Shaped and Shaping

The Cultural Influence of Ken Lum

Monument Lab is an astonishing accomplishment; the very monumentality of its intention, actualization and range speaks, in the most thorough introductory way, to the person and artist Ken Lum. I recommend you look at the Monument Lab website. Its straightforward, disarmingly earnest presentation includes the expected categories: Vision Statement and Values (but here not the usual programmatic language or goals). It was under Organization Bio and the opening sentences of this long section that its simple sincerity, actually evident throughout, especially caught my attention. I’m not certain what it was about those lines; unpretentious, they seem outside the usual. “Monument Lab is a nonprofit public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. Monument Lab works with artists, students, educators, activists, municipal agencies, and cultural institutions on participatory approaches to public engagement and collective memory.” Everything is there.

Ken Lum, Monument to East Vancouver, public art sculpture, 2010, concrete, steel, aluminum, impact-modified acrylic, LED illumination, 17.4 metres high. Image courtesy the artist.

Ken Lum founded Monument Lab in 2012 with his colleague Paul Farber. It began as a series of conversations in the classrooms where they taught. It has grown, it is inclusive, productive and effective. In 2020 Monument Lab received a grant of $4 million from the Mellon Foundation. Its work continues.

Early in the interview below Ken Lum said, in response to the suggestion that art is, for him, very personal, “I think art is always about the theorization of biography. How I was constituted and my perspective are all I can bring to the art world.” And near to the conclusion of the conversation he says again, “I have never been shy about my personal biography.… that’s all I can bring.” All his work is set against, formed by, or in response to his personal history.

Out of this comes his interest in public art as a forum for giving voice—a subject to which he is attentive, addressing, as he says, a non-art audience who rarely gets to participate. He speaks about one of his public artworks, Monument to East Vancouver, an illuminated cruciform—the vertical support spelling the word EAST, intersected horizontally by VAN, both sharing the A. Without understanding Lum’s deeply rooted but close-to-the-surface, abiding hurt at having grown up in poverty, meeting prevailing racism and exclusion, of seeing his parents worn, exploited and dying, exhausted from their labour, the response to Monument to East Vancouver was often one of misreading. Assumed to be a tribute and the artist’s responding to his success with pride, it was, in fact, Lum said, about trauma, the trauma of having grown up poor in East Vancouver and everything that attended that situation, and was not a celebratory crowing. He was proud of his mother and her determination, but survival was costly; East Vancouver was there, it was where he came from, it is still there as a fact of ongoing poverty and trauma. Its presence should be acknowledged, which he did, but not in the form of a triumph.

The “Furniture Sculptures,” an ongoing series he began in 1978, makes reference to his early interest in minimalism, to design and to the lauded pursuit of materialist culture. But with their desirable spaces and inviting upholstered sets and surfaces, they also speak to exclusion and inaccessibility. You can look in, but you can’t get in; they are closed off, leaving outsiders reminded of more that isn’t intended for their use.

The “Necrology Series” makes monumental the recorded passing of lives Lum described as “banal, ordinary and everyday.” Presented as large posters printed on archival watercolour paper, they offer short, descriptive histories of people who would not otherwise be notable, making them briefly heroic, as they should have been in the milieu in which they lived. They were also an expression, as he wrote in an introductory essay to a portfolio of these works published in Border Crossings in 2019, a continuation of his “long-standing interest in the fluidity between pictorialism and textuality.”

This interest in the relationship of image and text, where text could generate an image (in the way radio produces an accompanying visual narrative), is present in works like I lost my job or Where’s that kid of mine?, with equal space given to the photograph set beside a block of simple 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?” Lum wants the reader to move, in apprehension, from image to text, back and again, by way of making evident what he identifies as his interest in enhancing duration. There is an oscillation, then, between image and text, and this attenuates the viewer’s engagement. It’s not a confession when he says, “As an artist you want to control the reception of your work as much as possible in advance.” Of course, that’s the artist’s intention: control is communicating an idea, a message, and finally, ideally, connecting.

