Ken Lum

Ken Lum, Monument to Napoleonic Soldiers and Other Things in Common, 2006

Ken Lum, Monument to Napoleonic Soldiers and Other Things in Common, 2006

Ken Lum (b.1956, Canada) considers the world as mobile, globalised and alienated, filled with personal and social conflicts. He employs a wide variety of artistic media – photographs, texts, posters, billboards, installations, sculptures – to provoke and intervene. Photography, one of his main foci, is broadened beyond the realm of imagery to invoke concepts of mirroring, everyday language, and representation in general.

Thus personal portraits of citizens are combined with simple, often banal texts, which both express desires and frustrations, and reflect the complex structure of social life. Or commercial signage, as a common form of advertisement inundating our public space, is used to convey political opinions and private aspirations. And yet Lum lets ambiguities reign, exploiting both the polysemy of index-ical language and the generic nature of his images.

He draws on the general public’s visual literacy to create both a context in which works can be read and a contested field or combat zone in which the artist can intervene in the world. In these cases, especially where his work is displayed in the public sphere, it is as though Lum is holding up a mirror to expose the rifts and gaps within contemporary society, in which ‘home’ has become a permanent existential issue invested with anxiety, depression, and other psychic energies.

Nothing is left of the church which once stood in St John’s Gardens, but the contemporary gardens laid out in 1904 still retain their force as a site for commemoration. First enclosed as a burial ground in 1767, the graveyard contained 27,000 bodies when it closed in 1854. Most of these were interred in unmarked paupers’ graves, including many of the 4,000 Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Liverpool. Little is visible above the surface of the rich subterranean vein which underpins the gardens, although two Edwardian statues commemorate local champions of the poor.

Ken Lum’s work for International 06 entitled Monument to Napoleonic Soldiers and Other Things in Common (2006) orchestrateed an encounter between a visible vital present and the disempowered community concealed beneath. His pavilion channeled visitors into partly submerged cylinders, where they gained entry to an underground community, literal and symbolic. Within the cylinder, sight was constrained as much as space, limited to an unexpected view onto visitors to adjacent cylinders.

Spectators from above could gaze down into the cylinders, uniting the occupants in a shared sense of impotence. In earlier work, Lum used mirror and text to prompt the viewer to engage with subconscious thoughts and feelings. His pavilion for International 06 harnessed the living gaze to resituate the marginal in contemporary consciousness.

Ken Lum at Liverpool Biennial 2006

Monument to Napoleonic Soldiers and Other Things in Common
, 2006
Pavillion project 
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2006
Exhibited at St. John’s Gardens

Supported by

Northwest Regional Development Agency
Canada House Arts Trust
Specialist Glass Products, Limited