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On Monument Lab, 2018

Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project began five years ago as a conversation between Paul Farber and me. I had arrived in Philadelphia from Canada, and Paul had returned after completing his PhD in Michigan. We both had new positions at the University of Pennsylvania, where we taught classes on public space—he in urban studies and I in fine arts. During our first encounter, we discovered that we had been asking parallel diagnostic questions relating to the complex narratives of Philadelphia’s memorial landscape. We mused about organizing an exhibition for understanding the mechanisms of memorialization, particularly by questioning the status of the monument and how we might challenge a monument’s canonical character. We were also interested in issues of embodiment that are inherent to the discernible ambivalence that is part of any construction of symbolic unity: the negated or unacknowledged histories that have been evacuated from the monument and yet remain palp Read More.

The Figure in the Carpet, 2017

Catalog essay for the exhibition Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists, curated by Dr. Cornelia Lauf for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland. The Figure in the Carpet Ken Lum May 2016   The oldest hand-knotted carpet in existence is the Pazyryk Carpet. It was excavated from one of several burial tombs in the Altai Mountains of Siberia in 1949 along with mummified human bodies, a funerary chariot, decorated horses, wooden furniture, and Chinese silks. All of the objects were discovered frozen and remarkably intact in spite of the fact that they had been buried for more than 2300 years.[1] Evident from the array of objects excavated was the importance of the horse to the nomadic Pazyryk in their movement over large areas of the Eurasian Steppe during the Iron Age. The carpet itself features rows of horsemen and horses in the outer friezes. Their style is similar to that of the horsemen and horses represented in reliefs at Persepolis in present day Iran. But unlike th Read More.

Some Reflections on Urban Public Art Today, 2014

Today, iconic public artworks, both permanent and temporary, are defining visual elements of many urban landscapes—from the LOVE sculpture (1976) in Philadelphia to The Gatesinstallation (2005) in Central Park. This has not always been the case. While art in the broader sense has always possessed a public dimension due to its requirement of an audience, public art was not formalized as a category of discourse until the mid-nineteenth century. From its inception, public art has been regarded as an instrument for public “good.” Yet for as long as there has been public art, there has also been uncertainty about how to define that public “good” and how to identify the kind of art that manifests such “good.” Whose interest does public art serve? Is it enough for a public artwork to be intellectually interesting, aesthetically pleasing, or to add to the character of a city? Or, in assessing the value of public art, should we consider the public “good” in a broader conte Read More.

Canadian Identity Debates Are Broken. Let’s Fix Them, 2013

Since my last column entry, I have received two invitations to attend conferences in Canada dealing with the issue of “safeguarding” Canadian art and culture. One conference in Toronto had as its theme “What makes Canadian art Canadian?” while the other in Edmonton dealt with the question of “Who speaks for Canadian culture?” Both questions are vexing not because possible answers are elusive (and they are) but because of the presuppositions inherent in the questions. Both perpetuate a logic premised on the binaries of inclusion/exclusion and qualified/unqualified. Such logic reduces complex but legitimate debates about identity and nationality to the essential and fixed. Also problematic is the way that such logic expects deference to those authorized to speak. In his conclusion to the 1965 volume Literary History of Canada, Northrop Frye wrote about a Canadian imagination defined by a “garrison mentality.” He was referring specifically to a literature begotte Read More.

Past & Present, Art & Labour, 2012

It has been four months since my move to Philadelphia. I have been inundated with work at the University of Pennsylvania. Thankfully, the workload is becoming more manageable as my administrative role becomes more clearly defined. Punctuating my time on campus have been trips to St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago and New York for art-related projects. While in St. Louis, I was struck by the former grandeur of the city evident in its massive Union Station (now a Doubletree by Hilton), Forest Park (where the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 took place), and many neighbourhoods boasting opulent mansions built in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. St. Louis is also home to one of the most aesthetically beautiful public monuments in the United States: the Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen. The arch is located on the waterfront of the city and faces both the Mississippi River and the state of Illinois. Its ethereal beauty masks a fraught history that includes the r Read More.

