Everything is Relevant: Ken Lum’s Writings on Art and Life 1991-2018

Ken Lum, Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life 1991-2018 (Montreal: Concordia University Press, 2020), 320 pp.

Ken Lum’s collection of writings Everything is Relevant offers an insightful inquiry into the complexities of the contemporary art world from the perspective of an artist, curator, and educator who refuses to be confined by aesthetic, cultural, or professional categories. Primarily known as a conceptual artist, Lum creates works that interrogate how we assign meanings to images, texts, and objects based on cultural, racial, and social cues. Whether puzzling the beholder through incongruous visual signs or evoking overlooked historical narratives, his practice compels viewers to reflect on misconstructions of reality and the explicit and implicit biases which inform acts of interpretation. Lum’s writings closely tie in with the interrogation of how meaning is decoded and by whom, what cultural and artistic views take precedence, and how seemingly marginal practices play poignant roles in the evolution of art. His premise “Everything is Relevant” is not a postmodern dictum enforcing relativism but a call for scrutinizing power relations within and beyond the art world.

Gathering Lum’s writings over a period of almost three decades, the book offers a comprehensive picture of the intersections between art and multiculturalism, the social and cultural disjunctions subsistent in the globalized art world, and the politics of art in public space. It provides a candid view on Lum’s misgivings about the art system but is not a mere personal testimony on his approach to art production. It encompasses not only essays and diary entries that attest to Lum’s struggle for distancing himself from hegemonic value judgments, but also philosophical and historical reflections on the deep imprint of imperialism on cultural exchanges. In addition to this, the volume includes Lum’s thoughtful commentaries on Canadian cultural policy and the model of artist-run centers which strengthened social critique in Canada in the 1970s.

The only essays that fit less easily into the book’s framework are the artist’s exhibition reviews, which lack the self-reflexive voice of his other writings. Although they address works that tie in with Lum’s interest in the legacy of pop and minimalism, the reviews are slightly at odds with his broader critical views on the art world’s operations. The essays in this volume are arranged chronologically, facilitating the observation of changes in approaches to issues of art and identity from the 1990s to the present. Their organization by decade also makes evident multiple stages in Lum’s negotiation of his role in society, from his hesitations about his position in the art world in the mid-1990s to his engagement in educational and curatorial projects that enable him to return to artmaking with a greater understanding of the tensions subsistent in the art system.

The book opens with a beautiful set of illustrations which amount to a visual essay through poignant pairings of art history and archival images testifying to paradoxes of modernity and contemporaneity. A photo of Andre Malraux’s Imaginary Museum, composed of a seemingly endless series of reproductions, is juxtaposed with an image of an as yet void exhibition space at the Sharjah Biennial; a panoramic view of an extensive lot cleared for the design of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis paired with a Pazyryk Carpet with a similar grid pattern that was preserved almost intact under a glacier; and an image of Karyn Olivier’s temporary encasement of a Philadelphia monument in mirror plates that is set face to face with a photograph representing a stoic group of Punjabis who were denied entry into Canada after traveling aboard a Japanese ship at the beginning of the 20th century. These image juxtapositions are not easily legible. They repeatedly ask the reader to suspend presuppositions and consider less immediate connections between contingent events which may lie at a temporal and geographical distance. The book is prefaced by a short text by Lum which introduces the reader to the artist’s views on writing, and an essay by curator Kitty Scott who positions Lum’s engagement with social issues in the context of Canadian and global art.

One of the most recurrent themes in Lum’s writings is “the problem of non-identity” (p. 145) with the art system, and the environment in which an artist establishes his practice. His thoughts on this matter are resonant with Giorgio Agamben’s equation of “contemporariness” with a relationship of imperfect coincidence with one’s time which can be a source of enhanced consciousness.(Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?,” in What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 39-54) Lum’s ideas also recall Okwui Enwezor’s thinking on the “unhomely,” an alienating experience which unveils the limits of totalizing cultural narratives and prompts the assumption of an activist stance.(Okwui Enwezor, The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society (Seville: Fundación Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla, 2006)) In addition to these concerns, Lum’s ruminations on the issue of “non-identity” pertain to his attempt to resist absorption into the art system after receiving critical acclaim in the 1990s. His anxiety about belonging may be one of the reasons for which he has increasingly turned towards creating art for public spaces where measurements of success are not restricted to the art domain.

