Lab, a non-profit public art and history studio involved in recent discussions surrounding the removal of colonial statues.
NPYour exhibition Death and Furniture at the Art Gallery of Ontario brings together works spanning the last 40 years. What parts of your practice does the presentation focus on?
KLThe furniture works date back 40 years, to the 1970s, and the very start of my interest in art. The image-and-text works go back about 35 years. While I work in series, all the works are relatively new.
The relationship between image and text is endlessly rich, and both text and picture systems are fundamental to human communications. Furniture is also fundamental to social existence. Thus, I am always able to generate new works from the many series that intertwine in my overall practice.
NPDo your ideas in the series change drastically, or are you homing in on a consistent set of ideas?
KLMy ideas within a series do change. It wasn't obvious at first, but I was able to see their sources more clearly over time. They had a lot to do with lived observations mixed with memories, including books I have read or movies I have seen.
I am interested in subject formation, or how an individual is conceived and produced as a subject; in community formation, and the difference and subjugation of difference by normativity. I am also interested in the relationship between form and content.
There are always new forms in the world and new ways of imagining, much of it encoded for an oppressively market-oriented world. Image and text are a huge system of representation today, especially with the internet and the role of graphics that dominate websites.
It's like a horizon line of possibilities. And, of course, when you're making each iteration, there's always a new context. As time passes, there are always new viewing circumstances that emerge and have bearing over the reading of the works.
NPIn your recent series, 'Time. And Again.', you present images of people of various identities accompanied by text. In one image, we see a Black woman who is in a park and there is a child on a swing.
The text reads, in part: 'They have no idea how much I work.' Could you unpack 'they' in those statements? Is it an entry into considerations around race, class, and power?
KLForty years ago, I was making a lot of work depicting people of different races and ages. I did quite a few image-and-text works with very young children, the elderly, and nearly completed a work involving a person in a wheelchair.
When I did that in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was often accused of being Disney-esque. It was crazy; the works didn't look anything like Disney. Plus, such accusations only undergirded the idea of whiteness as neutrality.
Back then, to try to express a fact of the world—one that is multicultural and multiracial, was considered Disney-esque, while to depict white subjects only was to be neutral. And it's still largely this way.
Invariably white curators then basically suggested that I wait my turn, or follow the exemplars of leading artists of the time. Well-known curators would come to my studio and say, 'Oh, I didn't know you were Asian.'
I'd say, does that make a difference? They would say, 'Of course not.' But later, as the conversation developed, there would be comments like, 'Of course you're interested in that—you're Asian.' Or the converse, if I'm veering into territory that is not—in their eyes—the purview of 'non-Asian', they would say, 'Well, you should be doing this; you're Asian.'
I used to get a lot of shit like that; it was not easy, and it's kind of an unspoken part of history. There are lots of artists of colour with very similar stories. I just happen to be lucky enough to have built a career despite the reasons just mentioned—for which many good artists of colour resigned from the art world.
NPImages like the one I just mentioned run through different possibilities of interpretation as people look at this woman and try to cast her as a particular trope or summarise her life. It seems to me they could represent a whole number of onlookers.
KLThe meaning behind the images is not specific, or not specified, and it's partly imagined, too. It could also be a part of the woman's own imagination.
I'm really interested in speaking truth to power in terms of social differentiation, which is always seen as, 'You're just being political, you don't need to,' or, 'Why are you being like that? We're human beings. We're all equal.'
NPText, which you use a lot, is always under pressure to be minimised or reduced in the digital age. How has technology affected how you think about the use of text, such as abbreviations and shortening?
I'm thinking of your works that take up flowery, antiquated language. There doesn't seem to be much patience for that kind of text these days.
KLI'm interested not just in the relationship between text and image, but the textuality of images, and the pictorialism of text. This isn't only the way the font looks, which I'm playing with as well, but the kind of pictures the language composition produces and engenders in viewers.
