The Real and How to Find It: An Interview with Ken Lum
November 10, 2011 § 15 Comments
Sitting in a café in Vancouver, Ken Lum mentions the intersection of Yonge and Gerrard in Toronto. He offers me, a visitor from Toronto, this point of reference as a way to understand his 30 year retrospective that was presented by the Vancouver Art Gallery this year. The detail has stayed with me. It points to something particular about Lum’s visual imagination as an artist. There is nothing remarkable about Yonge and Gerrard. As city intersections go, it’s a little unsavoury. But seeing it through Lum’s eyes tells a story about a certain socio-economic class I might otherwise ignore. The same could be said for his retrospective as a whole. Aspects of the urban landscape that tend to go unnoticed are central to Ken Lum’s practice. In this interview, Lum discusses formative moments in his development as an artist, how the Real figures in his work, and his current ambivalence about the profession. We spoke this May.
RH: The Real comes up a lot in things that you’ve written. To me this is a vexed topic, to understand what exactly is meant by this. I’d like to hear what you have to say about it because I know it has a special relevance to your work.
KL: To me, the Real can be understood in different ways. The first would be in terms of the relationship between art and non-art: Art having something to do with artifice and contrivance and the historical conventions and all those terms that make art ‘art’; and then on the other side of that would be the question of when is art not art while still having the effect within art? The second issue would be the Real in the Lacanian sense. The Real that exists outside what we can express in terms of language, I’m interested in that limit: When does art become non-art? And then there is the historical question of the relationship between art and life; that is a dialectic that has been in play for many decades. The Real for me comes into play because I am not satisfied with much art. I don’t think art the way it is conventionalized within the art system deals enough with all kinds of experiences. Generally speaking, when art starts shrinking down into the art system it becomes less interesting. That’s why I’ve always been interested in the signifiers of the street, and the relationship of real lives to the form of art. Its art but I want people to think: This is plausible; this could be a real thing. I can identify with the young woman in You Don’t Love Me (1994). It strikes a set of emotions in me as a viewer, because I remember being dumped. I remember being lost to language. That’s what I mean by an approach to the Real, it’s a real scenario that viewers can identify with.
RH: That brings up a lot of things. You make quite clear the ways people can identify with your work, but you also have disruptive elements. For instance, the Rorschach Shopkeeper Signs (2007) suggest ideas about not being able to read a sign clearly, or that you need to look for a deeper meaning…
KL: Well that’s also true of the image/text works. They are about the inability to find suitable language that will express trauma. For instance, the girl in You Don’t Love Me…No amount of language is going to bring that guy back, no amount of language can actually represent or embody the mixture of hate, admonishment, resentment, loneliness that she’s feeling towards this guy, right? That’s what I’m interested in. The other thing I’m interested in is, and this applies to the Rorschach works too, is who is actually standing in front of the ink blot? It’s the viewer. With the texts works, it’s the viewer that reads the work. We attribute what we read to the girl, but it’s the viewer who says it. I’m interested in this triangulation; the viewer is always interpolated in the work.
RH: Can you elaborate more on the idea of trauma because I know that’s central to your work as well.
KL: To me, trauma is linked to degrees of oppression. It’s also linked in a modulated sense, not an exclusive sense, but a modulated sense, to the issue of disfavoured backgrounds, people who are a little bit poorer…that’s my background so I’m interested that background as opposed to a bourgeois background, and I think when you move through the show at the Vancouver Art Gallery you certainly sense that. It’s not the sensibility of Rosedale, right? It’s the sensibility of maybe Yonge St on a Saturday? I mean old Yonge St., not new Yonge St., Yonge St. up by Gerrard. Certainly when you move through the show I think you sense it’s almost circumscribed geographically. I don’t mean geographically to East Vancouver but to certain class, social and economic parameters. I’m interested in that. I think there is a kind of trauma there. Trauma in terms of people who work too hard…I’m not interested in making art in a 1970s sense that is dry and didactic and aesthetically uninteresting to look at. I think my art is aesthetically layered, but in terms of a description of a certain economic and social experience. The other thing is that poor people are just more interesting. I don’t mean that in a novelistic way, and I don’t feel like I’m slumming either because I’m from that background. Some people might be able to look at this milieu with an observant eye and that might make them a good artist. But getting at the psychological part, the nuanced part, if you didn’t have that background or that empathy, I think you can make work that looks really damn good and middle class viewers could look at it and say, “Oh that’s really interesting” but it would be read and received in a way that’s very middle class. My work has always to a degree irritated the middle class. Collectors may say my work is collectable but they have a hard time with it sometimes too. I think it’s because it doesn’t behave properly.
