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Ken Lum's monument to East Vancouver is a 57-foot-high LED sculpture bearing the words East Van.

Now that the Olympic hoopla is done and the throngs have gone home, the question is: What will be the lasting legacy for Vancouver?

In the realm of the visual arts, there will be the memory of the art scene coming together in a spectacular display of talent and shared purpose, with every gallery in town pulling out all the stops on exhibitions that defined a sense of place. (Many of them will remain on view in the coming months.)

But one work is the clear mascot of the moment: Ken Lum's Monument for East Vancouver - a 57-foot, LED sculpture bearing the words East (running up and down) and Van (running left to right), with the letters arranged in a cruciform. Perched atop a rise overlooking the city from the east, the tougher side of town, it's public art that the public actually likes.

"Every time I drive by, there are people just hanging around," say Lum of the site, at the corner of Clark Drive and East 6th Avenue. "The other day there was a story in The Georgia Straight about a musician, and he was photographed with the sign. He must have chosen the location."

Almost immediately, it has become a defining permanent fixture of the cityscape.

One of the city's leading artists, Lum had been thinking about making this piece for many years. The East Van cross has long been a familiar graffiti image in the area, often chalked or spray painted with the word "rules" inscribed beneath, like a rallying cry. When Olympic funds became available and public art calls went out from the city, he jumped at the chance to turn it into a sculpture.

"Nietzsche says there are three kinds of history," Lum says: monumental history (aggrandizing a people or historical moment), antiquarian history (the obsessive validation of facts) and critical history (interpreting the past in order to engage with the present). Lum's Monument for East Vancouver arises, he says, from this latter approach, identifying an issue in the sociopolitical present and activating critical thinking.

"It had a kind of double entendre attached to it," he says of the "East Van rules" slogan. "On the one hand, it seems defiant - like, 'You play by our rules when you come to East Van.' But in fact, it's the west side that really rules, in terms of power and money and influence."

Lum, who is now 53, has taught art and cultural theory at the University of British Columbia and Bard College in New York, travelling the world fulfilling the demand for his largely photo- and text-based art, but he grew up in the neighbourhood.

"I think I'm the only person I know who was born at Mount Saint Joseph's, that's my curse," he says wryly, referring to the largest hospital on the east side. Everyone was from somewhere else: China (like his family), but also Italy, Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

"My grandfather came to Canada around 1908. He was one of the last of the coolies, working for the CPR and then building the second Hotel Vancouver," which burned down before the current building was erected. His father was itinerant, working in a variety of low-paid restaurant jobs, while his mother worked at Keefer Laundry in Chinatown.

Romanticizing this hardship, though, is the last thing Lum wants to do. "I really hate it when people describe this piece as promoting East Van pride," he says. "I would have preferred to grow up on the [more affluent]west side, in a well-salaried double-income family."

Instead, he grew up doing every kind of job he could find - from strawberry picking in the Fraser Valley to selling Christmas cards, working in a herring packing plant, keeping a paper route (or two, simultaneously) and working as an apprentice sign painter in a shop in Chinatown, an experience that would inform his work as an artist years later.

Like many Canadians of immigrant families, his childhood experience involved immersion in Judeo-Christian culture and its symbols. He notes how left-wing critics have been quick to decry the notion that the works has religious implications, but, as Lum says, "it's a crucifix, that's what it is" -- a highly charged symbol. "Christ suffered on the cross. East Van suffers on the cross. The point is: Someone is suffering. And immigrants suffer more than most."

Lum's mother was Buddhist and his father had no clearly defined faith, but Lum can still recall the day some Baptist parents from the neighbourhood came to the house and talked to his mother, recruiting him and his brother for Sunday school.

"On the one hand, there was part of the experience that was difficult," he remembers. "It seemed like everyone there but me was white," and he can recall being scolded by the Sunday school teachers from time to time, distressing for the already fragile, sickly boy. "On the other hand, though, it gave me the chance to go to Bible camp. I got to roast marshmallows and have wieners and beans, and be out in nature. I felt like I was really entering Canadian life. Also, up until then, I had only played with the Chinese kids, so I didn't know any English." Christianity was thus emblematic of both alienation and a kind of hope and promise. As it would turn out, religion dropped away as his life went on, but in that moment, it was transformational.

Drive by his cross at night and the letters reassemble themselves in the mind in a fleeting double take: Is it East Van or Evangelist that we see glowing against the night sky?

"I liked that people might experience that momentary misrecognition," Lum says. It's complex, like the city itself. "People say Vancouver is such a beautiful place, and obviously that's true. But I have always thought Vancouver is very complicated. There's a lot of layers to it."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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