Ken Lum: There is no place like home
Kunstalle Wien, 2000
Why is it difficult, problematic, almost embarrassing, to be confronted by bright, bold, apparently straightforward imagery and text? This is somehow difficult, with the ease of association chillingly immediate and naggingly unsatisfactory. But just as the build up of meaning seems ridiculously straightforward the break down of the various combinations of image with words is equally just as palpable. Here, six figures say six different things. The viewer may instantly imagine that he or she understands what is being said, what the story is and where each person is coming from. The combination of photographic portrait and written statement, so familiar in art and advertising, proves that sight, even without the benefit of sound, is still a powerful vehicle for instant message. The people speak quite vehemently, the viewer hears what is being said and yet what do we really hear? Is the same thing understood by all?
Apart from formal similarities, the constant is the mention of home. But home, for many different reasons, can be somewhere else; home may be here but for everyone else it is imagined that it is not here. There is home which is perhaps a country and then there is, well, Home. The house, flat, place and space which brings Lum's consideration into open play is the fact that it can be both incredibly local, under our feet, yet somewhere else, far away. People who live away from home and make another home elsewhere often have trouble deciding which is which.
Current discussion around the notion of identity appreciates the complexity of the mixture of experiences and influences in a person's life, also allowing for the fact that earlier generations often have broken references.
Movement, even in domestic terms, begs fundamental questions. Tradition has it, for instance, that home starts with the parental and then the children move on elsewhere. Countries become new homes in the same way that stepparents create other homes. People who look different are invariably asked where they come from. A young man tells us that he is sick of our views about immigrants, "this is our home too".
Could this piece, created by Ken Lum for the city of Vienna, work anywhere else; is there something that makes it suitable for here only?
The young girl with the hat is visiting somewhere as a tourist, it seems. The view is behind her and she appears to be in that blissful state of understanding that comes with visiting, with the knowledge that she need not stay. What is it in us that can project quite substantial chunks of narrative onto a relatively small range of clues? Why does it feel difficult to really characterize what one sees? Anyway, the enthusiastic girl with the hat seems to think she understands where she is, probably because she travels light and imagines that she can see things clearly.
So we too, like that girl with the hat, are able to project logical stories onto these people. For Lum it must be important that the characters are all quite different. It is difficult, yet essential, to create a range of permutations that avoid any of the self-consciousness about racial type apparent in advertising campaigns. "This is our home too", "I don't feel at home here", This ain't no goddamn home". You can imagine why that ain't no goddamn home, as all fact and fiction merge; a couple are forced to move into a ramshackle place, perhaps. Not convinced and downright disgusted, the woman complains emphatically. The script, a sort of simple speech bubble, chips away at presumptions.
Lum's 540 square metre huge digitally printed picture held along and across a whole side of the Kunsthalle is visually powerful but is it necessary to stay long with it, to read it and understand? This work is outside, in a public place on a busy thoroughfare in the very centre of Vienna. This is not a gallery interior and so has to appear almost artless to have the desired effect. The attractiveness of the photographs combines with a sense of reality or realism despite, or because of, the fact that the artist would never be able to convey such a sense of direct speech and fact without heavily constructing, orchestrating and preconceiving it in the first place.
In fact, the piece employs the same sense of instant understanding as the advertising billboard that seeps, almost unseen, into the unconscious. 70,000 people pass each day; this, combined with a repeated presence in the daily newspaper "Der Standard" and on Infoscreen (video-screens in the underground stations), builds up a pattern of understanding, for those living in Vienna, as well as for visitors from the countryside and abroad.
The matching of colour codes the way we read the statement. "I don't want to go home, Mommy. I don't want to go home" instantly refers to televisual social realism, a documentary almost, a representation of little truths. Nothing is being sold here and in fact nothing is being offered as information either. The girl says that she doesn't want to go home.
Home may be around the corner, perhaps, and instant relation to a child channels broad ideas of identity down to a domestic level, a narrative of daily life. "I don't think I ever want to go home" implies, for the soap opera viewer and avid newspaper reader, a level of sensation that far outreaches artful suggestion.
Autonomous to some degree, yet active to another, this work is projected so huge in the centre of the city that it waits for a silent, individual comprehension. Perhaps the viewer will remain silent and not tell his or her companion what they see because it is too fixed or personal, offensive or betrays ignorance. The painter Ferdinand Leger said optimistically in the 1930s how the modern world would bring strong colour to the streets, how bright red advertising on the sides of buildings would change everything in a fast moving city. Here Lum's piece introduces a political element by using exactly those means.
© Sacha Craddock Oct 2000