Ken Lum told us in the interview that follows that art isn’t redemptive, doesn’t need to declare itself an ethical practice. That we should live as ethical beings is clear, here risking possible censure in saying about art’s role, “I don’t see it as compensatory.” But his persistent role as an advocate for the unheard, in recognizing injustice—the establishment of Monument Lab being just one example—makes him an avenging hero in my reading, a kind of superhero. I would vote for Ken Lum Visual Art Avenger. I’d buy that poster and the graphic novel, too.

The following interview with Ken Lum was conducted by phone to Philadelphia on January 3, 2023.

BORDER CROSSINGS: I gather you grew up on the pretty thin side of poverty in Vancouver.

KEN LUM: We were very poor. People seem to have a hard time believing that in Vancouver in the early 1960s we had a wood-burning stove. I remember my mother always reminded me that if I saw a piece of wood on the way home from school that looked like it could burn to please pick it up.

It’s ironic that the school you went to, Admiral Seymour Elementary, was named after the naval officer who attempted to put down the Boxer Rebellion. Where you went to school was loaded with historical implications.

It’s funny you mention that because I didn’t know who Admiral Seymour was when I was a kid, but I certainly knew by the time I grew up. Admiral Seymour Elementary was the poorest school in Vancouver’s Lower East Side and it also had the highest percentage of turnover from year to year because it was a very unstable population; parents would move and kids would disappear and presumably go to another school. I discovered that Admiral Seymour was not just instrumental in the Boxer Rebellion but also in the prosecution of the Opium Wars, which started with the bombing of Canton Harbour. The student population was always at least 30% to 40% Cantonese, and here we were going to a school named after the admiral who bombed Canton Harbour.

You called the talk you gave on Ian Wilson at DIA in New York “From Chalk Circle to Full Circle.” You begin with the first exhibition you curated as a young artist in your own apartment with Wilson’s Chalk Circle on the Floor (1968) and you end with the story of your grandmother turning up at your show in the East Village in New York, where she questions what it is you’re doing. The frame is autobiographical, which makes me think that art for you is a very personal thing.

I think art is always about the theorization of biography. How I was constituted and my perspective are all I can bring to the art world. I’m not talking about relativizing a personal opinion. I’m talking about what an artist can bring to a dialogue that’s already complex and formed and continuing to unfold, and how, through art and writing, you insert yourself into that dialogue. So, yes, I think art is a theory of the self and that’s why I make it. But I also don’t want to hyperbolize the super-romantic idea that it’s my view and screw it if you don’t appreciate it. I don’t believe in that, either.

Across Time and Space, Two Children of Toronto Meet, 2013, bronze on concrete plinths, bronze pin letters on wall. Image courtesy the artist.

Across Time and Space, Two Children of Toronto Meet, 2013, bronze on concrete plinths, bronze pin letters on wall. Image courtesy the artist.

Across Time and Space, Two Children of Toronto Meet, 2013, bronze on concrete plinths, bronze pin letters on wall. Image courtesy the artist.

I heard in your comment about the question your grandmother asked a certain sense of unease about the complications of what an artist does, and that what an artist does isn’t necessarily in the real world.

You’re spot on because I’ve always been interested in non-identity. I don’t like this idea of the gap between art and life; but what does interest me is the non-identity between the ideals of art that motivated me to be an artist in the first place and the reality of the art system. Including the skewing of demographic constituents. Hyperallergic recently did a piece about demographics in the UK art world and discovered that just a hair over 8% come from what you might call the working class.

Is the commitment you have to social justice compensatory? You want to bring it into an ethical frame.

