Wer derzeit mit dem Auto – oder zu Fuß – den Wiener Karlsplatz durchquert, dürfte eine neue, große Plakatwand wahrgenommen haben: Seit dem 21. März 2015 lächelt uns auf 5 x 4 Meter eine dreiköpfige Familie entgegen. Wofür wird hier Werbung gemacht? Für einen neuen Bausparvertrag? Oder verweist die Überschrift „Coming soon“ auf einen neuen Kinofilm? Was zunächst eine bereits vertraute kommerzielle Werbetafel zu sein scheint, entpuppt sich als künstlerische Intervention. Die Kunsthalle Wien hat den kanadischen Künstler Ken Lum eingeladen, am Karlsplatz ein Projekt zu realisieren - für Lum nicht das erste am Karlsplatz Wien. Sabrina Möller traf den Künstler und sprach mit ihm über „Coming soon“ sowie die Hintergründe seiner Arbeiten …


Your temporary public installation Coming soon is currently on display at Karlsplatz Vienna. This is actually not your first work at Karlsplatz Vienna – which is a major transportation hub and a central point in Vienna. What do you like about this place?

What I like about the place is that it is historically important. It’s the hub in terms of transportation and underground so it’s very layered. It’s also a point between things. Even though it is defined by Wagner, it’s also a little non-described, because it’s in-between. You know, there is quite a busy road right on the other side, so it’s not like a clearly defined part of Resselpark. It’s across the street in a kind of island. I find that very interesting, it’s a kind of it’s own. When it’s in-between it allows all kinds of reading of a work.

Could you please elaborate more on whats most challenging about this site and what criteria must be observed in order to create an installation there?

I don’t think the site is very challenging. It has certain advantages in the sense that it has very clear sidelines for a work. There are certain rules in terms of the structure of the display, which was developed by the Kunsthalle Wien. It was always a kind of billboard, which lends itself well to certain image-text-categories I work on. So it’s like some sort of installation. Given that kind of a clearly defined restrictions in terms of the type of work and the structure on which the work is appended has a lot of advantages. I would say one of the advantages is that you have to take into account the very different potential onlookers for the work, including people and cars driving by. When you are in a car you are only going to be there a couple of seconds. And that would be a different type of reading from someone who happens to be in front of the structure.

I do expect that many drivers to this location will believe that this is just an advertising sign, because first they dont expect an artistic intervention and second theyre distracted. They can perceive the sign just for a short moment. How do you deal about that?

Well I think it works on several levels. First, is that it’s very visual: You can see and read it almost immediately. I hope that the work is deeper in the sense that it invites longer viewing of the work, but it also works as a very quick image. The question of whether it’s recognized as art or not to me is not so interesting anyways. What would be interesting is if in driving by, just even in that very quick moment it causes a kind of momentary second thought. Like: “What is that?” And I think that’s all that’s needed. Now, I also know that when people drive there, because it’s such an important point, you are going to get drivers who accumulate the viewing of the work by repeat driving. Maybe they go into the city for work and then they go home and see it twice from a different angle. Next morning they might see it again or maybe next week. So there is a kind of accumulative effect of the work on drivers as well.

Coming soon is a huge sign with a combination of photo and text which is characteristic of your work. At first glance your work looks like an announcement for an upcoming movie. One sees a multicultural family. You are referring to your key subject: the cultural and subjective identity in our society. Could you say more precisely what Coming soon is about?

Well, yes and no. I would say there’s a delivered irresolution that doesn’t really solve itself in terms of any specific meaning which I am interested in and at the same time its wrought with suggestion. It’s complicated because of the fact that it’s a multiethnic family and you have the text “Coming soon” which lends itself to coming soon is a space or a building, or coming soon to the cinema. Things like that, right? So you have that in the sense of anticipation of something that’s not yet here. But then you also have the Chinese translation for the text so it becomes quite unusual. If it was just “Coming soon” in English or even more if it was just German, you’d look at it and be: “Okay, this is probably an advertising campaign.” But by adding the Chinese translation there is a degree of a kind of making the scene stranger than it would otherwise be. You also have the complication in terms of voice: Who’s saying, “Coming soon”? In the cinema it would be the voice of the movie studios, but who’s the voice of this piece? That’s kind of interesting. It is also to a degree a bit like a warning: “Be careful. This is coming soon. Whether you like it or not!” And of course it’s complicated because it’s obviously a very happy kind of mixed race union of a young family. It lends itself to idealism but that idealism is not necessarily an idealism that can be achieved without a lot of association in society. That’s the under-narrative to that.

