Ken Lum is drinking green tea at a hipster coffee shop that used to be the corner store where he would buy candy on his way home from school. The Governor-General’s Award-winning visual artist is back decades later, this time as a visitor. He’s travelled to Vancouver from Philadelphia, where he is Chair of Fine Arts and Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. He has returned home, if that’s what this still is, to install a new public artwork and also to launch his book, Everything Is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life 1991-2018.
"It feels like the closing of a circle in a funny way; it feels slightly valedictorian to be here,” Lum says, frequently looking out the window of the café. “My elementary school is up the street, this used to be Henry’s Grocery Store. I mentioned that to a friend last night. He said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t say circle; maybe you should say spiral.’ I like that.”
Lum, 63, was born in Vancouver to Chinese immigrants; his mother spoke almost no English and spent long hours working in a factory. His personal story, told in the preface to this book and further revealed in some of the essays throughout, illuminates the importance of intersections in life – whom you cross paths with, and the damage they can do, or the lift they can provide.
When Lum was a boy, a neighbour (who happened to be a cousin of pianist Glenn Gould) looked after Ken and his brother and gave them after-school lessons, Lipton soup and long hugs; Lum’s grades went from C’s to A’s.
He loved to draw, but in high school was severely criticized by his art teacher, who told Lum not to continue with art – an elective course that would have required that teacher’s approval. He took woodworking instead.
Lum studied math and science at Simon Fraser University and, after his third year, landed a job in a lab working on pesticide research. One day his boss took him aside and told him that if he continued to work hard and study for his PhD, down the road, the lab could be his.
“One thing about fate, it’s always clarifying,” Lum says during our discussion. “So when Dr. Costello put his arm around me and said, ‘This lab’s going to be yours,’ I remember … rather than being happy, I thought: I need to get out of this.”
He enrolled in a night class in art at SFU – taught by Jeff Wall, now one of the world’s most celebrated photographers. It wasn’t until Lum’s final year of undergrad that he visited the Vancouver Art Gallery – his first art gallery visit, period.
“I immediately knew I was hungry to find out more about art,” he says. He became a regular visitor to the VAG’s library and met a woman in her 70s, Marianna Schmidt, a retired lab technician who had pursued a career in art later in life.
“She told me that she had always wanted to be an artist but circumstances did not allow for it until her retirement,” Lum writes in his book. “I identified with her. She told me that I had no choice but to make the full leap into art.”
Lum has been exhibiting work for about 40 years now, including at major shows such as Documenta, the Venice Biennale, the Shanghai Biennale and the Sao Paulo Bienal. He has had solo exhibitions around the world, including a major retrospective at the VAG in 2011. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pew Fellowship, a Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award and was named to the Order of Canada in 2017. This year alone he has won a Governor-General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and was named the winner of the Gershon Iskowitz Prize by the Iskowitz Foundation and the Art Gallery of Ontario – where he will have a solo exhibition as a result.
In Vancouver, he is probably best known for his public artwork, Monument for East Vancouver, which everyone calls the East Van Cross. It lights up in the evening, a beacon for weary SkyTrain riders heading east from downtown, or car commuters waiting to turn at the steep hill it sits atop.
People bring this work up with him “incessantly,” Lum says. “I never anticipated the response it has had.” He says the work asks some difficult, if implicit, questions. “What sort of city do we want to be? … What does it mean, this divided city? Not necessarily east and west, but between those who are property owners and those [who] aren’t; those who have to catch the bus and those who don’t have to catch the bus. That’s the question of divides.”
We both note, as we approach the just-lit monument on a rainy Friday afternoon, that it could do with a good cleaning.
But the East Van Cross is facing bigger problems. A 10-storey office building is to be built right next to it, which will limit some views. The city is considering moving the monument to one of the other sites that were initially considered, but feedback so far seems to favour keeping it in place, even if some views are affected.
“For us in the public art program, we don’t play favourites, all our children are our favourite children,” says Eric Fredericksen, head of public art at the City of Vancouver. “But we know it’s an incredibly important piece."
Writing has always been an integral part of Lum’s practice – and that goes far beyond his photo-text works, such as his celebrated billboard work Melly Shum Hates Her Job and Don’t Be Silly, You’re Not Ugly.
