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May we suggest

Interviews / November 27, 2019

From Margin to Centre, and Back Again

“I sensed a social ecology I had to navigate but did not understand,” says artist Ken Lum of the rules-based art world that surrounded him. “And when I did start to understand it, I was unsympathetic to why this social ecology had to be heeded”
Cover of Ken Lum's <em>Everything is Relevant</em> to be released January 2020 from Concordia University Press Cover of Ken Lum's Everything is Relevant to be released January 2020 from Concordia University Press
Cover of Ken Lum's <em>Everything is Relevant</em> to be released January 2020 from Concordia University Press Cover of Ken Lum's Everything is Relevant to be released January 2020 from Concordia University Press

As a prolific international artist, curator and writer, Ken Lum has written extensively and voraciously. Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991–2018 brings together for the first time a survey of these writings from across four continents, covering expansive ground from art school pedagogies, cultural nationalism and public art to writings on his contemporaries from Chen Zhen and Tania Mouraud to more personal, nuanced reflections on identity and belonging. As the inaugural publication of Concordia University Press’s new Text/Context: Writings by Canadian Artists series, Everything is Relevant is an illuminating exploration of our globalized art world through the lens of one of its most self-reflexive thinkers. Currently based in Philadelphia, where he is chair of fine arts and holds an endowed professorship in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. In advance of the book’s January 2020 publication date, Lum joins writer Amy Fung for a conversation via email that weaves across personal and professional coping mechanisms for self-perseverance in and out of the art world.

Amy Fung: Dear Ken, it’s nice to finally meet you. If I think about it too much, I’m actually concerned we have never met.

Ken Lum: Thanks for being my interlocutor in this. I’m honoured.

AF: After reading through nearly 30 years of your reflexive, critical writing, one of the many things that became pronounced for me was your restlessness in the form of excursions or tangents that you have taken outside the “art world” as you grew dissatisfied with your contexts. You never speak to any specificities of why you left cities and jobs, even when you were in a tenured teaching position, but you choose to elaborate on what you did when you left and how you came back. I can only deduce by where you would go and what you would do that one of the dissatisfactions was with having to work primarily within a white, middle-to-upper-class Eurocentrism. I could be off base, but do you wish to respond?

“I see non-identity everywhere. I experience dissonance almost all the time, whether I am sitting on a bus or at home in front of my computer screen.”

KL: Your deducement is a natural one and therefore a tempting one for me to agree with, but for me to do so also risks both reduction and overdetermination of the real reasons for my departure or withdrawal from the contexts I had built up for any given time. Yes, of course, the social order of the world remains staunchly patriarchal and white, and the problem of inequity continues to grow. But much of the content of my art, writings and curatorial projects wrestles centrally with the problems of social justice, subject formation and issues of identity in the context of local and national narratives. So I don’t agree that I don’t offer specificities of why I have at times made the decision to part ways from the world to which I was most familiar, including a tenured full professorship as you have cited. I have had a number of epiphanous moments in my life where I felt I had to change course if only to allow myself to be reconstituted and hopefully replenished, if only to have a reason to live. I have long felt a deep discomfort in both the milieu of art and in the spaces of the academy. At the same time, those two milieus are the most suited to me. I have written an essay about what I see as the problems of art pedagogy, for example. There are other reasons for the decisions I have made that are personal which I will not offer. We all need to preserve some sanctuary for certain moments in our lives, for fear of over-analysis. Some of these reasons have to do with just me, reasons that even I do not understand, but it is so. Thus, my life has been one that has often oscillated from the margin to the centre to the margin and back again, much like Trinh T. Minh-ha’s notion of how identity is always in a state of negotiated enactment with power relations. At some point, I discovered the joys of self-reinvention, despite how difficult and even unbearable the process of reinvention often is. On a profound level, each time I leaped across the unknown, I learned more about myself and the world. That goal continues to drive me.

“My sense is that it is much improved now, but what I describe was an endemic condition for many years for artists of difference in Canada.”

AF: I want to pick up on this oscillation from the margin to the centre and back again, especially in your invocation of Trinh T. Minh-ha and how power relations are always negotiated. Where do you see your own agency or responsibility within those power dynamics with institutions such as the art world and the academy? I recently started a PhD that has very little to do with curating or art history, and I haven’t felt this inspired to learn and research in years. I would be curious to hear your perspective on what it is about these two environments—the art world and the academic world—that conjures such simultaneous discomfort and suitability for you. You have written extensively on both, and accomplished a fair bit in either stream. Would it be fair to say that a certain level of discomfort has been fruitful to your thinking and making? In other words, what does knowing and feeling and owning one’s own discomfort do for your practice?