How did the idea for this installation came up? Was there an influence or a significant moment?

I was actually in Vienna last year with my class from the University of Pennsylvania, when I met Nicolaus Schafhausen, director of Kunsthalle Wien. He invited me to do the next piece. I started thinking: “What could go there?” I had some ideas but I wasn’t sure about them. Then I remembered that I actually did this piece in Beijing. It’s actually the same piece. In Beijing it suggested all these wealthy Chinese who travel the world, because only someone who is more cosmopolitan can be married to a non-Chinese. So there was a subtext in the picture. In Vienna I realized that there’s a growing Asian population here. Especially near Naschmarkt, it’s a kind of Chinese center. Their restaurants are opening up everywhere, which I am quite happy about since I love that kind of food. So I just proposed to Schafhausen to do that piece for Karlsplatz Vienna and showed him the image. He was like: “Oh, that’s perfect!”

Would you say that Coming soon is a site-specific work? Or could it be anywhere else?

It was site-specific to a larger degree in Beijing because it responded to the Hutong neighborhoods. But I realized that the Chinese presence in the world is really expanding everywhere. It’s sort of like the American presence: You could be in New Zealand and feel America. You can be in Linz and feel America. America is across the ocean, but you turn on the radio and there is America. It’s always there and China is emerging in a parallel way. No matter where you are you feel China: Presently from many sophisticated products, previously only from cheap products.

What is your main intention? How would you like Coming soon to be received? 

I don’t want people to try to think about what it is specifically in terms of one dominant singular narrative. I want them to think about it in terms of signifiers or terms that are evoked by the piece. Or questions that are brought to mind by the piece such as: What is passage, what is migration and what is the history of human contact? What is the meaning of differences in this globalized world? I want people to think about those types of questions. On some level there is a questions of morality as well: Is it acceptable that there’s this mixing going on? And the mixing isn’t so clear cut as simple interracial mixing. It’s also about the mixing of cultural identities. Is that good? Is it a conduit? On the one level you could say it’s about mixed race couple. But there are many other levels, which it also implies, such as mixing of traditions and cultures.

How did you come up with the ideas of using signs as a medium? I suppose theres a link to your youth: youve worked as a sign maker

I have a background in sign painting, basically for shops and storefronts: furniture stores, little restaurants, and supermarkets. So I painted things like big cauliflower or broccoli. Wooden panels were painted with things like: “Best coffee in town”.

I am interested in language because language is the conduit for understanding identity, and I am also interested in activating public space, in culture manifestation of the street.  The commercial sign is a key component. So my work always has a public dimension in terms of its subscription of street, the culture of the street. But it’s important to know that I don’t believe that my work functions purely as a form of publicity.

How long have you worked with signs? And what makes sign so interesting to you that you use them again and again?

Since 1987, well my interest in signs hasn’t gone away. All the kinds of dynamics in terms of how we experience time and space through time and language in the street is still there. Identity is still a problem. What is it? It’s hard to answer that. There is still a marked difference especially on the street level. So all these things are still there.

When you develop a new work, what are your criteria in choosing the subject? What is your process?

A lot of it comes out of a kind of anecdotal observation on the street. For example: I saw a young woman on the bus yelling and swearing at her boyfriend like: “Oh shit! You don’t love me!” And so on. I made a piece about it. I am interested in something real that people can identify with even if it’s to some degree quite uncomfortable.

Here in Vienna you are currently educating students on the requirements for art in the gallery in comparison to the non-gallery public frame. With regard to your work: what are the key differences? 

The main difference would be the constitution of the audience. In an art gallery there is no ambiguity in terms of whether it’s art or not. There is no misrecognition as is the case to a high degree in the public context. But at the same time it still requires it to be unfamiliar.

If it’s familiar then people read it as advertising, as a billboard. So even if they don’t see it as art they cannot see it as just another thing that they are familiar with. You can’t use the same criteria in terms of having a sense of the response to the work in the public frame, because public is so much wider than in a gallery context.

Thank you for your time!