For four days in 1978, morning commuters into Vancouver’s city centre encountered a young Ken Lum standing like a sentry at the side of the road. On the fifth day of this performance (which was titled Entertainment for Surrey, 1978), Lum replaced his inert body with a cut-out. Thirty-two years later the Canadian artist made Monument for East Vancouver (2010), in which the so-called East Van Cross – a kind of pseudo gang sign for the East Side of Vancouver – is rendered as a massive neon crucifix that looms over the city. As part of this retrospective these works are presented in video and photograph format, respectively, bracketing Lum’s output while accenting one of its dominant themes: the articulation of individuality within socially and economically coded urban spaces. While the ‘Shopkeeper Sign Series’ (2000–9) – in which personal and political expressions insidiously inhabit slickly produced versions of commercial signage – are exemplary of that subject, other works send quiet reverberations through the structure of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The exhibition’s curator, Grant Arnold, argues that Ollner Family (1986) – a work from the ‘Family Logo Series’ of the mid 1980s, which features a Caucasian man and Asian woman with their child, alongside a ‘corporate’ logo bearing the family’s European last name – brings the re-inscription of patriarchal structures to bear on the optimism rightly inspired by increased acceptance of mixed-race unions. Inflected by Lum’s project, the small metal signs that identify rooms throughout the gallery appear as peripheral information structurally analogous to public signage. One such plaque identifies the Mr and Mrs Gordon T. Southam Gallery. Arnold’s compelling argument throws into relief the fact that Mrs Southam’s identity has been similarly subsumed into that of her husband, whose first name stands for both of them.
The mirror maze that features in 12 Signs of Depression (2002–11) surrounds viewers with a dizzying field of optical doppelgängers and leads them to ask ‘how do I get out of here?!’ – or perhaps to say – ‘I look great!’ or ‘I don’t look so great...’ These sentiments are both encouraged and exacerbated by the 12 telltale symptoms of depression, which are etched into the mirrors at eye level. Situated in the downtown core of Canada’s nascent city of glass, the constantly multiplying reflections, and the anxiety generated by them generate metaphorical and experiential relationships between the installation, the city, and people who inhabit both.
In Phew, I’m tired (1994), a man of ambiguous ethnic descent pauses from his work in an industrial factory. To the right of this image, the words ‘…phew… …I’m tired… …Oh, man… …man… …phew… …tired’ appear in blue-grey text over an orange ground. These words read as inner monologue, and resonate with the thought processes generated by 12 Signs…; empathy is established between viewer and subject, with the bridge that facilitates this connection taking the form of the retrospective exhibition format, which implicitly generates self-referential relationships.
Curator Kitty Scott has linked Lum with a realist tradition that sought to correct the under-representation of certain social and economic classes. If we take that argument seriously – and I think we should – we’ll eventually find ourselves asking important questions about the function of Lum’s project within the de facto private space of the Vancouver Art Gallery. As the show opened, masses of (more or less well-off) art fans swooned. In such a situation, do the works critically engage viewers, or entertain them? I would like to believe that they do both, and that in doing both, their sour comedy and offbeat, poppy delivery opens the gap between our cerebral understanding of social situations and our emotional reactions to them.