First of all, I don’t believe that art should have to be redemptive. In fact, good art often isn’t redemptive at all. That’s what I like about it and why I’ve never liked those aspects of the Canadian art world that defined art as inherently ethical. I believe we should live as ethical beings, but that’s a different thing from having art do that. I don’t think art needs to declare itself as an ethical practice. I’m talking about what you can speak of and the ways you can speak about it. I don’t see it as compensatory. I’ve always been interested in these questions. I look at the world and I recognize there’s unfairness, but I’m not motivated to make it more fair through art. That sounds compensatory to me. I’m interested in the “real” that you mentioned earlier. What is the real politic? What are the real social circumstances? What are the real ground rules? Those terms are always in flux and are never fully fixed. I talk about the “Capital R Real.” I’m interested in that distance between art and the real. I continue to believe in art because, for all its faults, I can’t think of any other practice that has some means of approximating the real. It’s visual, experiential, it’s bodily and it’s abstract. As a result, it escapes a lot of discursive confinement. Even so, there are a lot of limits in terms of what you can and can’t say.

You’ve talked about alterity and wanting to give voice to the places and the people who have been silenced.

What I mean by “giving voice” is producing democratic space or public space. Producing truly public dialogue means opening democracy up to new voices. There are a lot of rules out there in terms of who gets to wield power, who gets to speak and who gets ignored. Case in point: First Nations people in Canada have historically been ignored and I’m interested in that silencing, not as a crusade but because it deals with the real.

Installation view, “Necrology Series,” 2018, Royale Projects, Los Angeles. Image courtesy the artist.

In one of your “Shopkeeper Series,” the one with the Maple Leaf All Canadian Products sign, you present Sandhu, a guy who has done everything right, and yet he’s having to permanently close down his business. His parting message is “Drop dead Canada.” There’s a sadly bitter humour in that piece.

Yes. I’ve never followed identity politics as a prescriptive formula, and you pay the price for that because people think you’re not a fully engaged artist, you’re not properly engagé. But in the long run people see that my voice is much more individuated.

You close a talk you gave about ghosts in Sam Sullivan’s Public Salon in 2010 with a very fond “Boo,” and what I realized is that Vancouver’s not recognizing ghosts, which are liminal embodiments of real people, is another kind of silencing. You tell ghost stories because they end the silence.

First of all, in Chinese culture you believe in ghosts, not as spectral figures but as dead ancestors. It’s important to know something about them, not as a way of identifying your origins but to have some sense of history. That concern for dead ancestors has also led to my interest in the whole history of contract labour. Going back 500 years, it has been a history of incredible cruelty. I always find it shocking how little people know about these histories. Or if they do, they dismiss it and say, “Well, that’s in the past.”

You get your message across through different levels of directness. In Mounties & Indians (1989) you put the police next to a quartet of Indigenous people. Then Leonida Pizzeria: Under New Management recognizes changing immigration— the Italian pizzeria is adding Chinese food to its menu. The relationship between the image and text in that piece is a subtle engagement with how society is formed and how it changes.

I’m interested in confounding fixed notions about ethnicity. I also think it’s constantly shifting. I was especially influenced by Chantal Mouffe and Michel Foucault, who were interested in how micro-pockets of identity form alliances with other micro-ethnic groups, or even with complex ethnic groups. They form in a way that’s often unexpected because the common interest of togetherness, however provisional, is still very real as a momentary community. I can’t stand things that are fixed, and I don’t believe that’s the way things work. Derrida’s idea that people hold on to stereotypes and clichés is something I am always trying to break. If you go to any small town in the States or in Canada, you will be surprised by the views people hold. You’d be surprised if you went to the heart of Mississippi. We like to think they’re a bunch of rednecks, but it’s never quite what you think it is. That doesn’t mean it’s better; it could actually be worse, but I’m saying that it is definitely more complex.

You didn’t speak English until you were six years old, and I mention that because finding language is a way of gathering comfort. In your practice, language is a capital letter word.

It’s everywhere. I can tell you an anecdote. When I was in school, I remember seeing all White adult faces looking down at me. It was almost like one of those medical dramas where it’s a point-of-view shot and I’m the patient. They were discussing what to do with me because I didn’t speak English and they were seriously thinking about flunking me in grade one. Thank God one teacher came forward and basically made the argument that I should go on to the next grade. I remember being scared of failing because my mother would be furious with me. What comes with being working-class poor is that you need to succeed. I also remember an incident in grade two when I didn’t know any of the Mother Goose stories and this one teacher was incredulous and said, “You don’t know Mother Goose?” Of course, at the time I didn’t know how to respond. But when I was older, I thought about what I should have said: “That’s right, I don’t know who Mother Goose is, but I know who the Monkey King is.”

