Ken Lum's I-70 Installation

A conversation with artist Ken Lum

On leading the life of an artist, the problem with public art and what we can expect from his upcoming Montreal events.

Ken Lum has been working as an artist since the late 1970s. His work has spanned photography, typography, writing and sculpture, often examining personal identity and historical struggles with an intense yet playful sensibility. He presently serves as chair of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design in Philadelphia.

This month, A-B-Z, in association with Artexte and Concordia University Press, has organized a talk and workshop with Lum. We spoke about the moral paradoxes of becoming an artist, his interests in graphic design and, in true professorial fashion, Lacan.

Nora Rosenthal: I’m especially curious about the moment when you chose to pursue art as a career. I was reading about how you were going to become a scientist and instead turned to art. How do you see that decision, looking back?

Ken Lum: Other than fateful?

I would say I probably never really wanted to be a scientist. Sometimes you go on these paths and I was quite young at the time still. You know the idea of a creative dimension? Science is very rigid, very strict. You have creativity but it’s always bracketed. I would say at some point I’m sure I would have left it. I’m glad I left it then.

NR: You talk about the role of the artist being “to give expression to his or her experience in a continuous act of self-definition.” Could you comment on what that process looks like to you and how long you’ve thought about art in these terms?

KL: Well, I think art is not just about material production. Obviously that’s important, that’s what defines being an artist — you have to make art — but I also think leading the life of an artist is important. That is, looking at art as something that is beyond material production, as a means to come to an understanding of one’s relationship to the world. So that means that you theorize the world through your art, through your thoughts, through your being and I guess that’s always something I’ve believed in even before I was mature enough to recognize it.

NR: For young artists starting out, how should they balance a pretty cynical assessment of arts institutes as moneyed privileged places with their desire to actually be successful? With the increasing assumption that art success is hinged on attending the “right” art school?

KL: First of all I don’t think there’s any singular path to being an artist. The first advice I would give is that you have to be clear-eyed about the reality of how art is both noble and ignoble, in the sense that art is implicated in the monetized system like pretty much everything else in the world. That can be jarring because I think most artists go into making decisions about becoming artists because they believe in very pure and idealistic notions of art.

That can be a rude awakening when those ideals are challenged by reality that has nothing to do with ideals but more with business and commerce and so on. I don’t think young artists should go into the art system with a Pollyanna attitude but it’s also paradoxically vital for young artists to maintain a sense of the idealism that led them into a decision about being an artist in the first place.

I won’t presume to advise in terms of how each young artist should negotiate that contradiction but it’s a contradiction they need to recognize and not shy away from and come to their own terms of what is morally acceptable for them. There is an ethos that I think every artist needs to maintain if only to salvage something of the idealism that propels one into art.

NR: I’m interested in your work with as well as your criticism of public art and I think sometimes as people living in a city we can become a little inured to what’s here. Since you’re coming to Montreal, is there any public art here that you either enjoy or whose history you feel ambivalent about or otherwise care to draw our attention to?

KL: I’m not that familiar with the public art in Montreal but I’m sure I would feel ambivalent about a lot of these colonial reminders, all the kind of British statuary and so on. I mean I think it’s also interesting to look at, I’m not saying they need to be rid of, but I do think they need to be thought of in the context of the overall inventory of public art and be thought of critically and reflectively and also historically in terms of issues that still beset modern day Quebec.

About Montreal in terms of public art, but not site-specifically, I’m really interested in the very ebullient, optimistic, fun, structured abstract sculptures from the late ’50s through to the end of the ’60s. I think it’s interesting because that was the apogee in terms of a certain Montreal in the context of Canada.

NR: If there was one text by you or someone else that you would recommend someone read as part of considering your body of work, what would it be?

KL: What comes to mind is Pouvoirs de l’Horreur by Julia Kristeva. Power of Horror. It’s a fantastic text because it’s about the idea of the condition of abjection, of the abject. I’m really interested in the way she frames it. The abject breaks down our identification of ourselves as subjects and ourselves as possible objects and it exposes us — our belly button, and it’s frightening. It’s frightening because it allows the insertion of what Lacan called the Real.

The Real is what is not spoken, what is not acknowledged, what is not needed, what is not listened to, what is not empowered. The Real is all the things that we don’t talk about. For example, I mentioned a moment ago the colonial statuary, colonial statuary which is ostensibly about honouring the leaders in Montreal at a certain time, and also they express something which is not said, which is the oppression of people, the putdown of francophones, the non-representation of native people and that traumatic relationship.

I’m also interested in the unsaid because the unsaid is always palpable. It’s always discernible at the same time as it may not be apparent through the iconography. What is unsaid is the Real. So according to Freud — I realize I’m turning into a professor now — but the abject has to be constantly purified. We look at art as a means to purify the abject because we can’t always be abject, but I’m really interested in using art in an inverse way to call up the abject, to call up the Real. So that book comes to mind. It’s a really important book to me.

NR: What can people expect in this workshop in May?

KL: Well I have a lot of thoughts in terms of the world of graphic design. I’m not a graphic designer and some people refer to me as a typographer (which I don’t consider myself but I am interested in typography). I really think that especially in the age of the internet it’s amazing how undertheorized graphic design is. You know there’s lots of theories of text, the relationship of the reader to the text and so on, but there’s very little in terms of the pictorial generating dimensions of text. I think it’s because it’s just everywhere — it blankets us.

I’m interested in that and I’m interested in how, [with] changes in eras, there are certain propensities in terms of how type is organized, whether it’s on the page or on the screen or on a shop sign. But what I’m really interested in is how certain ways of imagining the world disappear when there are epochal changes in terms of even the stylistic decisions that go into graphic design. I’m always tying it back to the body and to the imaging of the self in the world. That’s what I’ll be talking about. ■

Ken Lum gives a public talk, “Not My Type: Thoughts on Typographic Taste” at Concordia University’s Engineering and Visual Arts Building (1515 Ste-Catherine W., EV 1.605) on Friday, May 24, 6 p.m., free

The workshop with Lum is happening at Artexte (2 Ste-Catherine E.) on Saturday, May 25, 12–5 p.m. (applications closed)