Last year, Ken Lum erected a monument to East Vancouver, sponsored by the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program. It’s a 65-foot-tall cross made of two words in white LED lights, “EAST” and “VAN,” intersecting so that they share the A. Lum was born and raised in East Vancouver, the rough side of town, where the cruciform phrase has been a kind of underground icon for decades, appearing in unofficial places-scrawled on the side of a building, tattooed across a shoulder blade-often followed by the word “rules.” Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver is positioned in the eponymous region so that it faces west, its marginalized voice projected outward.
Lum has spent 30 years depicting the tension between personal experience and external classification. (Before he took up art at Simon Fraser University, the son of Chinese Canadian immigrants studied biology, specifically pest management.) Vancouver Art Gallery has organized the largest survey to date of his career, including more than 50 works arranged in series: early videotaped performances, large captioned photographs, language paintings, text-etched mirror pieces, furniture arrangements, personalized strip-mall billboards and psychologically controlling installations. Throughout these works, the artist subtly addresses the discomfiting transactions that occur at the convergence of public and private.
House of Realization, made for the 10th Istanbul Biennial in 2007, and not seen in North America until now, is an environment that uses a stretch of two-way mirror to transform viewers into voyeurs and then back again, inviting them to inhabit both sides of the conflict it stages. The attempt to bring ineffable internal phenomena into standardized language is the basis for Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression, made for Documenta 11 in 2002. A viewer enters the maze and immediately confronts self-reflections set at multiple angles, finding the space difficult to navigate without continually crashing into the mirrors. Expressions lifted from a diagnostic test for clinical depression are etched in the surfaces, serving as generic statements that viewers might or might not identify with (“I’m afraid of doing something bad,” “You’d be better off without me”).
Lum’s clashing lineups of image and text often borrow the graphic formats (and agendas) of simple textbooks or commercial signage, with results that can be funny, bitingly political or strikingly touching. An oversize photograph of a plump, distraught Asian schoolgirl leaning against a fence, with an attractive young white woman bending down tenderly in front of her, is juxtaposed with a purple monochrome panel printed with: “Don’t be silly / You’re not ugly / You’re not ugly / You’re not ugly at all / You’re just being silly / You’re not / You’re not ugly at all.”
Only one room in the show has no visible text. It contains an installation in which the viewer walks among a series of mirrors on the walls, unidentified photos from separate unknown lives tucked lovingly into the edges of the frames. As the mind tries to read the photographs, it imagines what the strangers looking outward would read in return.
Photo: Ken Lum: Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression, 2002, mirrors and text; at Vancouver Art Gallery