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Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991–2018 by Ken Lum

At the forefront of Ken Lum’s book Everything is Relevant are questions of art’s necessity. Written over 28 years, the questions start with introspection and move outward and backwards. All the while, in order to contextualize a range of artistic and institutional practices, he is considering an increasingly globalized yet disproportionate art ecology through a broad spectrum of historical precedents.

The book approximately parallels Lum’s professional career. In 1991, Lum was an artist heavily invested in understanding the interplay between art and the experience of the individual. In “The Difference Between Art and Fact,” an essay published in 1995, he explains, “the photographic document functions to affirm human experiences as just so many elements in a grand universal machine.” He defines his practice at the time as an effort to “position one’s work so that it accesses into the viewer’s own feelings and opinions, providing the viewer with his or her own opportunities to respond.” He directly addresses some of his most well-known text and image works, where he paired staged documentary photos with mantra-like texts that console, accost, doubt or reassure both subject and viewer. Lum identifies precisely the reasons the image-texts continue to resonate even 30 years after they were created. The works transmute a heady photo-conceptual canon into something more personal and human. As a young artist, he recognized the valuable “point-of-entry” narrative—even in the microcosm of an image—that was offered to the viewer by addressing their own subjectivity.

Gradually, the focus of the artist turned outward as he began to consider, through a discursive lens of cultural practice, the impact of art on society. Lum is a sharp reader of history. In “Canadian CulturalPolicy: A Problem of Metaphysics,” he retraces the history of Canadian cultural identity, applying a critical biographical examination of the policy that led to Expo ’67, and eventually toward the “operating framework for art in Canada.” The essay could easily be just a revisiting of a well-documented cultural moment but instead feels particularly innervating as it refocuses the familiar calls for an investigation into the damage inflicted by a modernist project where the hoarding of wealth is deemed progress. He notes that in the 1970s, “the operating framework for art in Canada was developed, in part, as a critique of the American art system.” That a non-market gallery system could come into being— no matter how dysfunctional or wayward it may have been—represented an oppositional model that could, in the words of Canadian cultural theorist Tom Henighan, “encourage the development of aesthetic heterogeneity and cultural diversity” and escape the “social corruption of capitalism.” Lum laments the cultural, political and fiscal opposition that the Canadian arts network faced. In one example, he recounts the historical significance of the Canada Council Art Bank, which in the 1980s used federal funding to purchase, archive and disseminate works of art by noted Canadian artists. The original cultural function of the Art Bank was to create a living document of contemporary art in Canada and to also have some revenue flow to artists. While the Art Bank still functions today, the operating guidelines are explicit in their priorities: “The objective is to create an inventory of works that will make it possible for the Art Bank to achieve its goal of a break-even budget.” When faced with austerity-induced budget cuts, the Art Bank was forced to de-emphasize its role as a national archive. Its commodification means its primary function is as private consultant and rental service of palatable office artworks for the comfortable law firms, banks and administrative clients that solicit its services: an unfortunate illustration of Lum’s concerns.

A similar form of institutional critique is more evident in the latter half of Everything is Relevant. In “Contemporary Art Within and Without Institutions,” an essay published in 2005, Lum opens, “I have often shared dinner or drinks with artists where we discussed the problem of art and its entanglement with the art system; in other words, the problem of the non-identity between art and the art world.” Lum goes on to define the art world as a “network force in which art is implicated epistemologically and hermeneutically, to be ultimately processed as exchange value.” The problem, as Lum identifies it, comes from who it is who dictates the beneficiaries of that value. “Why is the system of validation so flawed that the measurement of so many good and bad artists is completely fungible? And if this is the case, whose interest, ultimately, does this pre-tense of objective measurement serve?” The inconsistencies between the market and “objective” public policy are apparent and problematic.

The question is offered rhetorically, but it should be considered that, 15 years after the essay’s publishing, Lum, who posed it, has long been considered a mainstay within the globalized micro-economy he critiques. This seems an inevitable conundrum of success. It’s the same position that complicates a later essay commemorating over 20 years of programming at the museum formerly known as the Witt de Withe in Rotterdam. Lum espoused the progressive curatorial mission of the museum, where he was the inaugural exhibitor when it opened in 1990. “Its purpose is not so much to remedy social tensions as to provide an outlet for their expression through art in as surprising an aesthetic language as possible.” The most lasting work from the exhibition was Melly ShumHates Her Job, one of his best-known text-image works depicting “a dishevelled young woman sitting in her cramped office,” along with the title’s text beside her. Mounted on the outside of the building, the work has now become an iconic image in Rotterdam, and the institution’s logo. In 2017 a group of cultural professionals, artists and activists led by Black and non-Black people of colour published an open letter condemning the institution’s name for its uncritical examination of its namesake, a high-ranking 17th-century Dutch colonial naval officer. Nearly three years after the letter was sent, and following extensive public consultation, the museum renamed itself Kunstinstitut Melly, after the protagonist in Lum’s inaugural work, still on display on the museum’s exterior.

Re-examination of public monuments, geographical names and institutions by artists and academics through a post- and neocolonial lens has reignited conversations in the mainstream about how colonial societies remember and acknowledge their own histories. The relationship between the renaming in Rotterdam and Lum’smore recent projects exploring art and its relationship to the public presents a complicated network. In Philadelphia, where Lum lives, he notes that the subjects of the city’s public monuments include no Black people (who make up over 40% of the city’s population) and only two women. In Philadelphia, Lum recalls in “On Monument Lab,” a previously unpublished essay from 2018, “we were also interested in issues of embodiment that are inherent to the ambivalence that is part of any construction of symbolic unity, as well as the negated or unacknowledged histories that have been evacuated from the monument and yet remain palpable as an absence.” In a passage from “Contemporary Art Within and Without Institutions,” which supports this argument, Lum writes that “in conjunction with social and political activism and emergent anti-globalization movements, critical practices and institutions are looking for new modes of production and participation, and new spaces of critique in the overlapping fields of culture, urbanism, and politics.”

In one entry from “The London Art Diaries, 1999–2000,” a column originally published in the London Times, Lum questioned his assigned status as not quite a writer but “an artist who writes” and finds the necessity for classification unhelpful. “Are those who write usually the theorizers for truer artists who theorize through their work only?” With hindsight, it’s made clear that this relates to the more general questions he poses in later writings: Does the explicit articulation of the theory employed in an artwork undermine or negate the artist’s privilege to avoid investigating the larger societal conditions involved in the artwork’s creation? Should it be necessary for the artist to choose one over the other? Lum maintains a self-awareness as he moves through decades of critical theory.

The discussion above is pulling only single threads from a complex series of texts that are generous in their analysis and insight into the making of culture both in and outside the institutional “art world.” The book also includes many significant topics that Lum covers: a lengthy essay on aesthetic pedagogy in Republican China, a cultural analysis of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a touching recounting of the first time he met artist Chen Zhen, to name just some. The book is thoughtful and expansive. As a collection, Everything is Relevant offers a dedicated reader a valuable index on the history of thought by an artist and teacher with a singular career. ❚

Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991–2018, by Ken Lum, Concordia University Press, 2020, 320 pages, paperback, $64.95.

John Patterson is a visual artist and writer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Treaty 1 territory.

Volume 40, Number 1: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #156, published May 2021.

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