In Vancouver, A Bold Piece Of Public Art Reshapes The Idea Of A Monument

How "Monument to East Vancouver" by artist Ken Lum represents a community that doesn't get to leave a legacy.

In February, veteran curator Michelle Jacques became head of exhibitions and collections at Saskatoon’s Remai Modern art museum, the latest stop in a career that has taken her from coast to coast. Along the way, Jacques has earned a reputation for bold and unusual choices, and her efforts have been instrumental to the inclusion of Black, LGBTQ+, racialized and female artists at major Canadian arts institutions. Here, Remai Modern’s newest chief curator shares her thoughts on Monument to East Vancouver, an illuminated sculpture by Vancouver artist Ken Lum, with whom she’s organizing an upcoming exhibition.

Ken Lum, Monument to East Vancouver, 2010. Concrete, steel, aluminum, impact-modified acrylic, LED illumination. 17.5 metres. Collection of the City of Vancouver.

Ken Lum, Monument to East Vancouver, 2010. Concrete, steel, aluminum, impact-modified acrylic, LED illumination. 17.5 metres. Collection of the City of Vancouver.

  1. Respect the locals

    In 2012, Jacques moved to B.C. to become chief curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. She spent more time in Vancouver, noticing its divisions, and “the depth of the work really hit me.” The city’s east side is the historical home of immigrants, the underhoused and those living in poverty. Lum grew up in Chinatown and “thinks very deeply about its gentrification and how people are getting pushed out.”

  2. Breaking ground

    “He was way ahead of his time,” Jacques says of Lum, who explored “the experiences of immigrant communities in Canada and how that relates to legacies of colonialism,” as far back as the 1990s. Addressing how racialized people fit within the fabric of Canada is an important theme in Jacques’ own practice. Throughout her career, she’s committed to connecting with local audiences to make galleries more accessible and welcoming

  3. Take notice

    At just over 17 metres tall, Lum’s illuminated sculpture is highly visible at night. Jacques says that’s one of the reasons it successfully overcomes the challenge of creating art for city spaces. “Public art is expensive. There’s so much pressure put on artists to meet the needs of all of the stakeholders that, too often. . . the work is compromised by conflicting demands,” she says. “This is an example of a work that wasn’t compromised. It’s big; it’s bold.”

  4. Other stories

    In recent years, sculptures of John A. Macdonald and other statesmen have been toppled by demonstrators challenging how the nation’s colonial history is remembered. Lum’s piece imagines a future with a more honest past. “It makes me think about how we can push the idea of the monument forward,” says Jacques. Instead of declaring “no more monuments . . .his work can create a legacy for a community that doesn’t usually get monuments built to them.”

  5. Words and pictures

    As an emerging curator, Jacques became familiar with Lum when he and Stan Douglas were the only artists of colour in the Vancouver School, a group of local photographers drawing attention for their avant-garde work. She liked the interdisciplinarity of his practice. “He moves between different aesthetic approaches. The work that I first got to know was kind of a combination of photo and text.”

  6. Outdoor voices

    The history of Canadian art is characterized by a rich landscape tradition. Lum’s monument is “a contemporary, more realistic landscape than. . .the Group of Seven or Emily Carr,” Jacques says. “Situating the work in [a] downtown, troubled landscape and making us look not just at the monument but at the space around it moves us toward a better understanding of the Canadian landscape.”