Ken Lum on art and controversy

The Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and Chair of Fine Arts at the Weitzman School, who has solo art exhibitions in New York and Ontario, discusses his art and controversy surrounding it.

On September 17, the breakout New York gallery Magenta Plains opened an exhibition of new work by Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor, chair of fine arts, and senior curatorial adviser at Monument Lab. Lum’s work is also the subject of a solo exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario that brings together photographic works, sculptures and installations from several series by the artist.

An exhibition by Ken Lum of a purple couch with four sides and two prints hanging on the wall.
Installation view of Ken Lum’s exhibition at Magenta Plains in New York. (Image: Weitzman News)

That same month, the city of Edmonton announced it would not install a major outdoor work it commissioned from Lum in 2012 and completed in 2016, due to concerns that the work could be seen as an endorsement of colonialism and that it would be harmful, especially to indigenous peoples. Lum, who holds dual American-Canadian citizenship, talks about the works in his New York exhibition, the ways his work has been received in different countries, and the experience of finding himself at the center of a public-art controversy.

Lum’s solo show is his first in a New York gallery in over a decade, where he’s showing a new series of photographs transferred onto mirror surfaces. Lum also has an exhibition on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where, he says his art receives a different reception in Canada than it does in the United States.

“I think my work in the United States is less known, but, paradoxically, I feel that the reception of my work in the United States is more in line with my intentions for the work,” he says. “In Canada, there’s a kind of moral demand of art, that art be ultimately a redemptive practice. In America, it’s not like that. In America, if there are horrors in society, all that matters is that you express the dimensions of that horror, without resolution, or providing a way out such that a redemptive character of art would offer. I’ve always been more American in that way of thinking. I think that makes for more interesting art, as opposed to announcing any moral directives a priori to the experience of art.”

The city of Edmonton announced its decision to not install a public sculpture it had commissioned from Lum, an act he sees as a troubling, and not a solution.

“A society is comprised of a diversity of views. Yet at the same time, public art is still expected to speak to all people with one voice,” Lum says. “That makes for an untenable situation for public art, given the reality of the heterogeneous and multicultural society in which we live. The expectations of the ways in which traditional monuments operated continues to burden or overshadow the expected performance of public art today.”

“The only alternative is to make works that avoid politics or explicit commentary about society, in order to avoid the problem of contestation,” he says. “Or, make public art works highly provisional and not permanent, meaning that any contestable content is more tolerated knowing that it will eventually be removed. My Edmonton work attests to the impossibility I just referred to, but that does not mean that as an artist I given up trying to say something meaningful through my art.”

Read more at Weitzman News.