In conceiving the exhibition Death and Furniture, a career-spanning selection of works by acclaimed Canadian artist Ken Lum, curators Michelle Jacques and Johan Lundh used his new series Time. And Again. as a starting point. In these works, 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 global pandemic.
In addition to having his work featured in galleries and museums, Lum has utilized public spaces throughout his career.
For this exhibition, curators Michelle Jacques and Johan Lundh felt it was important to include a public art element to connect to Lum’s practice. The Time. And Again. series can be seen in the museum’s Marquee Gallery, but it is also featured on five billboards in downtown Saskatoon.
“Throughout Ken’s career, there has been a real dedication to bringing art outside of the gallery to make public artworks,” said Lundh. “We knew we wanted to showcase that part of his practice through this exhibition. It’s also an opportunity for Remai Modern to extend its reach to new audiences and make connections with people outside of the museum space.”
All five billboards are clustered together in a walkable area of downtown Saskatoon. Each one contains a portrait of an individual juxtaposed against a short text. These brief writings explore common feelings many of us have had during the pandemic, which heightened insecurities related to work.
The Time. And Again. series ties back to an important work from Lum’s career. Melly Shum Hates Her Job has been a permanent fixture on the exterior wall of the Rotterdam centre formerly called the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art since 1990. The institution renamed itself Kunstinstituut Melly in 2019 in honour of the work.
“The name ‘Melly’ originally refers to the billboard-artwork “Melly Shum Hates Her Job” by Ken Lum, installed on our building’s façade since 1990. This work portrays a smiling young woman of Asian descent in an office, along with the title’s message typed and scaled at equal proportion. The protagonist, Melly Shum, has come to signify not only the image of a female, working-class anti-hero. It has also come to stand for resilience and immigration as widespread social experiences.”– Kunstinstituut Melly
From Lum’s website:
“I had the honour of being the inaugural exhibitor at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam when it opened its doors in 1990. The exhibition was a survey of my furniture sculptures, language paintings, and photo-text works. One of the latter works included was Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1990). Represented is a disheveled young woman sitting in her cramped office. Along with this photograph is text that echoes the title of the work. The vibrating “HATES” speaks of the frustration of Melly Shum even though the voice of the text is ambiguous. As a way to advertise my exhibition and the opening of the Witte de With, I was asked whether I would agree to remake one of my photo-text works in billboard form for display on an outside wall of the museum. I agree on the condition that the billboard contains no mention of my name or any wording citing my exhibition.
At the end of the exhibition, the image of Melly was taken down and the Witte de With staff received several telephone calls and a number of written protest messages demanding Melly’s reinstatement. Asked by Witte de With curators and staff why it was important for Melly Shum to return to the corner at Witte de Withstraat and Boomgaardstraat, several callers reasoned that every city needs a monument to hating one’s job. Melly has been permanently installed since 1990. Since then, Melly Shum has become much more than a marker for the people of Rotterdam: she exists as a dynamic symbol of the relationship between the Witte de With and the world at large. The ways in which people have interacted with Melly Shum Hates Her Job continues to surprise me. Flickr and Facebook pages have been created in honour of Melly Shum and her persona has even been adopted by a Tweeter who regularly tweets about hating his own job. While I may have created Melly Shum Hates Her Job, the public has been activating the work far beyond my initial intentions.”
Ken Lum: Death and Furniture is on view at Remai Modern until May 15. Following its run in Saskatoon, an iteration of the exhibition will be mounted at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
- Remai Modern Currents: Artist brings pandemic anxieties into sharp focus
- Globe & Mail: Artist Ken Lum’s new work looks at spiritual decay from labour
- The Conversation: ‘Melly Shum Hates Her Job’ but Europeans love this work by Canadian artist Ken Lum