This is the first solo exhibition in New York in a decade 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), rose to cult status in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) and ultimately inspired a major museum in Rotterdam to change its name. The former Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, named after a local street – which itself bears the name of a virulently colonialist 17th-century Dutch naval tender – is now Kunstinstituut Melly.
With their sophisticated interplay between image, text, materials, color and motor ideas, Lum’s works often have a pronounced emotional impact. This is certainly what happened in Rotterdam. Covering photography, sculpture, text and photo-text pieces, his new exhibition features nine works from four series, making for an impressive investigative exhibition in miniature. In a room, two digital prints from the series Time. And even employ a strategy similar to “Melly,” but updated for this raw pandemic era.
As a black woman gently pushes a small child on a swing, she turns her face to something in the distance – a mundane image. The text on the right is shocking: “They have no idea how much I work. They have no idea how hard I work. They have no idea what I’m doing.
The word “they” is ambiguous; maybe other unseen people near that urban playground, neighbors or passing strangers, unresponsive or hostile management at his workplace, maybe an entire white-dominated culture that belittles or ignores constantly the work and achievements of black people. Lum generally leaves plenty of room for viewers to make their own ideas and connections.
“I Lost My Job” (2021) is a mundane image of a middle-aged white man standing with his dog in an urban park. The rhythmic, repetitive, brightly 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 desperation and vulnerability of unemployment and economic upheaval. Both works exude a palpable empathy.
Here are also two great fictional but plausible obituaries of the obituary 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/keystroke operator and woman from the Manila slums who was lured into the drug trade by a “fake job recruiter” and eventually executed in Indonesia by firing squad. Lum invests them with historical drama and grandeur.
At the center of the other exhibition space is a square sculpture formed from plush purple sectional furniture facing inwards (“Purple Square”, 2021); it comes from Lum Furniture series (1978-ongoing). This minimalist sculpture consists of mass-produced elements. This could easily seem like an ironic indictment of consumer culture, until you consider that for many people living in poverty (including Lum’s family when he was young), this ambitious furniture signals the good life probably inaccessible: the seats are not accessible without climbing on their tops. .
Four works by Lum Photo-Mirrors II are arranged around the room, each on its own wall and featuring a photograph printed on an aluminum mounted glass mirror. These works extend the career of the artist Photo-Mirrors series, which he started in 1997, which includes viewers and challenges them to question their own identities and biases.
A rolling, grassy plain with a few prominent shrubs fills the lower quarter of “Little Big Horn” (2021); it’s an image straight from the heart of America. In the distance, a small grove on top of a modest hill, as well as a barely visible building. The colors are subtle but pronounced: dark green and light green, tawny yellow, the gray-black of elongated shadows. The materiality is also pronounced: the grass, the clumps, the slopes and the protrusions of the terrain, the vigorous but vulnerable trees.
Little Bighorn in southern Montana is where, in 1876, Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, fought and crushed the invading United States Army. It was not their (brief) triumph that was celebrated in the United States, but rather the “heroic” defeat of the American colonizing troops, led by General George Armstrong Custer.
The mirror looks, in some viewpoints, like a huge gray sky filling the upper three-quarters of the work, but in others it reflects the surrounding architecture, other works of art and, above all, the spectators. On an adjacent wall is the surprising and, for me, haunting “Main Street, USA” (2021). Costumed Disney characters – Goofy, Pinocchio, Mickey, Donald – as well as a member of the marching band in a splendid white costume, and others, decontextualized, form an enthusiastic, but unnerving and devoid troupe in the void.
From Vancouver, the child and grandson of working-class Chinese immigrants, Lum moved to Philadelphia, where he now heads the fine arts department of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. His highly conflicted adopted country is approached thoughtfully and obliquely, with hints and suggestions.
Witness the Chinese-American woman with a hat, dressed in a flowered blouse, a pensive expression, her face slightly covered with a veil of gauze (“Anna May Wong”, 2021). She exudes a smart, sultry movie star glamor 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 over 60 films, she was (unsurprisingly) locked into stereotypical Asian female roles and moved to Europe, where she could be more free and flourish as an artist.
The mirror works wonders, evoking the silver screen, returning Wong to stardom in a new context, while her portrayal evokes the escalation of anti-Asian racism and violence (especially against women) in the United States . Wong and Lum are both from Chinese immigrant families on the west coast, both experienced racial deprivation and discrimination, both drawn to the arts.
“America at Night” (2021), likely a satellite shot of the land at night, shows the familiar shape of the continental United States, but isolated on a mirror and without neighbors – no Canada to the north, no Mexico to the south. Populated areas (the East, parts of the California coast, major cities) are ablaze with lights; less populated areas are mostly dark. This magnificent work bears witness to a deeply divided country and, by extension, its skewed and 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 each other, due to mirrors and reflections. As one moves, Anna May Wong appears in Little Bighorn – a fleeting visual connection between racism, oppression and violence. Disney characters loom over the nocturnal United States. The United States seems to be balancing itself – precariously – on the sculpture. Lum includes and directly engages viewers in this welcoming and welcoming show.
Ken Lum continues in Magenta Plains (149 Canal Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through October 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.