Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ken Lum Q&A: Signs of Change

For 30 years, Vancouver's Ken Lum has plumbed relationships between the individual and the whole to create a singularly successful international art career. With his first large solo survey opened last month at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Lum chatted with me on the phone about his practice. The condensed and edited results are out in today's National Post. Some excerpts:

Q The way you've used signs in your art -from replacing yourself with a highway sign in 1978 to copying strip-mall signs today -often evokes how individuals are viewed by society. Why?

A What I'm interested in is the flattening of identity in the contemporary context. Advertising is largely premised on that, especially beer ads -there's a directive to young men to behave a certain way. There's also all these ideal domestic couples. You have these prescriptions laid out like templates and everyone is supposed to sacrifice their individuality, to be slotted into moulds. I'm interested in raising that problem through a kind of contradiction. On the one hand, you have this social economy, which flattens identity, and on the other hand there's the glimmer or residue or yearning of the individual to try and break out of that. We transcend signs, but how do we do it? of your artworks is titled Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression. How has depression affected your life?

A I have all kinds of subjects to my work and it doesn't mean I experience all of them. But I am interested in the theme of malaise, especially on a societal level, because I think the incapacity to express a full-throttled identity without some kind of compromise . well, I think that causes a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety and a lot of sadness. So I never suffered from depression. My brother did. My mother did. I never did. But I know about it.

Q You have a reputation for being quite critical. What are you most critical about in your own artwork? What's its greatest weakness?

A I don't think I have a reputation of being overly critical of other people. I would never try to hurt someone. If there's a weakness . because of the way I grew up and what I was exposed to, some might say, "That's a limitation, because so much of your work doesn't show your hand." Other people would say, "Your work is so dry." Others might say, "It's so deadly serious." And others might say, "There's no joy" or, "It's so alienating" and so on. They'd all be right, right? But that's me. There's all kinds of limits in my work. If I'd learnt how to paint better, I'm sure my work would be quite different.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Many thanks again to Lum--who besides being incredibly busy workwise, has a new baby!--for taking time to speak with me.

(Image of one of my favourite Lum works--1990's We Are Sacred Blade--via Collection of the artist)

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