I first encountered Ken Lum’s work as a graduate student working at the early stages of what would become my book Alien Capital. Even though Ken and I are now based in the US Northeast, we are both from British Columbia and I still think of him as a Vancouver artist, whose multimedia works have profoundly shaped my own grappling with the contradictions of that city. I gravitated toward his art because it filled a gap that my previous interest in experimental poetry had left, particularly in terms of thinking about aesthetics and racial abstraction. Ken’s work helped me generate new ideas about place, occupation, work, and migration that better captured the scale of argument that I was hoping for in my project. His art animates the vexed intersections of race, class, global capital, and the neoliberal state’s production of multiculturalism. Our dialogue here delves into some of the push and pull of identity in Asian North America, and also more broadly in the US and Canada.
Iyko Day: One of the things I love about your work is that it taps into a pop art irony and irreverence that is so effective at exposing political contradictions and leaning into indeterminacies. For example, I think your approach to the theme of “exclusion”—a central subject of Asian diasporic studies—has been so generative in moving viewers toward a more complex engagement with the interplay of national borders, settler colonialism, and neoliberal capitalism.
One of my favorite of your early works is “Authority Piece,” which you made as an alienated first year art student. In the work you took the keys of your art-class colleagues and boarded up the classroom door so they couldn’t get in. After getting drunk at a bar, you confronted your lock-ed out classmates and proceeded to yell and curse at them. The point of the piece was to both highlight and shift the authority of the space away from the university and privileged art students. You also shifted the terms of exclusion.
I wonder if this example feels relevant at all for you today? Whose keys would you steal to destabilize authority in the art world?
Ken Lum: Firstly, I don’t steal but I am sympathetic to Proudhon’s axiom that “property is theft”! Even better, another Proudhon saying, “The great are only great because we are on our knees.” People in general do not have the tools to question authority so they lead what Socrates famously called “the unexamined life.” That’s not entirely fair because I don’t think people accept things the way they are as somehow natural—they understand the rules of power—but that they feel helpless to do anything about it. As an ethnically Chinese person, I was often told to remember two things—one was that the world is cruel and full of injustices and the second was to accept the world for what it is. I was instilled with the importance of passivity and an extreme idea of yin-yang, that competing impulses must be resolved in a harmonious balance. “Authority Piece” was my first ever student work. I was new to art and excited by the unexpected media that could be deployed for art. So perhaps at the time and without knowing, I was challenging my own formation as an Asian person.
Day: The theme of exclusion is also captured so cleverly in your furniture series, in which you arranged furniture in ways that made it impossible to sit down—the furniture is reduced to form without function. In addition to offering a commentary on minimalism, the furniture at once evokes and denies hospitality. The way the series narrates exclusion through false hospitality and inclusion captures the hypocrisy of legislated multiculturalism and neoliberal immigration policy in Canada.
Do you think that the longstanding critique of legislated multiculturalism in Canada has enabled a more ironic artistic engagement with discourses of “minority inclusion”? Are politics in the US so rigidly Manichean that the broad-based critique of multiculturalist inclusion remains on the distant horizon? It often feels like there is little room for irony or a critique of what Dylan Rodriguez calls “compulsory liberalism.” Does this characterization resonate with you, or am I way off?
Lum: With respect, I don’t agree. For one thing, identity politics takes up a lot more space in art in Canada than it does in the U.S. but much of it is and has been quite sentimental, often taking the form of a cri de coeur of “I exist!” Such a form disallows critical challenges and dialogue in return because challenges could be misconstrued as ad hominem criticism. As for Canadian work with a more ironic artistic bent, the irony is often announced rather than disguised, a sign of unsophistication, and dare I say, artlessness. I am generalizing. Of course, there are good artists in Canada, as there are good artists in many other places. But look at the work of artists dealing with multi-culturalism in Cuba and India just to take two examples that come readily to mind. I am thinking of Carlos Garaicoa or Sandra Ceballos or Nalini Malani. These artists’ works are visually stirring and deeply experiential. They open up a lot of questions and thoughts.
Day: The complex racial and colonial circuits of discovery, arrival, invasion, and exclusion animate your Four Boats Stranded public art installation on the roof of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Situated on each corner is a different ship: the HMS Discovery, a First Nations’ Long Boat, the Komagata Maru, and the Fujian migrant boat that was turned away after arriving on the coast of British Columbia in 1999. Among the various themes, the work situates histories of settler colonialism, racialized migration, and First Nations’ dispossession in dynamic relation. These are serious issues, yet there is something both absurd and humorous about looking up to see ships in the sky. How does humor come into play as you conceptualize these relational histories or relational politics?
Lum: The idea for Four Boats Stranded had its precursor in Liverpool, England, an important city in the slave trade. Liverpool was also important for maritime insurance companies or underwriters, including one for the Titanic. On the dockside of Liverpool, there are many buildings with representations of ships as well as slaves, often in bas relief. I did see for this work on the parapet of the Vancouver Art Gallery four directional markers, each one symbolizing an epochal turn in the history of the Vancouver area. Collectively, they functioned more like a grand montage with huge gaps full of significations between them.
Day: As a last question, do you think part of the problem Susette and Amy are raising about Asian American art (being stuck in an identity frame), rooted in a kind of museum industrial complex; narrow interpretive frameworks, or other issues?
Lum: I think the identity frame to which they refer is a strait-jacketing frame that has long existed in America, due to the logic of racial triangulation meant to maintain the status-quo of white normativity. Asian-Americans represent a third wheel that is at times lauded as model citizens and at other times attacked as a foreign threat on domestic soil. Asian-Americans have always been looked upon warily by official society. The somersaults that Asian-Americans have to perform just to survive is a contradictory testament to both Asian-American weakness and strength. The identity frame is so strongly entrenched and in a preconceived way that every Asian-American artist has little choice but to negotiate their artistic positions from within and through that frame. This creates the museum industrial complex to which you refer.