Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver calls upon a graffiti image that has circulated for decades in the city’s less prosperous east side, often scrawled in back lanes and on the walls of bus shelters. While the precise origins of the emblem are unknown, its roots may be linked to East Vancouver culture in the post-war period when the area was home to many Catholic immigrants from Italy, Greece, and Central Europe. Over the years the image was adopted as a fugitive symbol of East Vancouver as a whole, a reference to the long established division of the city along class lines.
When commissioned to contribute to the City of Vancouver’s public art initiative Mapping + Marking 2010 during the year of the Olympic Games, Lum’s idea was to formalize the East van emblem in scale and permanence. The work, standing almost fifteen metres high, is sited on a non descript rise of land at the corner of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way. Though the column is rooted in the particular history of the neighbourhood, its illuminated letters turn to address many different audiences, – commuting suburbanites, weekend sojourners, transit-riding students traveling from the city’s west side and downtown.
Monument for East Vancouver is fraught with multiple meanings, – much like the community itself which is now in the throes of gentrification and economic change. While it can be read as a defiant marker of east side identity, the work complicates any reductive understanding of east and west. The monument asks its audiences to consider the way such divisions within a city are complicated by movement and change while the marker itself is static, the social terrain underneath it is not. Thus the way we regard the monument is constantly shifting too.
Ken Lum’s body of work is concerned with the systems and structures that shape our lived experience in the contemporary world. From his first performance to has recent installations with mirrors and commercial signage, the most striking aspect of Lum’s practice remains its insistent blurring of the boundaries between art and non-art. Situating himself in an uneasy relationship to the grand tradition of Western art, he both draws from and questions the established histories of modernism and minimalism. Removed from its gallery context, much of Ken Lum’s work could easily be confused with the elements populating our everyday lives in public space and the domestic realm, from the advertisement that saturate our urban environment to the furniture in our living rooms.
The artist’s own experience living in the ethnically diverse east side of Vancouver has provided much of the context for his work. Several of his public installations directly address Vancouver’s own complex urban history and local economies. While he often appropriates the tools used by consumer culture, these are manipulated to articulate the anxiety, confusion, and contradictions that arise in a globalized world where people of disparate backgrounds meet and where languages and cultures collide. His combinations of photographic images and text asks viewers to consider not just race and class itself, but the ways in which language and other social forces shape identity.
from Ken Lum Exhibition, Vancouver Art Gallery, February 12 to September 25, 2011
Curated by Grant Arnold, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art
Photograph by Gerry Kahrmann
from East Van emerges as Vancouver’s cultural heart, Vancouver Sun