Canada vs the USA, 2016

Earlier this summer, I co-curated a large public-art and urban research project titled Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia. The monthlong project took place in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s iconic city hall, where members of the public were invited to propose speculative monuments that they felt were needed at this point in time in the city. I encountered many Philadelphians who passionately described traumatic events that have marked this city and are hardly ever spoken about in more official channels. I met an elderly African American man who was unable to read or write but remembered in remarkable detail the MOVE bombing that occurred in West Philadelphia 30 years ago. Monument Lab showed me that it is possible to inaugurate many things in America (including an ambitious and even potentially contentious project that took up a good part of the public courtyard of City Hall). Yet the project also revealed how utterly impossible life is for so many here. It is t Read More.

Melly Shum Hates Her Job But Not the Witte de With, 2010

© Ken Lum 2010 I had the honour of being the inaugural exhibitor at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art when it opened its doors in 1990. The exhibition was a survey of my furniture sculptures, language paintings, and photo-text works. One of the latter works included was Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1989). Represented is a disheveled young woman sitting in her cramped office. Along with this photograph is text that echoes the title of the work. The vibrating “HATES” speaks of the frustration of Melly Shum even though the voice of the text is ambiguous. Before the opening of the Witte de With, the work was only ever shown indoors alongside other artworks. When I was asked whether I would agree to remake one of my photo-text works in billboard form so that it could be displayed in a street context for Rotterdam, I immediately thought of Melly Shum. After the work was taken down due to its weathered state something extraordinary happened: the Witte de With staff receive Read More.

To Say or Not To Say, 2010

Published in The Art Section magazine, New York, 2010 Twelve years ago, I visited an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris titled Face à l’Histoire [Confronting History]. The exhibition brought together art objects and archival documents that dealt with French history between the years 1933 and 1996. Themes focused on the French experience of the Second World War and the German occupation of France. Other themes included the events of the Algerian War of Independence as well as the Indochina Wars. The archival documents were displayed in long glass vitrines located along the central corridor that connected large galleries on either side where art was displayed. The vitrines formed the spine of the exhibition with photographs, street pamphlets, and posters anchoring history in an agonistic face-off against the historicity of art. The galleries contained major works by artists such as Salvador Dali and Gerhard Richter and were historiographic in nature. I experien Read More.

Dear Steven, 2009

Essay Published in: ART SCHOOL: PROPOSITIONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY, MIT Press, Ed. Steven Henry Madoff, October, 2009 © Ken Lum and MIT Press Dear Steven, I am sorry but I cannot seem to be able to get a proper handle on what I want to say. Much of this has to do with a kind of doubt that I have about the role of the art school in today’s world. This doubt has surfaced from time to time, but never with such persistence as of late. Two years ago, I resigned from a tenured teaching position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and this year I decided not to return to teach at Bard College in New York. I still enjoy teaching, but only in defined periods of time and if it allows me immersion in a new place. Writing this letter has been helpful in that it has forced me to reevaluate my relationship to both art and pedagogy. Despite my mixed feelings about the nature of many art schools today, I have found this exercise extremely useful in reminding me of why the tea Read More.

Encountering Chen Zhen: A Paris Portal, 2007

Published for the Vienna Kunsthalle in the posthumous retrospective catalog on the work of Chen Zhen, 2007 I first met Chen Zhen in 1995. I was living in Paris and teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While there I was introduced to a number of Chinese artists and curators who had immigrated to France. They included the artists Yang Jiechang, Huang Yongping, Yan Pei Ming, and the curator Hou Hanru. It was the latter who suggested that I contact another Chinese artist living in Paris: Chen Zhen. Hou said he was sure that we would get along. His intuition intrigued me. Apart from our Chinese heritage, what common ground could I possibly share with someone who had grown up an ocean away? I did not know much about Chen, except that he was one of many Chinese artists who had moved to Paris during the 1980s and chose to remain after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I was interested in learning more about him. This was at a time when I felt great disillusionment about art and gre Read More.

