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Revisiting China, 2019

The Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni accepted an invitation by Mao Zedong's government to visit China in 1972, during the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976). His assignment was to make a film documenting the achievements of Communist era China. Throughout his visit which included a trip by train from Hong Kong to Beijing, he was accompanied by Chinese minders. The result was Chung Kuo: Cina, a fascinating documentary in which Antonioni just let his camera roll. In Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt attributed the concept of wonder to a displayed object's power to "stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention." For Antonioni, China was that displayed object. At the time, China was closeted from the world and the country held a deep fascination for many in the West, particularly among intellectuals and artists. Antonioni was so enthralled Read More.

Eternal Glory to the People’s Heroes!, 2018

2019 marks an ignominious anniversary in China. Thirty years will have passed since the violent crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The events of 1989 continue to reverberate both in terms of China’s domestic politics and its relationship to the world. It is important to note that internal protests against the prevailing government has recurred numerous times throughout China’s history, going back to at least Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 200 BCE. The 1989 protests represent the latest mass challenge by Chinese citizens towards their own government. It was Chairman Mao Zedong himself who promoted the idea and necessity of a permanent cultural revolution to safeguard the purity of the Communist leadership as China’s sole legitimate rulers. His Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and Smash the Four Olds campaigns exhorted in 1956 - 59 and 1966 respectively, encouraged Chinese people to protest against authority and to even denounce official government policy, with th Read More.

Tracking Colonialism from Delhi to Toronto: The Edward VII Statue in Queen’s Park, 2017

It was a picture-perfect day as I sat down on a public bench in the centre of Queen’s Park in Toronto. There were children playing about me, people casually strolling, and sunshine breaking unevenly through the canopy of oak and maple trees. I was early for my presentation at the nearby University of Toronto, so I sat and took in a scene from Toronto’s most symbolically important park.[1]What I saw before me called up not just memories of previous park experiences but countless design renders, from city planning to landscape architectural presentations. Directly in front of me was a large equestrian statue cast in bronze. I did not think much about it until I noticed a plaque at the front jutting up awkwardly from the ground. Suddenly I was compelled to know more about this work. It turns out that the statue depicts Edward VII, who was the king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1901 until his death in 1910.[2]Dressed in military regalia, he sits with ease Read More.

The Figure in the Carpet, 2016

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 those relief 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.

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.

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.

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.

Visuality and Opticality in the Art of Tania Mouraud, 2004

Tania Mouraud (b. Paris, 1942) has consistently pursued the relationship between the body and opticality in her art. Her Borderland (2008) series comprises landscapes that have been photographed with a filter made out of the same transparent plastic that is used to bale hay. The result is an image of the landscape that is unevenly reflected in the plastic wrap. The landscape is, in effect, mutated by a material that is toxic. The reflection evokes in the viewer a desire to imagine a "natural" landscape in its place. As a result, the viewer experiences a reverberation between sensations of the body and the fomentations of the mind. Looking, filtering, distortion, and looking again together form a recurring strategy in Mouraud's work. This relationship between the body and the mind is but one of the many dualities explored by this artist. Others include the human and the animal in Roaming (2008), the public and private in How Can You Sleep (2005), and night and day in Entrer da 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 (Xi Hu) 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, around which is poised the city of Hangzhou, is the source of many of China’s most cherished myths and fables. During the middle of the 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 Ji Read More.

Canadian Cultural Policy: A Metaphysical Problem, 1999

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 as the M Read More.

Review of DAK’ART 98 published in NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, 1998

There are no necessary links between the cosmopolitanism of Western art discourse and the practical participation of non-Western art epistemologies. This is not because the worldly aspirations of Western art discourse represents little more than empty rhetoric but because its language was never meant to be aimed beyond the imagination of the Western ego. Much has been written criticizing Modern Art’s Primitivist impulses and the appropriation of African objects and motifs by artists such as Picasso for their own use, but  it was a valid and authentic step within the egocentric development of Western art’s conception of itself in the world. In Claude Lévi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth”(1955), Chthonian beings—emanating as they do from the netherworld beneath the terra (i.e. creatures from the earth)—are monsters that have to be destroyed because of their differences from the Western cosmology. In the story of Oedipus, these creatures are a met Read More.

The Ambivalent Gaze of Thomas Ruff, 1998

Published in the National Post, 20 November 1998 During the politically traumatic yet economically prospering period of the 1920s, a debate ensued in Germany about the role art should play in social affairs. The debate was only in part about the potential of art for political agency. It was mostly about defining the correct proximity of art to reality. As an aesthetic counterpoint to the angst of Expressionism, and its preoccupation with the individual’s responses to modern life, New Objectivity artists such as Otto Dix and August Sander proposed an art based on relative truths. This debate carried a particular poignancy in the aftermath of Germany’s armistice in 1918. As it turned out, the 1920s were also for Germany an antebellum society to an infinitely more terrible inferno. The almost operatic teeter-totter between reason and sensibility, sobriety, and national self-absorption continues to be the central dialectic of German art. During the 1980s, at the height o Read More.