You’ve said in a conversation that writing helped you better understand yourself and, of course, writing is planned and instrumentalized language. So in learning language, you were learning subjectivity?

In order to communicate your subjectivity, it has to be mediated through words. Writing clarified a lot of things for me. I don’t consider myself a writer. I recently wrote an essay on the Cree artist Brenda Draney for her upcoming exhibition at The Power Plant, and they asked me to supply a biography. I said, “Just say Ken Lum is from Vancouver and is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania,” and they wouldn’t accept it. They told me what I needed to write. I don’t consider myself a writer and I also don’t consider myself a cultural worker, a term I hate. Let’s just say I’ve written.

You’re a teacher, a professor, a writer, you work with Monument Lab and you’re an artist. Somehow you seem able to keep these things discrete. You separate them out from one another, as if a different mindset is operating in each category.

I think that’s accurate but maybe not very smart of me. I’ve never felt comfortable promoting myself. The answer to your question, and I think it was formed out of my background, is that I’ve always had a degree of skepticism about being an artist. I would say everything else is generated by a search for meaning about who I am in this moment in time and space in the world. That motivates me. I’m a skeptic across the range of different practices in which I’ve been engaged. I co-founded Monument Lab because I was interested in certain questions, and I curated some large shows on the topic of culture and politics during the first Republic of China because I was interested in other questions. I wanted to find out more about Africa, so I co-wrote a letter to Cornell University where Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art is published. They wrote back and asked, “What do you know about Africa?” and I said, “Just what I’ve read. I know something about the history of Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet, politician and cultural theorist, I’ve read Frantz Fanon and The Black Atlantic, but I’m not an expert.” Their response was, “That’s more than most people. What would you like to do?” I said, “I have a lot of doubts about the art world, and I think going to West Africa might renew my belief in art.” Because I had to pay for my own air ticket and hotels, I needed to get a part-time job since I didn’t have any money. I got two part-time jobs, saved just enough to get there, and it changed my life. People say to me, “You’ve got a 60-page CV. How did you do all that?” I said, “It’s a little bit like the Maoist line that goes ‘every journey of a thousand steps begins with the first.’”

Does the piece or the idea tell you what medium it wants to be expressed in?

Art is always a twinning of form and content. You have to find the form. How do I know what form is the proper one? Well, you develop a good intuition. I’ve been working in art for a long time, so it’s not some blank intuition. I’m always thinking about things and ideas. I’m an avid reader and probably read several dozens of books a year, usually several at the same time. What’s interesting is that over the succession of years, ideas start to overlap and intertwine and you start building a meshing of ideas and information, a constellation. I get really addicted when that happens. For example, I was reading this book by Edlie L Wong on 19th-century contract labourers, and it astounded me that there wasn’t a single seminar course being taught at the University of Pennsylvania that focused exclusively on the history of indenture. Indenture is one of those spectacularly important subjects that completely changed the world. Sugar cane in Hawaii and the cotton mills in the American South were the product of indentured labour. Indenture is what took place after slavery. It was the transition from the commerce of bodies to the commerce of contracted bodies. Of course, the contract form was usurious and unidirectional, but it was legal and provided a veneer of legitimacy. It was always written in language that disadvantaged the weaker party. Look at the Caribbean and Mauritius, Madagascar, Australia, Singapore and India, all of Central and South America, Africa and Europe, and, of course, Canada and the United States. So much of the world is shaped by indentured labour. And you had competing indentured labour groups. I teach a course that is very popular. The Chinese body is salient in that history. One of my students asked if there has ever been a feature-length film on Chinese contract workers. All I could think of were little scenes from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or Once Upon a Time in the West, where you’d see Chinese people in the background. That’s how I started writing it. Writing a movie screenplay is different from writing academic papers. With screenplays you’re building a world.

