History of Ken Lum’s Public Art is Also a History of Vancouver

Local art lovers and curators weigh in on the most extensive survey of Ken Lum’s work to date.

Credit: Various

Local art lovers and curators engage with the most extensive survey of Ken Lum’s work to date, appearing now through September at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Ken Lum’s work has been showcased across Vancouver through installations that—as any effective installation should—force interaction.

While forced interaction around public art can sometimes be poorly conceived and executed, evoking little of the conversation intended, what makes Ken Lum’s work so interesting is that it takes the space it inhabits and comments on the surrounding physical location, as well as its popular history. And it works.

Ken Lum


Through September 25, 2011

Vancouver Art Gallery

750 Hornby St, Vancouver


Throughout his work and installations, there is always considerable dialogue amongst viewers. Take, for example, the iconic Monument for East Vancouver (often referred to as the East Van cross); the installation has no shortage of haters or lovers.

I remember seeing this installation myself and immediately thinking that a new parish was in town, its followers anticipating the second coming of Jesus in East Van—which would be confusing, since a lot of people already look like Jesus in East Van.

The multi-faceted cruciform caught a lot of attention and engendered much dialogue before most realized it was the work of Ken Lum, and now it stands in infamy.

Considering his work focuses on identity, perception and confrontation, we asked an array of Vancouverites to reflect on Ken Lum’s recent installations across Vancouver over the past year, including the current exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery—the most extensive survey of his work to date.

Click through the slideshow to read on.

Credit: Various

Ken Lum’s I Said No appeared in 2009–2010 in the window of the Audain Gallery, located in the SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts space, around the time of the Winter Olympics. It was quickly replaced with a similar installation wit

“I’m much more interested in one of Ken Lum’s lesser-known public pieces, I Said No, which was installed in the front window of the Audain Gallery at [SFU Woodward’s] in 2009–2010, leading up to the Olympics.

“The piece was a declaration that resounded in the neighbourhood, and the text format elicited responses (someone wrote ‘Yes!’ on or near it at one point during the installation). It stated something—“I said no”—and then was quickly replaced by another work—“Is everything going to be alright?”—in the window, which seems like a fitting operation for that area [of the Downtown Eastside] right now, considering it’s in a constant conversation about gentrification and being in a state of flux.”

—Allison Collins freelance curator; recent exhibitions include
Hold Still Wild Youth: The GINA Show Archive
Suspicious Futures: Selected work of Susan Britton

Credit: Various

Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver is an illuminated cross installation located at Clark Street and East 6th Avenue. The work is continually being discussed with opposing views, not least because of its diverse associations—from music-ba

“My first thought after seeing the cross was: ‘Dogtown.’

“Of course, I knew what it was. I had friends who had drawn it on walls and in notebooks. Some of those same friends now have tattoos of the East Van cross.

“It is apt, then, that the monument has been left to us by the Olympics. It traffics in the same kind of easy sense of belonging that the Games foster on a national level, or that a skateboarding alliance might in a high school. It is a work maybe best judged in tattoos and t-shirt sales.”

—Karl Fousek, art history student specializing in the history of photography

Credit: Various

Ken Lum’s Four Boats Stranded appeared above the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2010. The boats are done up in vibrant colours that are associated with specific races of people who’ve immigrated to Vancouver.

Four Boats Stranded was a brilliant and effective symbolic reminder of Vancouver’s history and the influence of its key coastal location. There were so many layers evoked in the installation.

“Each boat represented different periods in Vancouver’s history: the cargo ships of migrants hiding in shipping containers that came from Fujian, China, in 1999; the steamliner Komagata Maru, whose South Asians occupants were not allowed to disembark in 1914; the arrival of Captain Vancouver’s HMS Discovery in 1792; and the First Nations longboats that predated them all.

“Lum’s use of the stereotypical racial colours from the hymn ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children’ was a perfect ironic touch to unify the installation and immediately made me reflect upon the interweaving of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism and religious hypocrisy—from the devastation of First Nations communities through disease, residential schools and laws outlawing the potlatch to the exclusionary attitudes of the supposedly Christian elites and majorities that led to restrictive and racist immigration laws and practices.”

—Fiona Tinwei Lam, author of Enter the Chrysanthemum and Intimate Distances

“The memorialization of the migrant ships is wonderful. This is precisely the sort of engaged artistic work that we need in order to keep discussions of race, internationalism and globalization on the table and in the public mind.”

—Wayde Compton, author of After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Region and Performance Bond

Credit: Various

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showcasing the work of Ken Lum, both new and old. The showcased work is very interactive including installation of mirrors that say things like “We’ll see who gets the last laugh.”

It also incl

“Walking through the exhibit will invoke thought, conversation, emotion and, if you have an appreciation for ironic humour, some laughs along the way.”

—Bob Kronbauer, executive director of local non-profit and blog VancouverIsAwesome.com