“Death and Furniture” is an apt title for this selection of new and older work by Ken Lum. Coined intuitively by Michelle Jacques, Remai Modern’s (RM) chief curator, who cocurated the exhibition with RM’s Johan Lundh in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the phrase chimes with those eventualities that we are told are unavoidable (death and taxes). Lum is compelled by such realities, from the philosophical and eschatological to the material and mundane. These ostensible poles of experience oscillate in examples from the “Necrology Series,” 2017; “Four French Deaths in Western Canada (2002),” 2017; “PhotoMirrors,” 1997; “Furniture Sculptures,” 1978–present; and “Time. And Again,” 2021. “And” is a concept for Lum. With directness, unpretentiousness, honesty and a dry wit, he conveys the intricacies and complexity of the conjunction. No wonder he chose the title Everything is Relevant for his recent collection of writing on art and society, 2020.
“Death and Furniture” does not aspire to review Lum’s 45year career (his last survey in Canada was at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011). The exhibition is admirably focused, “emblematic” (to use a word Lum deploys often in interviews) of his practice, a distillation of his concerns and ways of artmaking. The threeroom exhibition space at the AGO leads the viewer through his series in the order I’ve noted. Beginning with the assertive appearance and intricate lexicon of the “Necrology” and “Four French Deaths” works is effective. The understated texts and neutral typesetting of the latter are banal; they are painfully terse for a life summarized. By contrast, the facing “Necrology Series” delivers what is to contemporary viewers a visually confusing imagetext of different fonts, spacings and punctuation. Lum initially found this presentation “florid” but was drawn to it by the dramatic front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer of April 15, 1865, as it shouted the news of President Lincoln’s assassination. Lum amplifies the scale—the volume, both spatial and auditory—of such already highly charged accounts. We take in the sad tale of Yasir Khorshed, “who fought on behalf of garment workers’ rights only to die at an early age of benzene poisoning, at one time a not uncommon cause of death for garment workers.” “I included, or wove in, my own garment-worker mother’s death from benzene-generated leukemia” in Vancouver, Lum reported in a text on his “Necrology” works in Border Crossings, March 2019. This first room establishes the perfect mindset for the balance of “Death and Furniture”: quotidian and extreme at once, forcefully emotional yet subdued in hue, not quite neutral, the imagetexts are mirrors that merge past and present for the audience. While para-fictional, they are psychologically true.
Lum compresses the past and present in more literal ways with his “Photo-Mirrors.” Framed mirrors familiar from domestic interiors are casually adorned with snapshots pushed into their perimeters. Viewers will compose plausible narratives about these family photographs even though Lum has no particular story to tell. As in many mirror works in the past, such as Michelangelo Pistoletto’s from the 1970s and Michael Snow’s Authorization, 1969, artists and viewers also see themselves seeing. Much more than today’s selfie moment, however, with Lum we can observe this charged moment of vision from afar.
At the AGO, the “Photo-Mirrors” surround (or are centred by) a new “Furniture Sculpture.” Annoying and even offensive to viewers in the late 1970s when Lum first made them, he relates that, now, he’s often asked to extend this series. Lum arranges the commercial sets of sofas, side tables and lamps in closed formation, like mirrors facing one another. You cannot physically enter this comfy rose-coloured haven or participate in the solipsistic conversation. The silence of the sofas contrasts sharply with the visual cacophony of the mirrors.
Four large and intensely coloured panels from Lum’s recent exhibition “Time. And Again” command the final room. Reminiscent of his signature “Portrait-Repeated Text” series of 1993 and cognate imagetexts, the full-length photo portraits on the left panels were taken in Antwerp for an exhibition at the Middelheim Museum in 2021. Each image is ordinary; we can easily imagine it. All are anti-heroic but accompanied by an insistent, repeating text set against a vibrant, monochromatic background (Lum alludes to the powerful use of monochromes set against violent news images by Warhol). The overt theme is labour during the warped time of the pandemic, its racial, economic and generational inflections. In I know I’m lucky. I have a job, for example, we see a young delivery person in uniform and protective mask pausing on an affluent street as they reflect on their fate relative to others who are less fortunate, pictured in the other three images. The mantra is compulsively inflected to establish a viable narrative of identity. The orange label on the package just delivered says “free to be,” but these workers are not so free.
“Death and Furniture” captures the profound everydayness of our lives and our deaths. Living, we inevitably repeat our own pasts and those of larger social and cultural entities. But we don’t just repeat ourselves, as the ever-precise Lum suggests with the orthographically unusual title “Time. And Again.” Ironically, we are stopped on the idea of time. Repetition (a sort of mirroring) is both constant yet suspended by a period, a notion supported by upended grey sofas that also act as “punctuation” in this room. That pause provided a chance to think about a difference between “Time. And Again” in Antwerp and Saskatoon and its appearance in Toronto. In Belgium, the work was large-scale and outdoors. The RM also staged the work on outdoor billboards. It was public art, the genre for which Lum is perhaps best known (Melly Shum Hates Her Job, 1990, on the exterior of the former Witte de With gallery in Rotterdam, inspired its recent decolonizing renaming as Kunstinstituut Melly, and he is co-founder of the think tank Monument Lab). There seemed to be no acknowledgement of Lum’s public art at the AGO— even though two of his exceptional public sculptures are only blocks from the gallery (Across Time and Space, Two Children of Toronto Meet, 2013, and Memorial to the Battle of Ortona: Peace through Valour, 2016), but even this missed opportunity in Toronto cannot take the public out of Lum’s art. He engages timely public issues that inevitably transcend gallery spaces and simultaneously bring the street into the museum. ❚
“Death and Furniture” was exhibited at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, from February 11, 2022, to May 15, 2022, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, from June 25, 2022, to January 2, 2023.
Mark Cheetham is a professor of Art History at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s.