Untitled Furniture Sculpture (from the series “Furniture Sculptures”), 1978– present. Image courtesy the artist.

Untitled Furniture Sculpture (from the series “Furniture Sculptures”), 1978– present, Graz, Austria. Image courtesy the artist.

Where’s that kid of mine? (from the series “Time. And Again.”), c 1990, digital image. Image courtesy the artist.

One of the most chilling moments in the screenplay The Cook, Part 2 (2020) is when a character called White Hate Man taunts the miner with the phrase, “Chinky, Chinky, come out from wherever you are.” When I looked at your photograph of a young Asian boy hiding behind a pedestal, I realized he is playing a game in which the same situation is happening.

It was the thought that came into my head. I wanted to allegorize the hiding-in-plain-sight that Asian model citizens are supposed to maintain.

lost my job (from the series “Time. And Again.”), 2021, media and size vary. Image courtesy the artist.

What comes first in the “Portrait-Repeated Text Series”? Do you come up with an idea or situation, or do you come up with a text that you need to find a way to use?

It’s a bit of the chicken and egg dilemma. What happens is I’ll think about a scenario, whether it happened to me or to a friend, or whether it was something I simply witnessed. I was on the bus in Vancouver, and I could see a young woman who was distraught and she was yelling. Then I could see her lumpen boyfriend. It looked like she was angry at him, wanted him back, but she also knew that he wasn’t coming back, and there was ambivalence on her part whether he was any good. But she was afraid of him leaving, and out of that I came up with You Don’t Love Me (1994). Did the text come first? I don’t know. I had the image of her yelling and I had to refine it into a picture form.

The texts are minimal in their number of words and their syntax is uncomplicated. But they’re quite suggestive. Do you want them to seem simple but mean more complexly?

I saw them as almost like mantras, not mantras in the Buddhic sense but the kind that comes about at the moment where language is at its limits. Language is at its ends when whatever pain is felt or experienced cannot be articulated in words. So, when the woman says to her friend, “You’re not dumb, don’t be silly,” she’s only saying it because she can’t find the words anymore. It’s also a recognition that nothing she will ever say will convince her friend that she’s not dumb.

In Always waiting for a call to work, one of the images from your “Time. And Again” series from 2021, “waiting” is mentioned eight times; “always,” four times; and “works” is mentioned twice. How careful is the calibration of the numerical diction that you choose in those pieces?

First of all, I’ve long been resistant to art where you have to spend time literally reading it, although that changed with the “Necrology” works in 2017. I didn’t like the idea of all this reading, so I thought that, even with eight or nine lines of text, if I repeated the lines in variation, it would help the viewer to intuitively apprehend all the words.

It’s a complicated process that circles back to your idea that the pictorial and the textual constantly echo one another. I don’t know if I’m reading or looking, or what is my commitment to each of those processes.

I would even add another point: that the text itself is read by the viewer. The text is ascribed to the picture just as the picture is ascribed to the text, but the picture and the text are apprehended by the viewer. There’s a triangulation going on.

Do you think of the logo portraits as concentrated stories that the viewer then interprets or dramatizes?

I think the viewer must be empathetic or made to be in a position where they identify with the work to some degree. If they don’t, then there’s no emotional connection. The scenarios are generally quite prosaic, so even if they are not specifically ones that someone has experienced, they would have a general proximity to the type of scenario that I’m presenting.

In I lost my job (2021) a line is repeated three times. I read the text out loud and wondered if the tone changes. By the time I say it a third time, the emphasis on “What am I going to do” becomes a measure of desperation, a sense of almost impossibility. If I read it that way, it dramatizes the text. Is that a legitimate way to come at the text?