“When you write, you have a different imagining of the world. And when you conceptualize something as art, it’s a different imagining again. And so I like having as many different imaginings of the world as possible,” he says. “And some of the text, I wrote at those junctures in my life where I really had some doubts about wanting to be an artist. And so I wrote.”
Among his endless accomplishments is being the co-founder and founding editor of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, the first English-language journal dedicated to contemporary Asian art and culture. Everything Is Relevant includes examples of Lum’s critical writing, text-based projects, curatorial statements, travel-journal-type writing, personal essays and more.
“Lum’s voice is very much that of an intellectual artist informed by a generous curiosity and a finely honed intelligence, buoyed up by a good education and life experience,” Kitty Scott, deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada, writes in the book’s introduction.
In Lum’s essay Living in America, he writes that he feels “a deepening appreciation for Canada the longer I am here.” There are obvious reasons for that – Donald Trump – but others, too. Nonetheless, he says he doubts he will live in Vancouver again, and is happy in his new home. “I’ve made a life for myself in Philadelphia and I like it there, actually,” he says.
In Philadelphia, he owns a roomy house where he lives with his wife and two children in the stately suburban Main Line neighbourhood – the kind of home that would be out of reach for him in Vancouver, where housing prices remain astronomical. He loves his job, is inspired by the students. Proximity to New York is a bonus. On a recent Saturday a couple of days after his son turned 9, the boy said he wanted, for his birthday, to see Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. An hour later, the family were on the train to New York, headed to the Museum of Modern Art.
There is also enthusiasm – and money – for his projects. And a supersized American amplification of the ideas that are so important to him.
The Monument Lab project, which Lum co-founded with his university colleague Paul Farber in Philadelphia, has consumed a lot of time, energy and thought over the past few years and is mentioned in a number of essays in Lum’s new book. The continuing project re-examines public monuments and spaces (and the people they’re named for), and re-imagines how those monuments could better reflect the population.
The project continues to expand – spreading to new cities with new developments and ideas – but, like so much of Lum’s work, its roots can be traced to East Vancouver. As a boy, he attended Admiral Seymour Elementary School, which had a large Chinese-Canadian population.
“It’s one of those funny things,” Lum told The Globe in an earlier interview. “I was a Cantonese kid studying there; I was proud of being at Admiral Seymour. After I grew up, I went, ‘Oh, gee, I wonder who Admiral Seymour was.’”
When he learned that Sir Edward Hobart Seymour participated in the deadly 1857 Siege of Canton (now Guangzhou) during the Second Opium War, Lum was horrified that Cantonese children were attending a school named for him.
“I wrote to City Hall immediately,” he says. Nobody responded. To this day, the school still bears the name.
His new public artwork The Retired Draught Horse and the Last Pulled Log, is installed in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver, at a busy intersection. In front of a large building, facing traffic next to a water feature, a large bronze horse is seated – which upends you, because horses don’t sit. A few steps away, a log, the last that horse would have pulled, also rests, its chain still attached.
Looking at it after reading Lum’s book, it’s hard not to think of it as a response to the grand statues that feature victorious soldiers or royals on horses, such as the monument Lum writes about in his essay Tracking Colonialism from Delhi to Toronto: Edward VII in Queen’s Park.
Lum is considering becoming a U.S. citizen – but remains ambivalent. He can’t vote in Canada any more, but he keeps an eye on events here and voiced support for the Wet’suwet’en solidarity rail blockades, which, during our visit, were still going strong, ahead of a tentative deal being reached.
“I actually think on the most fundamental level, they’re absolutely right, because fundamentally the bottom line is about future stewardship of the country. I’m talking about stewardship during a moment when global temperatures continue to rise and threaten our continuation as a species. And First Nations have always recognized that we are not apart from nature, we’re part of nature. And it’s our abuse of the land that is the real problem.”
Before heading to his book launch – sold out – Lum tells me about some of the responses he’s had to the book, some of which he describes as quite florid.
“They say, ‘It’s changed my life,'” he says. “The real touching ones are the ones that say, ‘Oh, I grew up poor, too. And I’m not as articulate as you, so I appreciate this.’”
Ken Lum and Paul Farber will discuss Monument Lab at SFU’s Dialogues on Art and Publics Speaker Series on April 24 in collaboration with the City of Vancouver Public Art Program.
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