This is the first solo show in New York in some 10 years for acclaimed Canadian artist, writer, curator, and educator Ken Lum, whose iconic 1989 photo and text work, “Melly Shum Hates Her Job” (not exhibited here), achieved cult status in The Netherlands (and elsewhere) and ultimately inspired a major Rotterdam museum to change its name. The former Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, named after a local street — which itself is named for a virulently colonialist 17th-century Dutch naval offer — is now Kunstinstituut Melly.
With their sophisticated interplay between image, text, materials, color, and driving ideas, Lum’s works often have a pronounced emotional impact. That’s certainly what has happened in Rotterdam. Spanning photography, sculpture, text, and photo-text pieces, his new exhibition features nine works from four series, making this an impressive survey show in miniature. In one room, two digital prints from the series Time. And Again employ a similar strategy as “Melly,” but updated for this raw pandemic era.
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As a Black woman gently pushes a small child on a swing, she turns her face toward something in the distance — a commonplace image. The text on the right is jarring: “They have no idea how much I work. They have no idea how hard I work. They have no idea what I do.”
The word “they” is ambiguous; maybe other unseen people near this urban playground, neighbors or passing strangers, insensitive or hostile management at her place of employment, maybe a whole white-dominated culture that consistently denigrates or ignores Black labor and achievements. Lum typically leaves much room for viewers to make their own insights and connections.
“I Lost My Job” (2021) is an unremarkable image of a middle-aged white man standing with his dog in an urban park. The rhythmic, repetitive, vividly colored text — “I lost my job. What am I going to do? “I lost my job. What am I going to do?? What am I going to do?” — succinctly encapsulates the despair and vulnerability of joblessness and economic upheaval. Both works exude palpable empathy.
Also here are two fictive yet plausible large obituaries from the Necrology series. In the typographical style and cadences of 18th- and 19th-century frontispieces, they announce the life and death of an otherwise obscure Camden, New Jersey, clerk-typist/keypunch operator and a woman from the Manila slums who was lured into drug smuggling by a “phony employment recruiter” and ultimately executed in Indonesia by firing squad. Lum invests them with historical drama and grandeur.
In the center of the other exhibition space is a square sculpture formed from inward-facing plush purple sectional furniture (“Purple Square,” 2021); it’s from Lum’s Furniture Series (1978-ongoing). This minimalist sculpture consists of mass-produced items. It could easily seem a wry indictment of consumerist culture, until one considers that for many people in poverty (including Lum’s family when he was young) this is aspirational furniture signals the likely unattainable good life: the seats cannot be accessed without climbing over their tops.
Four works from Lum’s Photo-Mirrors II series are arrayed around the room, each on its own wall and featuring a photograph printed on a glass mirror mounted on aluminum. These works extend the artist’s Photo-Mirrors series, which he began in 1997, and which include viewers and inspire them to question their own identities and biases.
An undulating, grassy plain, with a few protruding shrubs, fills the bottom quarter of “Little Big Horn” (2021); it’s an image straight from the American heartland. In the distance is a small copse atop a modest hill, along with a barely visible building. Colors are subtle, yet pronounced: dark and light green, tawny yellow, the gray-black of elongated shadows. Materiality is also pronounced: grass, tufts, the land’s slopes and protrusions, the stalwart yet vulnerable trees.
Little Bighorn, in southern Montana, is where in 1876 Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, warred with and annihilated the invading US Army. It’s not their (brief) triumph that has been celebrated in the United States, but instead the “heroic” defeat of the colonizing US troops, led by General George Armstrong Custer.
The mirror seems, from some vantage points, like a huge, gray sky filling the top three quarters of the work, but from others reflects the surrounding architecture, other artworks, and — importantly — viewers. On an adjacent wall is the startling and, for me, mesmerizing “Main Street, USA” (2021). Costumed Disney characters — Goofy, Pinocchio, Mickey, Donald — along with a marching band member in a splendid white suit, and others, decontextualized, form an enthusiastic, but unnerving and bereft troupe in a void.
From Vancouver, the child and grandchild of working-class Chinese immigrants, Lum relocated to Philadelphia, where he now chairs the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. His adopted, hugely conflicted country is approached thoughtfully and obliquely, with hints and suggestions.
Witness the Chinese American woman in a hat, wearing a floral blouse, her expression pensive, her face slightly covered by a gossamer veil (“Anna May Wong,” 2021). She exudes smart, sultry movie star glamour and for good reason. Anna May Wong (1905-1961), whose birth name was Wong Liu Tsong, was Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star. Appearing in more than 60 films, she was (unsurprisingly) pigeonholed into stereotypical Asian female roles and moved to Europe, where she could be freer and flourish as an artist.
The mirror works wonders, evoking the silver screen, returning Wong to star status in a fresh context, while her portrait evokes the escalating anti-Asian racism and violence (especially against women) in the United States. Both Wong and Lum are from West Coast Chinese immigrant families, both knew privation and faced racial discrimination, both gravitated to the arts.
“America at Night” (2021), likely a satellite shot of the nocturnal country, shows the familiar shape of the continental US, but isolated on a mirror and without neighbors — no Canada to the north, no Mexico to the south. Populous areas (the East, parts of coastal California, large cities) are ablaze with lights; less populated areas are largely dark. This gorgeous work evinces a profoundly divided country and by extension its skewed, increasingly dangerous political system, which favors white voters and rural states.
A remarkable thing about this exhibition space is how these static works are in constant visual flux, always interacting with one another, because of the mirrors and reflections. As one moves about, Anna May Wong appears in Little Bighorn — a fleeting, visual connection between racism, oppression and violence. The Disney characters loom in front of the nocturnal United States. The US appears to balance — precariously — on the sculpture. Lum includes, and directly challenges, viewers in this welcome, and welcoming, show.
Ken Lum continues at Magenta Plains (149 Canal Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through October 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.