Lum repeatedly confesses to unease with the quick rise of consensus in the art world, and with the persistent dominance of art historical narratives that privilege the unidirectional transmission of ideas from Western art centers to other regions. He insists that we need to question the notion of objective criteria for assessing the value of art and examine long neglected circuits of art information such as those between Vancouver and Hong Kong, or Nairobi and London. (p. 77)

To broaden his view on the global art system, Lum has resorted to traveling and teaching in different parts of the world, thus repeatedly putting his assumptions about art to the test. Reflecting on his experience as a lecturer in Fort de France (Martinique) or his visit to the Dakar biennial in 1998, he unveils clashes in views on the role of art and confesses his own limitations in evaluating art from non-Western cultural contexts. Lum admits to his disappointment with the limited political content of art from these regions in the late 1990s. While students in Martinique were skeptical about the notion that art could address their personal experience as post-colonial subjects, Senegalese artists exhibiting at Dak’Art 98 contended that their abstract paintings held political implications which may be imperceptible to an outsider to their culture. Despite his expectations concerning the convergence between art and politics, Lum defines art in contradistinction to life, since he fears that the utter collapse of boundaries between the two would jeopardize critical distance. In “Something’s Missing” (2006), he states that “art should be about life” and “offer a space for pause and reflection” (p. 163) since it cannot compete with the complexity of life.

This being said, he also ponders the limits of an Eurocentric view upon art which privileges an understanding of art as representation rather than a creative act of shaping daily life. In later essays, Lum discusses the functionality of art and its inextricability from social and cultural practice. In “The Other in the Carpet” (2016), Lum questions the rigid separation between art and craft, asserting that “the debate between aesthetic value and practical function is also a debate about a culturally constructed divide.” (p. 262) He is deeply concerned about the ongoing consequences of colonialism and argues that universalism has constituted a guise for the imposition of hegemonic views. Despite his unease with this oppressive ideology rooted in the Enlightenment period, Lum believes in the possibility of a “genuine kind of universality” (p. 71), but does not elucidate how this alternative might be attained in the contemporary context. Admittedly, this is a difficult task to undertake, especially at a time when the celebration of the art world’s “pretense of globality” obscures its persistent inequities.(Amelia Jones, “Ethnic Envy and Other Aggressions in the Contemporary “Global” Art Complex,” July 22, 2020, online lecture at Sass-Fee Summer Institute of Art on “Care, Caring and Repair in Cognitive Capitalism.”)

Having abandoned a promising career in chemistry research in his youth, Lum occasionally relies on scientific terms to explain dynamic processes in the art world. Thus he draws attention to the “diffusion of art” (p. 147) and to the lack of isomorphism in globalizing forces. By “diffusion of art” he means both the spread of ideas about art and the erosion of boundaries of art categories validated by the art network. Given these analogies between physical processes and art operations, Lum’s writings remind one of the thinking of conceptual artist Hans Haacke who parallels the functioning of biological systems with socio-political and art systems.(Alexander Alberro ed., Working Conditions: The Writings of Hans Haacke (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016)) Well aware of the fact that an artist cannot function completely outside of the art world, Lum insists that there are different degrees of integration and that an individual can maintain some agency in establishing his position in this complex.

Lum’s oscillations between multiple roles in the art world, including those of art critic, curator, project manager, and teacher, have permitted him to repeatedly recalibrate his relationship with that world. His travels all around the world suggest a search for how to resist identification with a fixed cultural viewpoint. Yet, alternating professional functions and intense mobility also pose problems. They reflect the logic of neoliberal late capitalism which calls for perpetual adaptability and endless creative resources.(Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2006)) While traveling helps Lum’s personal and professional growth up to a certain point they also prove to be energy-draining. He expresses at times his desire to stay longer in remote places that are off the art world’s radar but he does not fully commit to this goal.