It’s absolutely legitimate, but I also think that having the viewer instantaneously apprehend the visuality of the text allows them to dart between image and text. Each line is like a variation of a single caption; you’ve got eight or nine of them and they are slightly different and they modify each subsequent or antecedent line. I was interested in Anne Hollander’s book on duration in Dutch painting in which she writes about the effects of enhancing duration. Paintings would have small windows, very faint with light, and by including them the viewer would be encouraged to study that one section of the painting. What has that got to do with these image/text works? Well, I was interested in enhancing duration, and I thought that having two or three not identical lines repeated would actually liberate the viewer from having to read it line by line. You apprehend it quickly as a whole text and your eye darts towards the picture, then comes back to the text, and so on. It’s an oscillation. I think as an artist you want to control the reception of your work as much as possible in advance.

Your sense of detail is persuasive. In Where’s that kid of mine? (2021) the Safeway bags and the mother’s tattoos seem perfectly chosen, in the same way that the best work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson involves serious attention to set design. How careful are these choices? The larger and connected question is whether you cast your subjects, or do you just find them?

Sometimes I just find them, but the woman wouldn’t have Safeway bags. I have lots of thoughts about potential pieces and then I’ll encounter people who will populate them. For example, in A Woodcutter and His Wife (1989), I wanted to do a piece about BC forestry, but I didn’t want to do a didactic piece that said, “Forestry bad.” I do think clear-cutting is bad, but I also wanted to speak about the complexities of an economy that relies on the practice and I didn’t know how to do it. Then I was in Munich and I went to the Alte Pinakothek and saw Lucas Cranach’s painting of Adam and Eve from 1510–12. They’re standing on opposite sides of a tree with the snake in-between them, and I realized that was how I could do my piece. A lot of things had to come together, so when I saw this woman on the BC ferry to Vancouver Island, I approached her. Fortunately, I was carrying my portfolio with me because I was doing a talk. Sometimes it doesn’t work and the person thinks you’re a creep, but in this case it did and the woman became the woodcutter’s wife. I also want to say that I admire Crewdson’s work, but I don’t fetishize the picture. I’m quite rigorous, but I don’t show off to people how much work was involved. I would say, paradoxically, that I put a lot of work into the details in order to make it look so natural that you don’t notice how much work went into it.

I like the characters you choose, like the young keener schoolgirl who has all the answers, or the guy in the wheelchair who is apologizing to his girlfriend. They seem like characters that you could find through central casting. What determined the use of that couple and the young eager girl?

One of my first experiences going to school was encountering a girl like her; there is always some kid who is so smart, so I made a piece about that. The guy in the wheelchair ended up being a picture about a man who would be totally devastated if the woman left. I wasn’t interested in the details of whether he’s a nice guy; I was only interested in this confusion between need and desire. He needs help because he can’t get around and it would be really hard for him. I wanted to make a piece about that because it’s a subject that’s not dealt with very much in art.

It plays into this question of how you deal with social and sexual issues. I’m thinking of the tattooed lady in the “Necrology Series.” The tattoo indicated that she was married to a woman, so I am inclined to read the inconclusive toxicology regarding her death as a possible indication of homophobia.

I wouldn’t say that piece is necessarily about homophobia. It’s just matter of fact; she’s married to a woman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s like with Tracy Bond Meets Pepe Pig (1990–2018); I am always asked the question, “Why is it a mixed-race couple?” and my response is to flip it back, “Why do you ask that question?” My wife is White so I’m interested in that kind of complication, and it’s not a complication that I’m making up. When I started doing those works, I was regularly criticized for trying to create a Disney World. I thought, no, it’s actually the opposite. I do it because that is the world. I have always been interested in the pathology of capitalism and the pathology of commercial signs.

The pathology of signs is a mise en abyme; you can imagine it going on and on and never stopping. Capitalism is endlessly optimistic about its own devouring.

I don’t know if it’s optimistic, but it is endlessly ruthless about its own devouring.

Weren’t you a sign painter when you were young?

I was a sign painter assistant. The pictures I painted were maybe eight by seven feet and often banners of nine by three feet. I didn’t paint billboards, but I did paint on wood a lot, mostly lettering.

The thing about sign painting is it’s the visualization of language, so it falls inside the framework that has interested you for a long time.