RH: That leads to the question, Who is your audience? Because there are class specificities to the art world. Are you making work about a different class for the benefit of this class?
KL: No, really it’s for no one’s benefit. I’m not trying to limit my audience at all. But I can’t help it; it’s just the way I am. That’s what I know best. I also am never too impressed by the pretensions of the art world, at least of many of the people in it, and that’s not smart. It may cost you in the shorter term, but in the longer term you keep your integrity. In the longer term it pays off.
RH: So we can assume that there is a middle class audience, that’s a fairly safe assumption to make, then is the point of your work to “overturn the cliché”? You wrote a text where you talk about this…
KL: No. Im interested in…this sounds too much like proselytizing, but I don’t mean it like that. I think when people come to the VAG show it makes them think about the city – I’m speaking about Vancouver – in a much wider sense. They are not just thinking about Vancouver: Oh, the Lionsgate Bridge…You know, Kitsilano Beach, sunsets over English Bay, but actually think about the city, about this whole other set of experiences where people aren’t that happy and things aren’t so blue sky.
RH: I think the furniture works, like Red Circle (1986) are a bit of an affront to this audience, in terms of their poor aesthetic content, of the cheap furniture…and then you combine that with this trope of exclusion, where you turn the chairs inward…
KL: I think you hit the nail on the head. It does operate that way. I can tell you an anecdote. I was giving a talk at a well-known art school in California and I told a story about how early on I choose that furniture because I thought it was nice furniture. This was the late 1970s and my mother worked in a sweatshop and I picked this furniture from a rental store, so the range was kind of limited, but I actually liked it. I look at it now and it’s quite garish and awful. But I liked it. It was beyond anything we could have had. And this curator affiliated with the school said to me at dinner: “I don’t believe that you didn’t know the furniture was ugly. It’s clearly ugly.” I was shocked. This was only two years ago. I thought “Wow, it’s 2009 and you can’t imagine that some people might have a different set of experiences than you.” It was quite amazing. And it reaffirmed to me that there was really something awry in terms of the art system. I found it really offensive.
RH: Well, it sounds like you offended this person as well.
KL: Yes, he was so smug in assuming that somehow…
RH: That it was a pose; that you were posturing…
KL: He was saying, “You are in the artworld, how could you like this?” That’s a form of censorship, too. I think these cues are constantly there in the artworld. That’s why savvy young artists coming out of art school learn all those cues, and they learn how to mediate their art that way, and that’s a loss.
RH: It’s like you say: Short term success, long term, maybe not…Following on from that, I really like this text you wrote To Say or Not to Say (2008). I just reread it yesterday…
KL: That was in Chicago. I write about a YouTube clip that was shown at a symposium in Chicago of the Back Dorm Boys lip syncing ‘I Want it That Way’. It was hilarious. Everyone believed that they were non-artists just doing this thing to make affective art. They didn’t know that they were students from the Guangzhou Arts Institute in China. I knew they were art students, I had met them. And so I brought this up and everyone just went “aaahhh.”
RH: You deflated them (laughter)
KL: But what was interesting to me, was when I – well, I didn’t really go to art school – but when I was studying art, if you had experienced something and someone told you it was art, you would go “Oh that’s fantastic.” Now you say, that’s art, and you go “Oh, too bad!” (laughter) It says something about the inverse operation of art now, that it’s just become so…familiar, I guess. Rodney Graham said to me, and I’m sure he is not the only artist who has said this, “If only there was something that took the place of art, that’s not art but could operate like art…” (laughter)
RH: I am interested in this reversal, or this shift, as well. In your text To Say or Not to Say, you write, “Art has become less and less important as it turns more into an industry.” I agree with you, and I thought it would be good to flesh this idea out. I would be happy to make claims for the importance of your art, but I would be interested to hear you tell me, under what terms do you think art becomes important?
