Ken Lum: Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991-2018
by Saelan Twerdy
The most remarkable thing about this generally remarkable anthology of writings by Ken Lum is that it took so long for such a book to appear. In one of the essays collected here, Lum’s now-classic “Canadian Cultural Policy: A Problem of Metaphysics” of 1999, he laments “the complete absence of any book that critically and theoretically addresses in a historically comprehensive manner developments in Canadian art over the last thirty years.” Everything is Relevant is not exactly that book, but it does cover 27 years of an artist’s writing life and, now that it exists, I wonder how we managed to get by without it. Of course, quite a few of these texts were already part of the public record, but it is a credit to the nascent Concordia University Press that they saw the need for such a collection and made it one of their very first releases. (It is also the first publication in a series called Text/Context: Writings by Canadian Artists, which aims to collate published and unpublished writings that are not easily accessible.)
The texts included are highly diverse. Along with a thoughtful introductory essay by Kitty Scott, there is documentation from Lum’s Carnegie Library Project (1999), catalogue essays written about other artists, texts for exhibitions curated or co-curated by Lum (including the 2005 Sharjah Biennial and Shanghai Modern, 1919–1945, from the same year), exhibition reviews, critical essays written for magazines and web platforms, academic art history articles (including his first editorial for Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, which he co-founded), statements on art prizes and art education, and lectures, as well as diaristic pieces and other personal reflections. Some of these texts were previously unpublished; many would have been difficult to find. There are, notably, no interviews. While Lum often writes about his life experiences, ideas and opinions, few of the included texts focus directly on Lum’s own artworks. Furthermore, of the 18 colour plates in the book, only three depict works by the artist. Rather, Lum is constantly looking outward. As the title suggests, this is a book about life, and on what terms (and whose) life enters into art, and vice versa.
The book is divided into three sections (each covering a decade), which roughly correspond to Lum’s emergent period as a writer (though he was already active as an artist throughout the 1980s), focused largely on Vancouver and the Canadian scene; his mature period, in which he became a highly successful international artist commenting on the global art world; and his most recent phase as a professor based in Philadelphia, in which his writings on his adopted home city, Canada–US relations and public art are often more reflective and sometimes less pointed than his earlier texts.
Certain themes recur regularly throughout his writing. On many occasions, Lum refers to a period of personal crisis in which he felt great disillusionment with the hollowness and exclusivity of the official art world. In a text titled “Something’s Missing” (2006), arguably the heart of this collection, he writes: “I had a choice: I could either stop being an artist or I could enlarge my frame of understanding of art by looking away from what I was accustomed to.” This moment spurred Lum to expand his activities, and he initiated a period of active writing and curatorial and pedagogical work that led him to teach and travel in Martinique, West Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He became a real-time documenter of the globalizing, post-colonial art world of the late 1990s and 2000s, in which the nomadism of artists was widely touted by curators—a development that Lum viewed with a critical eye as he witnessed the global circulation of rapacious capital and its dispossessions alongside the utopian promises of cosmopolitanism.
Always attentive to issues of difference and institutional power, Lum is unfailingly critical in his rigorously materialist approach to whatever issues, places and artworks he encounters. He often refers to his childhood (he was raised in East Vancouver’s Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods by working-class Hong Kong immigrant parents) and his background as a scientist—a bread-winning but unfulfilling career he gave up to take a chance on art—to raise the question of who has the power to articulate their experiences and on what terms those experiences are validated. Whether in Saskatoon, Hong Kong, Philadelphia or Delhi, Lum exhibits an inexhaustible curiosity about wherever he happens to be, never failing to notice neglected or troubled histories and usually brandishing encyclopedic local knowledge. He consistently calls upon readers to challenge the centre–periphery binary and to seek bottom-up, many-to-many connections among so-called “peripheral” art communities. As the book progresses, urban history, public space, memorials and monuments increasingly become the focus of Lum’s thinking—a reflection of his recent work with Monument Lab, which he co-founded in Philadelphia in 2012.
Lum’s erudition is powerful but never pretentious: he cites the canon of critical theory, cultural studies and postcolonial scholarship with great facility and familiarity, never succumbing to obscurantism— though, in his most institutionalized roles he does occasionally fall victim to the clichés of curatorial language. His text for the Sharjah Biennial is, unlike most of this book, a somewhat dated and standard piece of art writing, though his “Surprising Sharjah” diary, written for Canadian Art, is much more rewarding and revealing. For example, it finds him lamenting that he may not be cut out to be a curator: “I realized how much crap a curator has to endure from artists,” he sympathetically muses. Meanwhile, he takes note of the conditions for Indian guest workers, the consensus and conformity of the biennial format, the “Donald Trump-esque architecture” of Dubai and the proximity of the war raging in Iraq.
Inevitably, Lum’s writings will be compared to those of Jeff Wall, whose Selected Essays and Interviews were published by MoMA in 2007. Wall’s writings are more narrowly focused on art-historical questions and, even when written about his Vancouver peers or his conceptual forebears, primarily served the purpose of elucidating and justifying his own practice of photoconceptualism, setting the terms for the reception of what became known as the Vancouver School. Lum, by contrast, conspicuously avoids saying anything about this designator or any of the associated artists, among whom he is often included- though his commitment to the critical and even utopian impulses of first-wave conceptual art is frequently evident. Several times, Lum mentions the first art class he took at Simon Fraser University, but he neglects to inform the reader that Wall was his teacher; Kitty Scott mentions it in her introduction. One could speculate that the disillusionment to which Lum refers—which particularly afflicted him in the late 1990s—was associated with the way his work and that of his peers was packaged and circulated during their rise to prominence.
Nevertheless, his dissatisfaction has been highly productive. This book is a record of Lum’s perpetual challenge to how art is defined and a testament to his unflagging search for meaning beyond what the art world is able to contain. Anyone who finds “something missing” in contemporary art, who also feels that the field of art today continues to be painfully limited in ways that are socially and economically determined, will find much to stir them in this inspiring and necessary anthology, which is sure to become an indispensable document.