The other thing about sign painting, especially when I became an artist, was that it involved the hand. Somehow the trace of the hand, the subjectivity of the “Artist,” was discernible behind the sign painting. Of course, that became even more important when computers took over. You see this trace, especially in poorer countries like Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and India. In those countries there are thousands of artisans who are hand-painting signs, and to me something about that signifies multi-ethnicity, a world of multiple identities.

Installation view of “Shopkeeper Series,” 2002, Galerie Art et Public, Geneva, Switzerland. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Art et Public.

You were part of the Vancouver School. How do you look back at that period, not from the perspective of who you are now but from what you were becoming then?

When I first discovered art, it was a shock because at the time I was working part-time as a flora-and-fauna illustrator for the British Columbia government. I did a lot of ink drawings for the animal and plant brochures that were distributed free on BC ferries. That was the extent of what I thought art was: if you draw a horse, it has to look like a horse. Then I discovered the art world and I went, “What is this?” It opened my eyes and tapped into something deep in me. The most important thing was that I felt I could be good at it and that I could get further ahead doing it than painting signs. I knew that sign painting would be stable and predictable, I might get two weeks off every year and I’d be able to go to one country for a holiday, but I wanted something much more than that.

But weren’t you suspicious of minimalism? You thought they were a bunch of charlatans.

I was suspicious of contemporary art. I was actually taken by minimalism, because it was so intriguing to me at the time. Part of my general suspicion was because none of the colleagues I was meeting could draw better than me. I eventually became reconciled with that.

The “Furniture Sculptures,” which began in 1978 and are an ongoing series, operate inside a broad field of meaning. They’re about consumer culture, about design, and they make references to minimal art. Do you want all those readings in play?

Of course, because I think they’re inherently there. I gave a talk in San Francisco and there was a guest curator who happened to be there. I made a casual comment that the reason I picked this cheap furniture was because I thought my mother would like it. At dinner after the opening this curator opens up and says, “I don’t believe you when you say you picked that furniture because your mother would like it.” I said, “Why not?” and his response was, “Because it’s so clearly ugly.” I was shocked. He simply couldn’t imagine that someone who was a lot poorer might find that furniture attractive and desirable. At another dinner in Belgium, I sat next to some fancy collector and I didn’t know what a special knife was. I said, “What’s this?” and she didn’t speak to me for the rest of the dinner. These things sound funny, but you have to learn these rules, and they’re all skewed towards people who come from a higher income background.

A Woodcutter and His Wife, 1989, c-print, enamel on aluminum, 244 x 152 centimetres. Image courtesy the artist. Collection of Ralph Wernicke, Berlin.

Tracy Bond Meets Pepe Pig, 1990, c-print, enamel on aluminum, 121 x 280 centimetres. Image courtesy the artist. Collection of Pierre Huber, Geneva.

I know that the “Necrology Series” was connected to a facsimile page about Abraham Lincoln from a Philadelphia newspaper, but I also read them as frontispieces for 19th-century leather-bound books, for theatre billboards and as descriptions of runaway slaves. They are metaphoric multi-taskers. They also have a graphic design component because you’re making decisions about point size, kerning and when to use uppers and lowers.

That part was easy compared with the composition of the actual words. I’m not sure which one it is, maybe the Tattooed Lady, but it was one long sentence. Each one took me close to 10 to 12 weeks to write.

On one level they seem humorous. When I say that, I’m reminded of Willa Cather’s observation about Stephen Crane, that “even his jokes were exceedingly drastic.” You talk about the ordinary, but the narratives are over the top. They’re pretty intense.

Yes. The Lucy Chona Santos piece would never sell to a collection. It’s just too depressing. I’m unsure they are over the top, because they operate within the realm of the plausible.

You do an interesting thing with Lucy Chona Santos. You use the smallest point size possible for the most poignant line in it, and that’s the line about the letters she wrote to her son. What’s the strategy of narration in reducing that line to the point where if you didn’t read the text carefully, you could easily overlook the line?