KL: Well, I think that’s a really hard question now. That’s my whole point. Not only is that a hard question, so is the accompanying question, which is: How do you continue to believe in art? Given that it’s moving more and more towards business and industry and entertainment. That’s a question has driven me over the course of my career, certainly since the early nineties. Its one of the reasons why I went to Africa, to work as project manager for The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945 – 1994 , which was about art and politics during the decolonization period in Africa. It’s one of the reasons why I developed an Asian journal of contemporary Chinese art, Yishu Journal. It’s one of the reasons why I taught in China and I initiated a symposium at the Havana Biennale, and Co-curated the Sharjah Biennale 7 in the United Arab Emirates. The reason I did all those things is because I had a kind of crisis in terms of my belief in art. I believe in the ideals of art, but I am dismayed by the realities of the art world, and the art system, because one shapes the other so closely now. I developed those different projects to put a hiatus to my art production while still maintaining a hand in art, but in an expanded sense, a geographic sense. So I traveled, I wrote for NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art. I did all those things to answer questions about art’s purpose. Art is still highly relevant when you go to Mexico or Lithuania, and you realize that people still have this view of art that is very true and collated to people’s experiences, and they see it as a kind of necessity. It’s not seen as a kind of…
RH: An accessory…
KL: An accessory, right…when I see kids going to art school, so many of the kids I think, “Why are you in art school? Is it just…something to do?” Because art is not necessarily fun. Art is a lot of work, and it can be heartbreaking. In a way, there are too many art students. So that’s how I revive and sustain a belief in art. I was in China during the so-called first period and I learned a lot about art, about the power of art…
RH: Do you think this is true even in circumstances when a place, such as – well, I’ve seen this, for instance at the Gwangju Biennial in 2006…
KL: Gwangju in China or Korea?
KL: I was there in 2010.
RH: Right. At that Biennial I saw how the language, the international language of contemporary art was adopted. Considering what you’ve been saying, if places like Gwangju or Havana adopt the international language of contemporary art to make art does it retain an importance?
KL: I think in neo-conceptualism there is a kind of lingua franca of art, and people are able to use it in creative ways in respect to their own situation. Often it is about things that can and can’t be said, things that are official and things that are not official. Very often it will function on two tiers. For example, Chinese artists – this is maybe less true now – they had to deal with taboo language, that the government could censor which could cost them in terms of being able to practice, but yet at the same time they were making work and being celebrated in Paris, or wherever. So they would make two types of art. One that addresses the Chinese audience when they are in Paris and one that was external to China but which could sell in terms of meaning to collectors and curators in the West.
RH: The work that was made abroad was intended to say things to the Chinese audience?
KL: I’m just saying they made a kind of work that had two meanings. Many Chinese artists immigrated to Paris, for example, after Tiananmen, but they would still be showing in China, and the work that they made would be a slightly different. The work they showed in Paris would be more critical of China, and the work they showed in China would be more critical of the West. It would still be critical of China but it would be more allegorized. So they were playing a cat and mouse game of critique because they occupied two positions.
RH: Just to make an observation about the West. I was thinking about contemporary fiction, which doesn’t really interest me, but I do love certain authors: Robert Bolańo, who was Chilean; and the Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. So that’s Russian. And then there is Murakami, the Japanese writer…
KL: I love Murakami.
RH: These all suggest that literature in translation is more vital. This is a kind of analogy for what you are saying…
KL: I agree with that.
RH: And I noticed when I was in Gwangju that the Western artists were making kind of very small gestures and the Asian artists, in general, had more history to be processing and reflecting upon. What does that say about our situation in the West?
KL: Well, I think if you are an artist you have to develop a more expanded experience of how art operates, how art is manifested, and how art is received. That’s why I did all those projects. I did this when I had doubts about whether art could still be meaningful. And I think the only way you can resolve that, for me at least, is to travel. I don’t mean travel to just visit but travel in the sense of really involving yourself in projects and engaging in a profound dialogue about what art can do.
RH: Do you have anything to say about how that relates to Globalism?