Gentle Indifference: The Art of Trevor Mahovsky and Rhonda Weppler, 2006

A slab of concrete sidewalk patched up with a dollop of unevenly applied asphalt. Flat-topped metal newspaper boxes that double as platforms for Starbucks coffee cups or Seven Eleven drink containers, until they are, inevitably, lost to the wind. The urban landscape is full of such combinations and assemblages—metastasisations that function intransitively to any actual object; their physical presence is understood and undermined not so much by their provisionality but by their makeshift character. As such, their presence is as much image-based as it is physical or sculptural. According to Walter Benjamin, absence and presence are articulated in a productive synthesis within the artistic dream-work1, however, the two examples cited here (and there are innumerably more) exist as combinations without feelings. Nor do they ever generate feelings, except as the perfunctory and homeostatic responses of human adjustment—opposed to that of adaptation. They are not so much objects to which Read More.

Keynote Speech for the opening of the 2006 Art Biennale of Sydney, 2006

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, IN DAKAR, SENEGAL, on the occasion of Dak’Art, the largest art biennial in West Africa, I was on Gorée Island, a short ferry ride from Dakar, a place developed during the 17th century as an administrative post for the embarkation of slaves destined for the Americas. For more than three centuries, European nations fought for control of Gorée’s lucrative trade in human beings. At the former fort and now museum known as Maison des Esclaves, or House of Slaves, a “door of no return” signals the threshold over which slaves would pass to begin their harrowing, often deadly transatlantic voyage, shackled to the low-ceilinged holds of wooden slave ships. The slaves were forced to lie on their backs, pressed up against one another in head-to-toe and toe-to-head formation. On display in the House of Slaves were various historical documents produced by colonial officials, including drawings that depict the organization of human cargo on the ships in stick-figure form. Read More.

Canadian Cultural Policy: A Metaphysical Problem, 2006

Published in: On Cultural Influence: Collected Papers from apexart International Conferences 1999-2006 Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris, published by apexart ISBN: 1-933347-11-2 paperback, 304 pages 27 bw illustrations Release date: October 2006 A quip from former Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King contends that too much geography rather than too little history afflict Canada. Add to this the racial and ethnic diversity of the Canadian population and the problem of how to forge and project Canadian culture becomes especially difficult. Also this is a problem rooted in paradox because the multi-cultural composition of Canada’s population was to a significant degree a consequence of its social engineering of culture that began in full force immediately after the Second World War and that developed in two principal stages. The first stage was marked by the establishment of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, better known Read More.

Art and Ethnology: A Relationship in Ironies, 2005

Essay commissioned and published in: Intruders: Reflections on Art and The Ethnological Museum, National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, The Netherlands, October 2005 ISBN-10: 904008968X ISBN-13 The train departs Linz for Vienna in fifty-four minutes and I am hungry. The only true restaurant in the Linz railway station is rather shabby looking; a quality that somehow lends itself to the cabinin- the-woods theme of its weathered, wood paneled interior. Once I have seated myself, I scan the assortment of display boxes that are distributed on the walls throughout the room. There is a vintage looking Joseph Cornell type box showing off various types of paraffin. On either side of this box, there are stuffed songbirds (presumably of the alpine forests) perched on tree boughs. There is another box displaying tresses of unrefined wool. The paraffin and wool displays remind me of the work and myth of Joseph Beuys. But the displays reference beyond the art museum to natural and social scienc Read More.

Aesthetic Education in Republican China: A Convergence of Ideals, 2004

In preparing for Shanghai Modern, the curators, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Zheng Shengtian and I, paid several visits to the West Lake city of Hangzhou, two and a half hours by train west of Shanghai. One of six capital cities in the long history of China, Hangzhou was the national capital during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 to 1279). Many of China’s most celebrated poets and writers, including Lin Bu, Bai Juyi and Su Shi, lived in and around the Hangzhou area. The beautiful West Lake (Xi Hu), upon which is poised the city of Hangzhou, is the source of many of China’s most cherished myths and fables. During the mid-Ming Dynasty (16th century), Literati traditions in literature and art flourished in Hangzhou. According to Christopher Reed, Hangzhou from the mid-Ming through the Qing Dynasty was the second most important centre in China for ‘elite publishing’ by Literati artists.1 The most important centre was Suzhou, a city two hours’ drive north in neighbouring Jiangsu Provin Read More.