I was not only interested in paying homage to language, or the kind that doesn't exist anymore, because the works pay tribute to frontispieces and forms of description from the 18th and 19th centuries, too, as you've picked up.
With the passing of such a way of speaking is the demise of a way to conceive of time and space, as well. Language forms us, so if the language of a certain form or style disappears, that way of imagining disappears, too.
NPIn your 'Necrology' series, it seems you're bringing old ways of speaking and writing into contact with contemporary happenings or incidents. It's jarring to be reading in this style something that could have happened last week.
KLWhen I started in art, I really believed that art should be something you just kind of get—that the artwork interpolates viewers, and that's it. But now I'm interested in the idea of duration, and text that is so compelling that it beholds viewers.
I like the idea that viewers take pleasure in the play of the text, in the kerning, and the illogic of the ordering. There are all kinds of rules in terms of good and bad design from today's perspective, in terms of spacing, and so on.
It's a paradox because these are scenarios of today, but I could read in any newspaper that a young woman was imprisoned by some authoritarian government and died. I wanted to really bring the figures to life and sustain viewers over time. I am telling viewers—I am demanding—that they spend time reading this.
I'm interested in the idea of duration, and text that is so compelling that it beholds viewers.
NPThere seems to be a concern for the quotidian in your work; whether it's people who live or die, furniture we take for granted, or thoughts about our work lives.
KLThat's a fair observation, but I don't do it to fetishise the everyday. This whole concept of the everyday man and woman is taken to an extreme today—certainly by politicians, but not just them.
I'm interested in the everyday because it's oppressive for a lot of people. For most, it's a slog: getting to work; missing the bus when it's full, and you can't get on—you must wait another ten minutes; or not having enough time in the day to spend with your children or to make ends meet, even when you're working three part-time jobs.
I think there is a huge disconnect in the art world on the experiential level, despite the art world's propensity to want to speak about subjects to do with race and class.
I grew up with a single mom, who died too soon from poisoning while working in a sweatshop. It's very real to me and I've always been fascinated by the concept of the real. I took some philosophy in university and came across the notion from Derrida and Lacan. The 'real' as a kind of immersive soup that is out there, and yet language can't totally grasp it because it eludes language.
There are so many things that are inexpressible; we can only approximate. It's only in those moments, when someone's truly wailing, totally broken, or in absolute ecstasy and pleasure that you start to see tangents to the real. That's what I'm interested in.
Going back to theology, I like that kind of deferral, even when it's temporal—this deferral of recognition from readers—is this a work of art or is this real? I'm interested in that illusion and divide, as well.
NPYou touched on your family, and I read an essay of yours in which you tell this very moving story where your grandmother attends one of your shows unexpectedly.
You mentioned the very disorienting feeling of two worlds colliding: here you were as a practicing artist and there's your working-class grandmother coming into that kind of space.
You've also discussed your working-class roots and you have mentioned your mother. How have you managed the tensions between the art world and your origins? How has that tension influenced the work?
KLI mentioned my early biography, not to be confessional, but because people always ask me where it comes from. And I've always believed in saying, well, that's where it comes from. I don't try to couch it.
Often enough, when everyone asks you the same question, a narrative starts to form. That's the capture of language that functions for artists, right? But I don't beat my chest and say: 'I come from the working class.'
I did a very popular public art piece in Vancouver called Monument to East Vancouver (2010), and it's iconic there. People, including writers, would come up to me and say, 'You're expressing your pride in coming from the working class.' And I'd say, that's not what it's about. I would rather have lived in the richer parts of the town [laughs].
People feel better saying, 'Well, you struggled in the beginning. Now you're expressing pride. It's made you who you are.' It's made me who I am, but that doesn't mean I'd prefer growing up that way over living near the University of British Columbia (UBC). I try to keep it real.
A decade ago, I co-founded the think tank Monument Lab with a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania. We were finding ways to evaluate and talk about the monumental landscape, the unevenness of who gets heard, who gets represented, and who isn't even in the conversation; a lot of the First Nations, for instance. It's kind of a big thing now, I'm proud to say. We get all kinds of projects.
