Weitzman News

Posted July 13, 2016
  • Ken Lum, public art war memorial, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, 2016, Photo: Ken Lum

  • Ken Lum, public art war memorial, Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, 2016, Photo: Ken Lum

  • From Ken Lum's exhibition "Necrology," BASE Gallery, Florence, June 10 - September 10, 2016

  • Ken Lum, installation at the Tajamar Towers, Santiago, Chile, April 7 - 17, 2016 (detail)

  • Tajamar Towers, Santiago, Chile

Five Questions for Ken Lum

The Newly-Appointed Chair of Fine Arts on Public Space, Subjectivity and Happiness

Named chair of the Department of Fine Arts on July 1, Ken Lum is a Vancouver-born artist who joined the PennDesign faculty as Professor and Director of the Undergraduate Program in 2012. Lum served as the head of the graduate program in studio art at the University of British Columbia, where he began teaching in 1990, and has lectured and served on juries worldwide. Widely published and renowned for his public-art commissions — in Vienna, Utrecht, Leiden, St. Moritz, Vancouver, Toronto, St Louis and elsewhere — he is planning a city-wide public sculpture exhibition for Philadelphia in 2017 in partnership with Mural Arts and funding from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. His work has been exhibited at Documenta, the Whitney Biennial, the Istanbul Bienniel, Gwangju Biennial, the Shanghai Biennial, and the Moscow Biennial, and the Power Plant, among others.

You’ve been focusing lately on creating public monuments as well as examining their role in society. What’s their appeal for you?

Because they intersect so many domains — public space, politics, freedom of expression. Implied within them is the idea of what is official and what isn’t, what gets “noticed.” Also, all monuments and memorials are in dialogue with the public context, they’re framed against the background of the social landscape.

Is there a difference between monuments and memorials?

They overlap and are very close; the differences are more about scale and materiality. A memorial has more to do with death and past moments, a reconciliation or redress. A monument doesn’t actually assign memory; it could be, say, a monument to someone’s ego. 

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration for your work?

My work often has a textual component, and almost always a political component. But, otherwise, there’s no real formula. I’m always looking around, talking to people, trying to hear their stories. Anything could trigger an idea. I read a lot, too. I’m always thinking and watching. I work in a lot of different media, though, so I have the benefit of versatility in the way I can give form to my ideas.

How have you incorporated your love of story into your recent projects?

In Hong Kong, I’m working on a large public-art commission for M+, the new museum of contemporary art, which opens in 2018. Its profile is like a pagoda, but it consists of giant bronze coolie hats stacked on top of each other. It alludes to the fact that Hong Kong served as a conduit for the migration of Chinese laborers. My grandfather came over as a coolie to northern British Columbia to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, so I’m very familiar with what was basically a form of slavery.

On the other end of the world and opening much sooner, my piece commemorating a key Canadian effort in World War II will be permanently installed in the main plaza of Toronto’s City Hall. This campaign, where 4,000 Canadians lost their lives, has a firm place in the nation’s psyche. I’ve made a bronze topographical map of the centro of the Italian village of Ortona, and I’m showing the destruction, the collapse of the duomo. After some discussion with veterans, I agreed that adding a mourning soldier at each corner would actually make it a better piece. It’s an anti-monument in the sense that it’s not vertical: you don’t lift your head up, you actually lower your head in the same way that the soldiers do.

And I’ve just completed a public commission in Chile. It sits on top of a nondescript mid-century tower block in Santiago that once was home to a group of radical poets and artists during the Allende era. The installation is temporary and involves a series of very large billboards featuring Alexander Rodchenko-style portraits of young workers with text accompaniments that pivot around the idea of remembering and forgetting. They’re a kind of pronouncement that’s very visible from many miles away.

What else are you working on?

I’m part of a team designing a bridge across the North Saskatchewan River [in the Canadian Rockies] and I’m also providing the public art component, which is a giant bronze buffalo standing on a rock facing off against a fur trader sitting on a pelt. So, it’s about death again. And, I’m opening a show at BASE Projects in Florence that is a series of giant prints that are a kind of obituary premised on real people. In this exhibition, they tend to be quite sorrowful figures, like a Filipina who was duped into thinking she had landed a job in Hong Kong, but was turned into a drug mule and killed by gangs. I’m always interested in imagining the subjectivity of others. The whole purpose of life is to try to identify with others.