KL: Well, it relates firstly in how travel mobility is relatively easy for that community. Artists who are successful can travel because they are sponsored by galleries. This is tied into the idea of how, because an artist is ethnically Chilean or ethnically Tongan, or whatever, they are called upon to represent their geographical roots. Even if they are privileged. So that makes for a maybe less significant notion of globalization, a greater mobility of artists. But I think globalization is also a globalization of people who have to cross the border from Burundi to Rwanda or Rwanda to Burundi. It is situations where you have a million people who become refugees within a week. It used to be that people were massing at the border and it took a month before you would have a refugee problem. Now you have refugee problems of a million people within a day. As artists I think it is incumbent upon us to not necessarily be exposed to this, because nobody wants to be exposed to this kind of trauma, but at least be alert to such events. That’s another type of globalization. And I find that the more I am in the artworld, the more it’s about the life of the artist, where you worry about, “Ok, it’s my turn to show again…” I’m not interested in that life. Don’t get me wrong, I like showing. But in the end the point of the life of the artist is having as rich a life as possible, and I don’t mean a jetsetter life. When I was in Poland in `88, for example, I remember there was a fantastic photographer, a Polish photographer who I didn’t know about before going there and his misfortune was to be a great photographer during an age of tyranny. He was an amazing street photographer, but the Iron Curtain came down, and so when I was there, he was driving everyone around. I was so much younger than him…
RH: He was your driver…
KL: He was my driver, just because of circumstance. I learn something from things like that. That to me is the real intervening, in terms of art. I am interested in those things. They don’t make me happy but I am interested in them.
RH: Do you have any thoughts on the lack of a wider political program connected to the ideas you have been expressing in this interview, and that are expressed in your work?
KL: What do you mean, a wider political program?
RH: I mean in terms of the Left…
KL: I don’t know if you can use the word Left in the old sense anymore…I am not fearful of the word ‘Left’ but I don’t think that actively defines me either. People have this fear that we can’t talk about…or, not that we can’t talk about, but that we can’t represent the experience of the disfavoured, or that we are not supposed to – or worse, that we can only represent them in a certain way. Either in heroic form or in a form that’s palatable, in a conventionalized form.
KL: I don’t think my work is sentimental. I think it’s the opposite. It uses black humour and is offputting even, but only offputting because you are only supposed to treat people who are disfavoured in a certain way. I don’t necessarily do that. I can give you an example. I did a piece in Vienna a few years ago for what is basically the employment office for Austria. I was about the 9th artist over four years. I looked at all the previous commissions – and I’m not criticising anyone – and it always seemed to be divided into the worker as heroic, or work as drudgery. So I did something called Schnitzel Company (2004). I made up this fake company, with people wearing this uniform associated with fast food, and they were from different races – because if you go to Vienna, the coloured people are all working in McDonald’s – and the pictures are studio portraits of the ‘Worker of the Month’. People were critical; they asked me if I was making fun of these workers. This is where my work doesn’t behave the way people want it to behave; even though it’s closer to the Real. But if you work in a place like that and you work hard, you are proud to be Worker of the Month. People are often unsatisfied with that answer. That doesn’t mean I want them to do that for life. I remember I was a burger flipper when I was fourteen, at a thankfully defunct place called the Burger Shack. I remember I wanted to be Worker of the Month. You got your picture on the wall. When you are in that context, it’s meaningful to you. I can give you another anecdote that maybe better illustrates my point. I remember I worked in this buffet for the summer, when I was about fifteen, and these two women worked there, who were both middle aged at that point, and they were having a fight. One was serving broccoli and the other was scooping out mashed potatoes. A friend of mine who went to my high school said: “Look at them, they are having a fight.” I thought it was funny at first but then I thought about it overnight, and I thought, yeah it matters because the one who has to scoop the potatoes with the ice cream scoop, that’s a lot more work! That hurts after a few hours. This is what I mean by the Real. That shaped me.
RH: In your statement for the Banff seminar you will be giving next year, you talk about “the deepening interest of art towards its contingencies”, we’ve been speaking about that, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on that and relate it to this other phenomenon that I’m quite interested in, which is Reality TV, which I see as the dominant cultural genre of our time. Do you have any thoughts on that?
KL: Well, Reality TV isn’t real. It’s completely contrived.
RH: Why is the Real so popular as a genre, though?
KL: Why is the Real so popular?
RH: In art, on TV, in popular culture…
KL: I have a theory on that. Our culture that has moved towards a fetish of the everyday, a fetish of drawing attention to yourself as an individual. It’s a trend towards an ultra narcissism, and the emphasis on the individual comes at the exclusion of being able to formulate a critique on a societal level, because it’s only about the individual, and that’s a problem.
