An artwork featuring a photo of a man wearing glasses on one side and the text "What am I going to do with my kids while I work?" on the other side.
Ken Lum, How Am I To Take Care of My Children?, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist brings pandemic anxieties into sharp focus

In the exhibition Death and Furniture, artist Ken Lum captures some of the anxieties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a new series called Time. And Again., Lum uses his characteristic image-and-text format to explore the intersections of work and stress, persistent concerns throughout our lives that came into extreme focus during the last two years.

Lum has utilized this impactful, graphic style throughout his career, presenting a large-form portrait adjacent to a short text. This juxtaposition allows him to explore how the reading of an image is modified by accompanying words, and vice versa. In the space between what we see and what we read rests a tension – even an uncertainty – that complicates the assumptions we tend to make about who we are looking at.

Time. And Again. is about work, an activity that allows people to care for themselves and their families but that also acts as a measure of social value and self-worth. It is also a source of uncertainty and stress, feelings that have been exacerbated during the pandemic. The people photographed are of various genders, ages, races and occupations. Time. And Again., then, considers the sociopolitical complexities that have determined how different people have endured the pandemic. The individuals and experiences may be specific, but there is still potential to see ourselves.

Remai Modern previously exhibited one of Lum’s portraits in this style in the 2020 exhibition Next Year’s Country. The work, Cheeseburger, is part of Remai Modern’s collection and comes from Lum’s 1993 Portrait-Repeated Text Series.

Ken Lum, Cheeseburger, 2011, chromogenic print, 196 x 257 x 5 cm. The Mendel Art Gallery Collection at Remai Modern. Purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance program, 2012. Installation view, Next Year’s Country, 2020, Remai Modern. Photo: Carey Shaw.

“Lum came into view in the 1980s in Vancouver, along with a cohort of artists working in photography who loosely became known as ‘The Vancouver School.’ While artists like Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham would largely elide the political implications of their work, Lum collided with it head on. His diptychs were unflinching. They used the language of advertising — bright, saturated-colour photos with subjects in stagey, melodramatic poses — to lampoon blithe and arbitrary rifts created by race and class. Their acid wit made them penetrating, and popular. Gleefully experimental and formally promiscuous, Lum has carried through with those priorities with a career’s worth of work.”

– Murray Whyte for the National Gallery of Canada Magazine, 2019

Death and Furniture exhibition also includes another work from Remai Modern’s collection from Lum’s Photo-Mirror series. Log Cabin is one of several works on view that features a mirror with found photos inserted under the frame, depicting a variety of people and scenes. Before digital photography, many people would similarly tuck a cherished photograph into a mirror.

The people and places in these works are unknown to us. Yet, as one looks at the Photo-Mirrors’ reflective surface, there is a familiarity to the arrangement that is at odds with the unfamiliarity of the subjects. The viewer becomes integrated into the composition, prompting a tension between the external references in the snapshots and the personal experiences each person brings to it.

Death and Furniture is co-organized by Remai Modern, Saskatoon and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. The exhibition brings together a small but impactful career-spanning selection of work by this senior, internationally celebrated Canadian artist.

About Ken Lum

Ken Lum is known for his conceptual and representational art in a number of media, including painting, sculpture and photography. A long-time professor, he currently is the Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design in Philadelphia. He was formerly Professor of Art at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver where he was also Head of the Graduate Program in Studio Art; Bard College, Annendale on Hudson, New York, and the l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris.  Besides English, Lum speaks French and Cantonese Chinese.

A co-founder and founding editor of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, he is a prolific writer with numerous published articles, catalogue essays and juried papers. As an artist, he has a long and active art exhibition record of over 30 years, including major exhibitions such as Documenta 11, the Venice Biennale, Sao Paolo Bienal, Shanghai Biennale, Carnegie Triennial, Sydney Biennale, Busan Biennale, Liverpool Biennial, Gwangju Biennale, Moscow Biennial, Whitney Biennial, among others. 

Lum holds an honorary doctorate from his undergraduate alma mater, Simon Fraser University.  He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hnatynshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award and is a Penn Institute of Urban Research Fellow.  He was offered a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University in 2011 which was not exercised.  In late 2017, Lum was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada. For Monument Lab, he was co-receiver of a Knight Foundation grant along with Paul Farber.  In 2018, he was granted a Pew Fellowship from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

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