On the weekend I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery and looked at different shows, including Ken Lum’s art. Even back when I attended art college I had a hard time believing that anything tossed anywhere (such as the cow patties in the foyer) were actually art. Maybe they were political or social commentaries but were they art? It’s one of the great debates and I know there is such over Lum’s work. Perhaps by that fact alone he’s a great artist. But, I don’t get it.
Lum is known, I guess, for his sign art. My friend said she could have easily been driving down Kingsway looking at the car shops and fast food joints and little shops that festoon that strip. Except these have a “but…” afterward with a political statement or a social one. When I drive down to Oregon on the east side of the I5 highway there is a giant billboard owned by some Republican who usually leaves a right-wing (half nonsensical) message. I guess that’s art too. The example to the left made up about a third of Lum’s show. Sleak…signs…with not what I’d call a super witty revelation on any of them. I will give that one or two of them I thought were funny.
Another of his series were large boards again with a person pictured on one side and a phrase often repeated on the other. Such as the one of a woman with a French phrase book that went something like this: Je/Je suis/Je suis Canadienne/Je suis Americaine/Je suis Francais/Je/Je suis…etc. The pictures aren’t beautiful and they’re not even really ugly. They’re not stunningly executed in the way photography can be showing the real ugliness or beauty of the world. They’re of the street and could have been snapped by anyone. If Lum wants to show the banality of life, he’s succeeded. I was left with this expression: meh. It made me want to take two weeks off, get some paint and posters and pictures and slap stuff together and see if I can have a show in the VAG as well. I mean, sometimes the difference between successful art and that which isn’t has nothing to do with quality. It depends on whether someone in “the know”–a curator, a rich collector, an art faddist decides something is good.
There were a few couches and sofa beds pushed together and piled high, or enclosed so that they were inaccessible to be sat upon. This is part of Lum’s statement and while I could understand it I’m not sure three made more of a point. From a strictly sculptural point of view I didn’t mind them. Oh and we touched the red circular couch. Gasp! Right away a guard was telling us not to touch because gosh, couches shouldn’t be touched. And after the couch has made its round, well it’ll probably be in someone’s private collection or a secondhand store.
Lum might be known best in Vancouver for the giant neon white cross that looms over East Van like a doomsday device. Horizontally, the letters spell Van, vertically, East. It is either East Van or Van East and supposedly hearkens back to that East Van pride days of your when gangs of young Italian Catholic men roamed the streets. This romanticism and fake geographic pride drives me nuts. I live in East Van and today, not 50 years ago is where we are where there is a multi ethnic, multi religious (or none) community. I don’t feel I should be dominated by a huge Christian symbol and if Lum really wanted to make a statement about East Van he should have put a yellow neon sickle moon, next to a green pentacle, next to some agnostic sign. Regaling in some symbol supposedly used by gangs before all the other ethnic gangs moved in (not that there are that many) seems absurd at best. It certainly seems like an ignorant erection in a time of many other religious beliefs being practiced. But if Lum wanted to evoke conversation and feelings, he succeeded. However, to do so in such an obtrusively permanent way is galling.
The one other piece in the gallery was a large glass maze, done in triangles. As you walked through it etched statements would show in the glass. These had to do with self-worth and image. As a fractured personality and the way we view ourselves this was well-executed and brilliantly done.
But overall I have to say Lum’s pieces leave me cold, except for the East Van cross, which raises my ire.