Vancouver

Ken Lum, Walk Piece, 1978, still from a color video, 3 minutes 5 seconds.

Ken Lum, Walk Piece, 1978, still from a color video, 3 minutes 5 seconds.

Ken Lum

Ken Lum, Walk Piece, 1978, still from a color video, 3 minutes 5 seconds.

“It’s no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” This methodological imperative, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, is strangely instructive in thinking through Ken Lum’s mid-career survey, currently on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Lum rose to prominence in the late 1980s, quickly becoming emblematic of an international critical discourse concerning the photographic and the postmodern. Yet any discussion of the Canadian artist’s work must also account for how it directly engaged arguments about representation specific to his immediate artistic-intellectual community. In the substantial catalogue accompanying this exhibition, essays by curator Grant Arnold, Okwui Enwezor, and Roland Schöny place Lum’s practice in relation to that of his Vancouver colleagues (Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace) while surveying the expansive field of critical engagement commonly attributed to Lum’s artistic position: theories of the sign, of language, of political and aesthetic economies, identity, colonialism, indigeneity and immigration, spectatorship, phenomenology, and subjectivization.

Though the catalogue reaffirms Lum as an artist-intellectual, the exhibition architecture encourages a heterodox rethinking of his practice. Immediately upon entering the show, the spectator must decide whether to proceed to the left or to the right, only to discover that the two paths are conceptually redundant: On each side, the viewer is initially placed in relation to the laboring body (Lum’s 1978 video-performance pieces Entertainment for Surrey, B.C., and Walk Piece dominate the entrance); he or she is then faced with a series of linguistic subjects (the “Mirror Texts,” “Shopkeeper Signs,” both 2000–2003, or various portrait-text pieces) and, finally, confronted with the disorienting phenomenal and optical properties of one of two reflective works (either the labyrinthine Mirror Maze with 12 Signs of Depression, 2002–11, or the one-way mirror House of Realization, 2007–11). Each of these pieces functions spatially as a dead end, forcing the visitor to retrace his or her steps, back to the beginning of the show, only to then experience the same sequence in the other half of the gallery, which must, in turn, be retraced in order to exit the museum.

Lum’s image-text pieces—similar to so much of the advanced critical work of the ’80s and ’90s—take as both their tools and their subjects numerous critical concepts that emerged during the linguistic turn. Today the status of language as the master metaphor for all meaning operations is no longer so convincing or accepted. Affect theory would be only one of a number of discourses developed to consider other asignifying forces that impact the production and distribution of meaning and which remain illegible to semantic or semiotic analysis. This exhibition’s hermeneutic structure doesn’t occlude the presentation of the artist-intellectual as a dominated master (one of the foremost artistic positions of postmodernity), but Lum’s work might now be seen as a wearing down of the subjects and signs of late capitalist culture. Whereas humor in Lum’s work might once have been seen as a sign of intellectual, deconstructive performance, it now registers differently: as part of a physical economy of forces within which the artist’s representations no longer subordinate his or her monstrations. For example, Phew, I’m Tired, 1994, might no longer only be a matter of interpretative pleasure for the walking spectator, and the minimal disjunctions in the paired language of Lum’s mirror-text pieces are now less occasions for semiotic inquiry than for brute displacement. In Walk Piece (which I take to be the beginning, middle, and end of this exhibition), Lum can be seen pacing back and forth across a small section of gravel on Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University campus, as seemingly indifferent in this vocation to the institution’s intellectual production as to the semiotic production of a Richard Long–like line that his feet scuffle into the earth. The prominence of Walk Piece within this exhibition suggests that we consider Lum’s practice in relation to other proponents of walking as a nonlinguistic force upon the production of meaning (cue list of antiphilosophers that ought to include St. Francis, Diogenes, and Michel de Certeau) rather than merely reproduce the now-familiar accounts of Lum’s intellectual genealogies.

Gareth James