The Invention of the Humane: Ken Lum’s Collected Writings

"In the Making: Ken Lum" (still), 2019. Image Courtesy White Pine Pictures.

I was planning to attend the Art Metropole launch of Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, Ken Lum’s book of his selected writings. At the launch he was to be interviewed by the art historian Mark Cheetham, a scholar of artists’ writings. It wasn’t to be: the launch was swept away, like so much else, as the pandemic spread.

I used to assign Lum’s lovely essay, ”Encountering Chen Zhen: A Paris Portal” to my second-year students, hoping it would be a port of entry into both Lum’s work and Chen’s. There he recounts his visit in Paris with Chen Zhen and Xu Min, Chen’s wife and fellow artist, and speaks of the warmth he found with them, the discussions they had about art and migration, of Chen’s illness and how it had taught him to be “less proud,” of his interest in what being Chinese meant in Canada, and of Lum’s family history. Along the way, Lum introduces several works by Chen. I took the opportunity to point out the author’s undisguised admiration, noting that this was one of Lum’s gifts, a way of learning.

Most of my students found it hard to grasp Chen’s art. Perhaps it was too foreign in its materials, its mode of assembly, in its metaphoric relation to Chen’s bodily suffering. But most understood something of what Lum saw in it, and newly saw how their own family history mattered; how what Lum calls “life knowledges” are not simply ethnic affectations to be discarded along the road to becoming artists.

Chen Zhen, “Purification Room,” 2000. © ADAGP Paris. Photo Ela Bialkowska.

Everything is Relevant gathers a wide variety of writing. Its heterogeneity seems to emerge from an intense restlessness, an incessant searching for a way to speak. Some essays are close readings illuminating the work of a particular artist; some are art-historical forays, reprising aesthetic education in China’s brief-lived Republican period, or examining Canada’s paradoxical history, at once colony and colonizer. Others are less formal and take the form of a letter or a diary. Some restrict themselves to the logic of an argument, while others wander across multiple terrains. Some are strikingly personal.

Lum writes from many different positions across the art scene. Most of his pieces clearly emerge from his situation as a working artist and a occasional curator. He writes, movingly, as a good Asian son and a father, creating a sense of intimacy unusual in criticism. “Whom is one addressing at such a moment?” wrote Derrida, in sorrow. I think the question of address is among Lum’s chief concerns.

An immense number of thinkers prove useful for Lum, but they’re not trotted out merely to lend authority to his arguments; they constitute a complex intellectual heritage valued for the possibilities it sustains. With so much loss about to break above our heads, perhaps this offers a frail raft of thought. If Lum is committed to anyone, it’s Foucault, de Certeau, and Franz Fanon. Not that he returns more frequently to these three, but rather that they function as batteries, distributing their charge throughout his writing. Lum quotes Fanon, “I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek therefore the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence, In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.” This could serve as the book’s epigraph, or as the interpretative key for Lum’s whole practice of art. We can sense Lum’s stubborn refusal to accept the uninvented, unshaken state of things as they are.

The landscape of his writings is populated by a huge number of contemporary artists. Chen Zhen, Tania Mouraud, Mel Chin, and Ilya Kabakov are among those featured. Lum also focuses attention on a number of institutions, though these are routinely regarded with critical suspicion. They feature not as way stations for his career, but as the means by which Fanon’s “invention” can be produced. There are the art schools where he taught, Hangzhou’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and in Paris, the École des Beaux Arts and an unnamed one in Martinique; smaller initiatives like Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, which Lum helped found and the Or Gallery which he ran for several years, inheriting it from Laiwan; as well as exhibitions, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 and Shanghai Modern, 1919-1945, on which he worked as a curator. This cycling through different institutions is part of the endless self-creating so central to Fanon. Lum obviously understood that different institutions produce different discourses – and different human subjects. His passage through these spaces, if it could not produce a final truth about who he was, could at least multiply possibilities for him.

This immersion in different discourses offered new ways of understanding art and of renewing his own practice. He writes in “Something’s Missing,” with an unusual candor, “There was a time when I felt great disillusionment about art and great disappointment in myself, a crisis of being that I believe afflicts all artists from time to time. I had a choice: I could stop being an artist or I could enlarge my understanding of art by looking away from what I was accustomed to.” It must have taken courage to wrench himself from the comfortable circumstances he’d finally attained.

If there is a thread that connects the collection, it is Lum’s tracing of a Confucian path towards “humaneness.” For Kongzi (the philosopher we know in the West as Confucius), the arts are a ritual form. Through the practice of such ritual forms, one can slowly shape their human nature, developing compassion inwardly, and a more just behavior outwardly. As Eric Mullis deftly put it, “Practicing an art is necessarily a moral affair as it entails transforming the self, finding a place within a tradition, and otherwise entering into significant relationships with others.” In Lum’s writing, political concerns are counterbalanced by this emphasis on the work of the self, the forming of the humane. This prevents any moralistic reduction of art to politics, a relief at a time when so many artists seem to have so little faith in aesthetic experience itself.

Ian Wilson, “Circle on the Floor (Chalk Circle)” (installation view), 1968. Courtesy the artist and Jan Mot, Brussel.

“The strength of art,” Lum writes, “lies in a complexity that is often not apparent, but its strength also lies in its insistence on itself as art.” How could art insist on itself? He never provides an explicit answer, but offers instead an important question: “What does it mean to make art over a long career that is so resistant to the artistic and even historical archive?” He asks this in an essay titled “Ian Wilson: From Chalk Circle to Full Circle.” When, in 1968, Wilson made oral communication his medium, this meant that his work was always vanishing, being so uncomfortably fitted into the system of the gallery and the market. Lum clearly admires work that has dropped away, too difficult to document, too awkward to be easily absorbed and made compliant. It must be important that Wilson’s Discussions begin with a question posed to the participants. They are implicitly a question posed to the institution we know as “art”.

The Ian Wilson essay begins in Lum’s memory, when he lived with Chalk Circle at the Or Gallery, as a young artist in Vancouver in 1983. It ends with a deeply moving sequence. At the Dia Foundation, Lum attended Wilson’s Discussion, “The Pure Awareness of the Absolute.” During the guided conversation, Lum notices Wilson’s frailty, his “cellophane skin of age.” Lum is led to confess how much he loves his wife and child – how he “…thought about [his] love for them as a kind of Absolute.” He recalls his grandmother, who had worked all her life in a Chinatown sweatshop. He remembers how supportive she had always been, even in her poverty: how she found her way to the opening at his first solo show in New York, without being able to speak a word of English, showing the invitation card to strangers who pointed the way. How her sudden appearance left him feeling momentarily “unmasked.” Wilson’s Discussion ends and Lum leaves the Chelsea artworld, making his way to the building that once housed the Garment Worker’s Union offices, his grandmother’s union, where he offers a Buddhist blessing to her. So much is condensed here and fused together into a kind of glass: the scars of race and class; Lum’s personal history; art and life, both separate and inseparable; and simple human decency, that most difficult of virtues.

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