Joni Low on the art of Ken Lum

 View of “Ken Lum: Death and Furniture,” 2022–23. Floor: Untitled Furniture Sculpture, 1978–. From the series “Furniture Sculptures,” 1978–. Walls: Works from the series “Photo-Mirrors,” 1998.

Michelle Jacques and Johan Lundh curated the exhibition.

We LIVE IN A TIME furniture that isn’t connected to memories. Toni Morrison in her novel The Bluest Eye (1970), describes this as “certainly no memories to be cherished.” Silent witnesses, our furnishings can evoke inarticulable yet visceral reactions: Take the sofa that arrived damaged, which one still pays for monthly, whose “joylessness stank,” to borrow Morrison’s words, is “pervading everything.” This object bears haunted traces of the indescribable circumstances surrounding our condition. Maybe the truths of life lie between the sad sunken sofa and the social architecture of racism, which whispers how dreams die.

Ken Lum’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, “Death and Furniture,” begins with these philosophical certainties, only to unravel them. Through his “Furniture Sculptures,” 1978–, a series of mirror works and image-text pieces, Lum deftly conjures the larger social contexts and feelings that exceed language and representation. The show—which was curated by Michelle Jacques and Johan Lundh for the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, before coming to Toronto; the current iteration has been organized by AGO’s Xiaoyu Weng—presents a focused selection of Lum’s oeuvre from the past forty years, connecting recurrent threads within the artist’s practice: mortality, the instabilities of identity, and difference, filtered through the artist’s trademark acerbic humor.

A gallery is divided by rows of gray-fabric couches that are upturned. They form a row like tombstones. Flanking them is “Time. And Again.,” 2021, a set of Lum’s repeated-text billboards, updated to address the anxieties exacerbated by our elongated pandemic and our cyclical “death while living.” The format’s tensions oscillate between what is seen and what is said, enacting our subjective interpretations to fill narrative gaps. They represent a variety of backgrounds: a young contract labourer looking for their next job, a newly unemployed senior with a dog, and parents trying to cope with the loss of work-life balance at home. The billboard I know I’m lucky. I have a job, 2021, juxtaposes a picture of a masked, middle-aged white woman delivering online orders with the deadpan mantra I KNOW I’M LUCKY. I HAVE A JOB. I KNOW I’M LUCKY, I’M SO LUCKY. A JOB. The work’s jarring red letters on a blue background aggravate. Ironically, the delivery box’s logo reads FREE TO BE, the hollow slogan echoing the false promises of late-capitalist consumerism.

As social mirrors, Lum’s works map the difficulties of enduring psychological and emotional dead ends.

We are constantly surrounded by death. How can we honor those who have died? Lum’s “Necrology Series,” 2016–17, a group of quasi-fictional obituaries designed in a florid nineteenth-century style, monumentalizes the lives of working-class people doomed by racial and global capitalism. The works’ overblown, eclectic typography and irregular kerning perform an absurd parody of traditional death notices, honoring the quotidian lives of people struggling to survive with few avenues for change. YASIR KhORSHED reads one headline in Old Western typeface that curves dramatically. Below it is a story about a man who fought tirelessly for garment workers’ rights, only to die at the age of thirty-four from cancer caused by benzene, an extremely toxic chemical used in the textile industry. Lucy Chona Santos: The Most Tragic CaseThe 2016 book, in archaic serif, tells the story of Lucy, who, after being tricked and forced to smuggle heroin, supported her family in Manila. Lum doesn’t allow anyone who has fallen through the cracks of the system to be forgotten.

Ken Lum, Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression (detail), 2002, mirror, wood, Plexiglas, paint, acrylic sheet. Installation view, Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 2022. Photo: Carey Shaw.

In Mirror Maze with 12 Signs Of Depression, 2002—an installation that deserves mention since it was in the Remai Modern presentation but unfortunately is not included here—we are confronted with ourselves, reflected and fragmented ad infinitum, with no clear exits. Thoughts caused by clinical depression—LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING, THERE IS NO FUTURE FOR ME—are etched onto the mirrors, recalling the all-too-familiar hopelessness produced by the pandemic and signaling humanity’s wider mental-health malaise. Similar to virtual spaces we’ve created to try and maintain connection and solidify our existence, Mirror Maze presciently warns of the digital realm’s disorientations and claustrophobic isolation. As social mirrors, Lum’s works map the difficulties of enduring psychological and emotional dead ends. We are trapped in these echo chambers and are unable to tell truth from fiction, self or other. Who do we really project to? This fragmentation could be an end to certain egoistic ideas about what it means for us to be human.

Joni Low is an author, independent curator and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.

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