Writing has constituted for Lum a strategic tool for maintaining critical distance and brokering identity issues. As an artist born in Vancouver in a working-class Cantonese family, he is acutely aware of the assumptions the public or critics may draw based on his physiognomy or linguistic abilities. In several essays, he ponders issues of identity misrecognition and forcefully denounces essentializing attitudes. While condemning such tendencies, he also acknowledges artists’ desire to belong to the elite circles of the art system. In one of the most emotionally charged accounts of the book, Lum discloses his discomfort at having his social identity exposed when his grandmother, a Brooklyn-based sweatshop worker, arrives at his exhibition opening in NYC and asks who all the people gathered there are (p. 194). The social and racial tensions underlying the art world become apparent in many other essays that expose ongoing disparities leaving their mark on artistic judgments. Yet the overall tone of the volume is far from pessimistic. Lum maintains hope that art can overturn misconceptions through its power of defamiliarization.

Besides tackling many broad problems concerning the relationship between art and life, the volume offers many glimpses into Lum’s encounters with other artists. His conversation with Chen Zhen on the physical and psychic impact of migration (p. 173) or the correlations he draws between Ian Wilson’s art practice and Buddhist thinking (p. 241) reserve to the reader many opportunities to examine how aesthetic experience resists the foreclosure of meaning. Equally engaging are Lum’s ruminations on art education in his letter to art critic Steven Henry Madoff which signals the need for studio art programs to enable students to define their practice in relation to their subject positions in society. Lum disputes the standardization of these degrees and finds that the emphasis on “technical finish” (p. 78) can take away from the emotional charge of art production. In Lum’s opinion, loopholes in the dense web of a market-dominated art system are likely to emerge when aesthetic and social experiences overturn expectations. Throughout the volume, he deftly intertwines phenomenological and psychoanalytical ideas with socio-political critique to complicate the narratives of established art tendencies and emphasize the deep imbrication of corporeal and mental responses to art.

Overall, the book offers a consistent perspective on the dynamics and contingencies of the art world. Lum is adamant about defining art making in terms of a process of coming to grips with a feeling of insufficiency and a desire to bring to the forefront what is misconstrued as irrelevant. Nonetheless, his confidence about effectively confronting these challenges shudders at times under the weight of hesitations about the social impact of art practice. In an essay on his move from Canada to the U.S., he skeptically states: “I still believe in art, if only in the narrow sense of what art has done for me in my own life.” (p. 254) This statement is somewhat surprising given Lum’s insistence on the social engagement of art in other parts of the book. There is little doubt that he has accomplished much more through his art than merely enhance the understanding of his own place in the world. Judging by the overwhelming public response to his phototext Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1990 to present), one can easily tell how incisive his engagement with social issues has been. The piece depicts a seemingly satisfied and proud worker whose smiling demeanor is totally at odds with the message. Presented on a billboard in conjunction with Lum’s Witte de With retrospective, the work has acquired a permanent position on the building at the request of the public and has become a significant part of the visual culture of Rotterdam.

The artist’s curatorial initiatives have also gone a long way in extending the presence of art beyond the walls of museums. His recent work on Monument Lab, a public art exhibition program co-organized with Paul Farber in Philadelphia, shows his commitment to resisting the closure of meaning of both art and social space. Interestingly, Lum sees his curatorial projects as “extensions” of his art (p. 159), but does not hold similar views on his writings. In his words, they fulfill the function of preempting “a turn inward” (p. xxxi), serving as an instrument for tackling differences that extend beyond his own identity. His resistance may have something to do with his strong belief in the disruptive power of sensory experience, as well as with taking a distance from certain conceptual artists’ insistence on equating discourse construction with artmaking.

Lum’s writings reflect a fervent devotion to keeping the boundaries between the art and the world porous, with the aim of resisting the congealing of categories, whether they pertain to identities or art tendencies. He finds himself at home in liminal zones of the art system, where it is possible to envision alternative models of art education and historical narratives. Everything is Relevant is an inspiring volume both for studio art students and for those who have been part of the art world for a long time. It exposes the unevenness of the global art system while maintaining a hopeful message about how art can serve as an irritant to the status quo.

Cristina Albu
Cristina Albu is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of Mirror Affect: Seeing Self, Observing Others in Contemporary Art (Minnesota University Press, 2016) and the co-editor (with Dawna Schuld) of Perception and Agency in Shared Spaces of Contemporary Art (Routledge, 2018).