At the tail end of the 1990s, I also co-started the Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, worked on several curatorial projects, including historical shows like Shanghai Modern: 1919 – 1949 in 2005, wrote a lot, and published a book. I do all that not as an extension of my art, but to save myself from solely being an artist in the art world.
NPYour work spans art, teaching, scholarship, and academic administration—it's pretty remarkable, all these distinct roles. You say it's a way to keep you grounded and not entirely taken up by the art world.
KLI've always felt some degree of discomfort, rightly or wrongly, being in the art world because it's not my background. I've met lots of artists, and some of them are my close friends, and they say, 'Ever since I was a little kid, I've wanted to be an artist.'
How is that possible? I knew nothing as a kid. I was drawn naturally to art too, but my idea of an artist was someone who could draw a horse. And you'd just be a graphic artist. I never imagined an artist in an art world context, with galleries, and so on. I imagined it in the most practical terms: applied arts. That was the extent of it. Everything else that went beyond was foreclosed to my imagination.
NPYou mentioned the word iconic. Almost everything I've read about you online is connected to your Melly Shum Hates Her Job image, which dates to 1989, and has been repurposed by different groups and brought into different causes.
What's your view on how the internet has enabled a remixing and hacking of that particular work?
KLWell, it's something beyond my control. But I've also been referred to as one of the early meme founders. These were the years before the meme. It felt like I tapped into something other people appreciated and recognised, so I feel good about that.
In the case of Melly Shum, it was a response I couldn't have anticipated from non-art audiences. The number of people who hate their jobs or are dissatisfied is vast and they identify with that. It feels like that work entered a truly public realm, whereby I could no longer take ownership; somehow it belongs to the public.
I've also been referred to as one of the early meme founders. These were the years before the meme.
NPThen in 2020, the Witte de With in Rotterdam changed its name to Kunstinstituut Melly.
KLI was not involved in the renaming; it was a total surprise. The process took over two years I think, and then they emailed me saying, overwhelmingly, people wanted the Center to be named after Melly.
NPYou are now based in Philadelphia. How has that move shaped your practice?
KLWell, it's not just moving to Philadelphia, but the United States, the most powerful empire today. One that may be declining, with all the good and bad of being an empire.
I've always been interested in political questions and have never been shy about detaching art from politics. Monument Lab, which I previously mentioned, would not have been possible in Canada. I started it in Philadelphia and the good thing about America, despite all the bad things, is that if you have an idea and present it to people who have the power to support it, they're very receptive and fast.
NPYou have talked about the pressure to produce that comes with that kind of environment. It sounds like you're constantly navigating that.
KLI've never worked as hard as I have at the University of Pennsylvania, which is one of the Ivy League universities. What does it mean to be working at an Ivy League? You're near power. I sat next to then-Vice President Joe Biden on campus, for instance. It's a wholly different level.
On the other hand, I kept getting job offers from the United States after I left the University of British Columbia. I didn't get any offers from Canada and needed an income to survive. People asked me why I moved down there. To take a job, I say.
They say, 'You could stay in Canada.' Some even suggested that I was turning my back on Canada by taking a prestigious position in Philadelphia. Or that Canada formed me, and I show my gratitude by taking a position in the United States.
The fact was that after I left UBC, I received multiple queries from American institutions, including another Ivy League institution, but nothing from Canada. I applied for positions in Toronto and Montreal, but didn't even make the shortlist. I'm not telling you this to gripe, just to say something about the way Canada often imagines the motivations of people of colour, which aggravates me.
NPI marvel at how you move between art and university administration work, which is so often about budgets and enrolments.
KLI'm getting to the point where I can't do all that anymore. I used to be almost proud that I had a million things to do. But I think back and realise it's very stupid. You must smell the coffee in the morning, you know? —[O]