KL: My late friend, the artist Chen Zhen, used to say that the completeness of the world includes its incompleteness. It is a very Buddhist perspective. Maybe I haven’t gotten to the point that Chen reached, as I am still striving for wholeness and my sense of wholeness requires the world to first be whole. I don’t know how Chen was able to say what he said to me so convincingly, for I see non-identity everywhere. I experience dissonance almost all the time, whether I am sitting on a bus or at home in front of my computer screen. I am thankful to my wife and children for I would not know where I would be without them. Without them I would go mad—I mean truly mad. Whenever I am on my own for any extended period, I feel a strong sense of having to fend for myself, in the most existential terms, even when I have the means to take care of my basic comforts such as a good hotel room or food for the night. Under such conditions, I have learned to travel always with multiple projects in progress.

AF: This is a very honest answer because it is incomplete and opens more questions and possibilities of how to be in the world. You may be closer than you think to wholeness. I have often wondered though if I would ever know what wholeness actually felt like. There is a moment in your 2008 essay “To Say or Not To Say” where it’s the mid-1980s and you have an opening for a solo show in New York. Your grandmother, who doesn’t speak a word of English, shows up and asks, incredulously and repeatedly in Cantonese, “Who are all these people?” Your grandmother showed up because she is family, but you write that you felt completely exposed of your private self, which included your family, class background and race, as opposed to your public self, which is the artist self. I found myself returning to this passage of self-bifurcation. I’m still stuck on it, particularly on the seemingly unconscious tactic to hide one’s class and race, which realms like art and academia expect us to internalize and hold. For myself, I think this splintered sense of self is a by-product of growing up across two different cultures that are epistemologically opposite from one another. I never feel fully seen or heard, yet alone understood by either side. Is this just the challenge of being alive?

KL: I have never hidden where I am from. Rather, I have found it difficult to negotiate one self to another self, especially in an unmediated sense. A self is always a representation of the self, at least regarding public projection. When my grandmother showed up at a very public art world event, it was shocking to me—there was no transition time to switch from art-world me to non-art-world me. It was an experience that broke down the symbolic order. I could only ignore all the gallery attendees dressed in black and respond with affection to my grandmother. The issue is not that I have felt inadequately seen or heard. I think it is more nefarious than that. I have felt a need from those with greater power to put me in my place because I did not follow the “rules.” My early years as an artist in Canada were all about learning rules on what is proper and not proper to art. I sensed a social ecology that was in place that I had to navigate but did not understand. And when I did start to understand it, I was unsympathetic to why this social ecology had to be heeded. As such, there are many instances when I felt I represented someone to be taught their place. We don’t have the space here for me to elaborate with examples but the problem of not being seen or heard was not the problem; it was more that I felt disallowed from being seen or heard. My sense is that it is much improved now, but what I describe was an endemic condition for many years for artists of difference in Canada.

AF: I want to bring in curator Kim Nguyen’s recent words on your influence: “To encounter Ken’s work for the first time is to find a family and lose a home. It is always two things at once. It demands entry as much as it refuses. It is to feel seen, remembered, and still strange and out of place. It conjures what we have repressed and what we have forgotten, of who we are and who we were. It is feeling right and getting right with the melancholic loneliness that is existing in this universe.” I add this in as I don’t believe these endemic conditions change on their own. Your refusal to be demarcated under any single category, even within the art world as an artist, curator and writer, resists being controlled, consumed and extracted. You have also opened up pathways that should be acknowledged, and since we have never met before or in person, I wanted to say this: What I do and have done would not have been possible without people like you, so thank you.

KL: Well, I’m not sure about that. Obviously, it is flattering of you, as well as Kim, to say. My refusal, as you put it, was not for any prescient or strategic reason. As I said earlier, as much as I love and am fascinated by art, I also despaired of art. At some very deep level, there was always something missing about art or something missing about the system of art for me. I remember so many moments of feeling as though I just alighted from a rocketship onto an alien landscape. The landscape was fascinating and at times astoundingly beautiful, but ultimately it was not my world. And the world I left was my world but one I had to escape. A real Hobson’s choice. I know I have become an exemplar but that’s just how we like history to operate. We like to look at earlier artists of colour as pioneers of sorts and whatever is subsequently achieved by other artists of colour is attributed in part to an earlier generation. I think there is a danger to reifying such teleological narratives, in part because it is too easy and it discounts the work of analysis that must be performed on what you or Kim do, independently, apart from exemplars. I think having historical references are fine, but so is having exemplars we could do without.

Amy Fung

Amy Fung is a writer and organizer working across intersections of histories and identities. Her first book, Before I Was a Critic, I Was a Human Being (Artspeak and Book*hug 2019) addresses Canada’s mythologies of multiculturalism and settler colonialism through the lens of a national art critic .