On September 17, the breakout New York gallery Magenta Plains opened an exhibition of new work by Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor, chair of fine arts, and Senior Curatorial Advisor at Monument Lab. Lum’s work is also the subject of a solo exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario that brings together photographic works, sculptures and installations from several series by the artist. Meanwhile, this month the City of Edmonton announced it would not install a major outdoor work it commissioned from Lum in 2012 and completed in 2016, due to concerns that the work could be seen as an endorsement of colonialism. In an interview, Lum, who holds dual American-Canadian citizenship, talks about the works in his New York exhibition, the ways his work has been received in different countries, and the experience of finding himself at the center of a public-art controversy.
Tell us about your show at Magenta Plains in New York. What are you showing?
It's my first solo show in a New York gallery in over a decade. I'm showing a new series of works that are basically photographs transferred onto mirror surfaces. The images are a kind of Americana, you might say, part of a gigantic archive of images that are distinctly American. One is of Anna May Wong, a Chinese-American pioneer of cinema whose life experiences speak of what it means to be Asian in America, for better or worse. There’s one of the landscape of Little Bighorn: an image of genocide and catastrophe for Native-Americans, a victory over General Custer that signaled the end of the so-called Indian Wars. There’s one taken by NASA of the United States at night. NASA is an aspirational government agency, but a picture of America at night also expresses the darker dream states that circulate during a time of sleep. I’m also showing a couple of works from a series I showed at the Middelheim Museum last year in Antwerp, as well as two works from my Necrology series, which I showed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year. And I’m showing a new furniture sculpture.
You also have an exhibition on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Do you feel like your work receives a different reception in Canada than it does in the United States?
I think my work in the United States is less known, but, paradoxically, I feel that the reception of my work in the United States is more in line with my intentions for the work. In Canada, there’s a kind of moral demand of art, that art be ultimately a redemptive practice. In America, it's not like that. In America, if there are horrors in society, all that matters is that you express the dimensions of that horror, without resolution, or providing a way out such that a redemptive character of art would offer. I've always been more American in that way of thinking. I think that makes for more interesting art, as opposed to announcing any moral directives a priori to the experience of art.
Recently, the City of Edmonton announced its decision to not install a public sculpture it had commissioned from you. Can you tell us about that work and the reception it has received?
Well, there hasn't been any reception because the work has not been allowed to be released into the public view. There's only been a framing preemptively by the City of Edmonton for worry that the work affirms colonialism and that it would be harmful, especially to indigenous peoples. I think that's a very unfair framing, and even close to if not libelous.
The work consists of two sculptures. One is of a buffalo on top of some ground. And the other is a buffalo fur trader, based on a very famous picture, or infamous picture, of a notorious merchant who bought and sold over a million pelts. The picture was shot in Kansas in 1878, which is notable because barely three and a half years later, in 1882, you have what became known as the year of the great bison population collapse. The diminution of numbers in terms of bison wasn't a slow process that ebbed down over time as more and more of them were being killed. There were quite a lot of bison and then, all of a sudden, there were none.
By the start of the 1890s, it was thought the buffalo was essentially extinct. There was a count of about 450 in all of America by then. An interesting and very sad fact is that Plains Indians, who depended on the bison for meat and other needs, were among the tallest people in North America prior to the decimation of the buffalo. Within a generation of the elimination of the buffalo, they were among the shortest people. It was facts like that I was interested in with this work. And the sculptures were supposed to bookend a pedestrian bridge, which was newly built across the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton. Each is almost 13 feet tall. Pedestrians walking along the expanse of the bridge are basically beholden by the gaze of one or the other, in a kind of tension.
"Public art is still expected to speak to all people with one voice. That makes for an untenable situation for public art."
I'm interested in the fact that coloniality, the conditions of colonialism, persists to this day, in terms of the administration of First Nations and Indigenous bodies, and in the utter disregard of the knowledges offered by First Nations and Indigenous peoples with respect to the stewarding of the environment in a sustainable way. The work recalls a specific moment of disaster that presages the present global climate change moment. The work is not specific to First Nations' issues as it speaks of the possibility of a sixth mass extinction, as signaled by global warming, climate change, sea-level rise, ice sheets melting, and flora and fauna extinctions.
A few weeks prior to my work being the subject of this unwarranted debacle, the City of Edmonton celebrated a new monument called the Treaty Six Monument, a quote-unquote "celebration" of the signing of a treaty in 1876 between the First Nations and the white settlers. There was a celebration of a treaty that has been consistently violated from the start to the favor of the settler. The tragedy of residential schools [whereby generations of Native youths in Canada were educated in government facilities for purposes of cultural assimilation] took place entirely under Treaty Six. So, it's very strange. It's Orwellian, even. The city celebrates a new monument to Treaty Six, but because I speak truth to power through my work about the harm that continues to be done, that is verboten and seen as causing harm.
There is a kind of authoritarianism to this blanket "Do no harm" edict that the city has uttered. In their press release, they said, "No one has ever actually contacted us or expressed grievances about this." They're doing it preemptively. A year and a half ago, they unveiled a new mural in one of their new light rail transit stops portraying a priest named Priest Grandin, who was an administrator of residential schools. And of course, there was outrage about that as there should be. So, the city is extremely sensitive to anything that they feel could be misinterpreted. Of course, public art should stoke conversation, including a range of interpretations.
The talk was about this paradoxical situation of contemporary public art, of how public art today takes many different forms. This is in large part due to the high level the social differentiation in society. A society is comprised of a diversity of views. Yet at the same time, public art is still expected to speak to all people with one voice. That makes for an untenable situation for public art, given the reality of the heterogeneous and multicultural society in which we live. The expectations of the ways in which traditional monuments operated continues to burden or overshadow the expected performance of public art today.
What’s the alternative?
The only alternative is to make works that avoid politics or explicit commentary about society, in order to avoid the problem of contestation. Or, make public art works highly provisional and not permanent, meaning that any contestable content is more tolerated knowing that it will eventually be removed. My Edmonton work attests to the impossibility I just referred to, but that does not mean that as an artist I given up trying to say something meaningful through my art.