Seeing things differently

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


The elevated train ride into the downtown core of Vancouver, Canada, passes through an industrial zone dotted with garment manufacturers and auto body shops. At Clark Drive and East 6th Avenue, amid the buildings and streetlights, is a cross composed of light-emitting diodes bearing the words 'East Van'.

The eye-catching structure, titled Monument for East Vancouver, is by Canadian artist Ken Lum. The City of Vancouver invited Lum to make the piece as part of the Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Programme in 2010. It is his eighth public art commission.

Lum has been showing internationally since 1982, and has exhibited at Documenta in Germany and numerous biennials, museums, art spaces and galleries, including in Hong Kong. Lum, who features in an exhibition in Hong Kong later this month, is known for work that explores language, identity and perception through everyday objects such as furniture, signs and portraits.

When I visit him at his new studio, he has a solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, a survey that includes documentation of performances done in the late 1970s and more recent large-scale mirror maze installations.

Despite displaying an early aptitude for drawing, Lum, who was born in Vancouver in 1956, had not considered art to be a viable career path. 'As a kid, I always liked to draw. I was quite good at drawing naturally. I was never trained, unfortunately,' he says. 'I never thought there was such a thing as being an artist possible in my future.'

Money was a concern during his childhood. 'My mother worked in a sweatshop. Even as a kid I was going out to the farms and picking potatoes and strawberries, when I was six - the whole summer.' He later did illustrations of flora and fauna for the British Columbia government, and also illustrated posters for the Vancouver library system and a local hospital. Still, he believed then his future was in sciences.

For his undergraduate degree, he attended Simon Fraser University in Burnaby to study pestology. '[It's] a kind of an intersection between chemistry, I guess, and pesticide research,' he says. 'Mainly on pheromone research - trying to decipher these kinds of organic compounds that make up a type of smell that pest insects emit. So we were trying to create types of pheromones that misled pest insects to be attracted to it, infect them in a way that causes them to not be able to procreate.'

Although he was good at science, Lum began to think of pursuing a different vocation. 'I realised the more time I spent in these labs ... the more I did it, the more I kind of thought there was something I didn't enjoy about it on a very fundamental level. I had a desire to create or to do things. So I decided to take an evening adult art class. I only took two of those courses.' Although he graduated with a science degree, these courses shaped his career.

One can draw a parallel between his early scientific research and his art practice. Much of his work alters textual and visual languages to produce new ways of thinking or seeing. In the mid-1980s, he produced a series of works combining photographic studio portraiture with logos. During the noughts, he transformed shop signs.

'When I was exposed to contemporary art I realised - I was shocked - in fact I was actually angry initially, that what seemed a kind of charlatan, bogus activity actually passed as serious art,' he says. 'Then I realised there was a logic to it - it wasn't so bogus, and I just got hooked.'

This interest led Lum to write long letters to art critics. Thomas Lawson responded to one of his missives, and expressed interest in seeing his work. Lawson selected a sculptural furniture piece for an exhibition, launching Lum's international career. Many visitors to the gallery walked by the piece, not knowing they were looking at a work of art.

'I was really interested in the dialogue that ensued around minimalism, and about the repressed social content of minimal art - hiding between these industrial surfaces, which could not reveal its industrial links,' Lum says. 'I was interested in that. I thought it was a sophisticated language. I was always interested in philosophy ... and I was always interested in language, as you know from my work.'

Lum attended NYU for a master's degree but returned to his native Vancouver when his mother became terminally ill.

He resumed his studies at the University of British Columbia and earned an MFA in 1985. By this time, he was one of several artists known internationally as 'The Vancouver School', a term coined to describe artists in the city working in the area of photoconceptualism.

Over the years, Lum's reputation has continued to grow. This past year has been busy. He's part of a design team that is working on replacing the Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton, Canada. He's exhibiting in Paris and Tokyo, and is working on new public art commissions.

Lum has exhibited in Hong Kong before. In 1998 he was one of several artists who contributed to a show called 'Between the Sky and the Earth' at the University of Hong Kong's Art Gallery.

This time he's showing in the exhibition, 'One Suitcase Per Person', at 1a Space in To Kwa Wan. The show is curated by Davina Lee of Diorama Projects, and also features artists David Diao (New York) and Hiram To (Hong Kong). Lum's work is Schnitzel Company, which first showed in billboard form in Vienna in 2004.

Although Hongkongers will be viewing the work in a gallery context, it's a chance to get a sense of how Lum explores seeing and meaning in private and public spaces.