RH: Does that also explain the popularity of YouTube?
KL: YouTube is more interesting, because you have input. On YouTube you can have responses to whatever someone else puts up, unlike with Reality TV…
RH: Well, you can become a Reality TV contestant, that’s how you have input…
KL: I think people are looking for something where there is no artifice. Like what happened at the Chicago conference with the Back Dorm Boys. Or the viral video of the Double Rainbow guy. Its funny and its only affecting because you believe truly in the situation. If it was acting, it wouldn’t be as interesting.
RH: Your mirror works, such as the Mirror Text Works (2002), are to me well contextualized within your practice. In the Photo Mirrors (1997) for instance, I seemed to detect in this work a critique of the vogue for interactivity in contemporary art in the sense that you have a very sophisticated construction of your viewer in your work…
KL: It’s also a construction of the role of the camera.
RH: Ah, right.
KL: The original camera, the camera obscura used a kind of lens, a mirrored lens that made an image.
RH: Right. Ok…because maybe you won’t agree but it seems to me a lot of Relational Aesthetics makes use of a very simplistic construction of the audience.
KL: I agree. I mean, I think it can be rich, but I think the worst part of it is that it calls up a contingency and then leaves it at that. So as long as you call up a contingency, or a relationship, than that’s sufficient for it to be art. Or it depends on organizing an activity that is outside the normal purview of art, and that is somehow sufficient. I don’t think that’s so interesting. I think it’s limited. That’s only a starting point, not the conclusion. Then there is also a romanticism about community formation. But that community formation doesn’t say anything about how communities actually formed, often through necessity, often people that don’t even like each other form a community. I mean my Mother in her sweatshop formed a community with her friends that worked with her. That’s a different kind of community than people coming into an art gallery, and saying “Oh, now we are a community, we shared that dinner together.”
RH: That leads onto another question I had about the Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression (2002). You compound the difficulty of navigating the maze with the quotes about the Symptoms of Depression. Why? Are you trying to confuse your viewer? And I had an observation: One interesting thing I found was that one way to get through the maze is to follow the other people ahead of you, so it has that positive effect: it creates community…
KL: Well, I didn’t invent the idea that experience is fractured, that we live in a world in which experience is fractured into a million pieces and the mirror is a symbol par excellance for that breaking up of everyday experience. But if it was just left at that then it would be akin to a funhouse mirror. And it would just say, “Oh, life is fractured.”
KL: But by adding this extra dimension then suddenly its like, “Oh, there are points of identification.” Because the 12 Symptoms are universal, in the sense that, at any given moment we can identify with one, two, or three or four of them. Apparently, if you can identify with the majority of them you are probably in need of help. And the idea of the mirror is also a symbol of the Enlightenment. It’s a rational surface in which you can see yourself, apprehend yourself. But by fracturing it, of course, it disrupts that.
RH: OK, so I will just ask one more question. There is a juxtaposition of your show at the VAG with this quite fantastic Surrealist show. I took a short look at that show, and thought, Oh, I can see consistencies in your work with what the Surrealists did…
KL: Well I am interested in psychology and I am interested in the repressed. And every time you have the repressed, you always bring up the Real. The Real is always about the thing that’s repressed; The Real always comes back to haunt you. Also, the Real is beyond language, and Surrealism was interested in things language couldn’t quite represent. So there are parallels that way. Of course, Surrealism also had a political program, by calling up the unconscious you are freer in some way, by calling up the unconscious world the conscious world will become a nightmare, and that can be instrumentalized.
RH: So would you say that today art can also have a program?
KL: As an artist you always have to have a program. I don’t mean program in the sense of Page 1, Page 2, the Preamble, Forward…I don’t mean that kind of program. But I think if you are making art you have to have a program. Your art is about a kind of development of an individual theory about art, and about life through art. I believe that when you are making art you are making a kind of theory about how you see life, and about how art can theorize life. So yeah, you have to have a program. But it’s not a program that you can proscribe.
RH: Right. It’s in the art.
This interview appears in the debut issue of CACTUS Magazine, which can be purchased here.
Information about Ken Lum’s Vancouver Art Gallery retrospective is here.