Well, it was a trait of frontispieces to have the first couple of lines larger than the bottom one, so I followed that convention. But I also thought if people were really getting into it, then they were going to keep coming in closer and closer and closer.

The series also becomes personal in the Yasir Khorshed piece because he is a garment factory worker who was an advocate for worker’s rights, who dies from cancer because of his exposure to benzene when he is only 34. That is a way of retelling aspects of your mother’s experience. You’re never far behind those texts.

That’s who I am, right? I’m not ashamed of it. Here’s the best way to put it. When I came up with Monument to East Vancouver (2010), which is known in Vancouver as a public art piece, people felt they had to defend the cross I used. Someone would say to me, “Someone was talking about your piece and complaining that it was the Christian cross, and I told them, it’s a Roman cross because I know you’re not Christian.” And I would respond, “No, it’s a Christian cross.” And they’d say, “But you’re not Christian.” I said, “I’m not, but we live in a world of Christian ethos.” When I did media interviews about that piece, the interviewers would say, “The monument is about your pride in being from the East Side, a celebration of your pride growing up in East Vancouver.” They would be confounded when I would say, “No, if I’d had my druthers as a child, and could choose where I would have preferred to grow up, the West Side or the East Side, I’d pick the West Side. Of course, I would want to grow up in the West Side.” They’d go, “But the piece is about pride,” and I’d say, “No. It’s about all the trauma of the East Side.” Why would I be proud of growing up poor in East Vancouver? Why would I be proud of growing up the son of a sweatshop worker who died early because of the sweatshop? I’m proud of my mother, but why would I be proud of growing up in that background? I’ve never been shy about calling a spade a spade and it confounds people’s expectations. I have never been shy about my personal biography. I always mix those things together because, as I said at the beginning of this conversation, that’s all I can bring.

The biography of Damian Preveau has a kind of Dickensian bleakness about it: the youngest of 11 children, he is abandoned and he ends up becoming a ruthless crime lord. You do two versions of his demise. In one, he’s shot, and in another, he is attacked while sleeping by one of his own gang with a machete. What’s with the detail changes and the shift in the narrative?

I was thinking about how I could improve the ending. It’s like a director’s cut in a movie. The machete death was actually stronger. I started thinking, I know that’s bad form in art, but I don’t care.

These characters are fictional. But what made you invent “Four French Deaths in Western Canada”?

I have a lifelong habit of reading obituaries. I like reading marriages, too, in the society page of the New York Times, but I also like reading obituaries. So, I came upon an obituary in the Vancouver Sun about a guy from France who died in Vancouver. There was a quote by someone who said, “He really missed France,” and there was something sad about that. Then I went to make four French deaths; it just came out like that.

You’ve said that true public art provokes a critical dialogue. I can imagine you doing a side-by-side piece called Portrait of Me, in which your image is on the left-hand side, and on the right-hand side is a text that says, “Hope Springs Eternal with Public Art.” Public art is such a complicated and layered process.

It is a highly compromising process. So many layers of filtering go on that it’s astounding that you can ever make a good public artwork. I’ve always found it unsatisfying that the art I make is restricted to only an art audience. When I say that, I don’t have some romantic idea of the non-art audience. I’m sure there are non-art audience members who don’t care about anything other than the Winnipeg Jets and that’s fine. What I mean is that the whole system of art holds to a Bourdieusian attitude that reproduces itself, including the reproduction of the same class of people who like art and can participate in it. Because I think one thing that the biennale form has taught us, especially when it started to proliferate in the 1990s, is that there are a lot of interesting artists out there and they have things to say with such urgency because there is no art world where they are. They discovered the art world. We have a system where we don’t teach people art, we don’t teach people the value of music, we don’t teach people literature. “Don’t go into writing,” and the prosaic excuse is used that you’ll never make a living. When I talk about the compromise in terms of a non-art public not participating in art, I mean the audience that’s not an art audience but one that has a lot of potentially interesting artists and audience members, and they never get a chance to enter the dialogue. I think that’s incredibly damaging to a society. ❚