Monument for East Vancouver, commissioned in 2009 by the City of Vancouver as part of the Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, provided Ken Lum with an opportunity to pay tribute to the place where he was born and raised. His contribution transformed a decades-old symbol familiar throughout East Vancouver into a public artwork.
The artwork features a Latin cross formed by the intersection of two illuminated words: a vertical “EAST” and horizontal “VAN” with the two words sharing the letter “A.” The origins of this symbol are shrouded in mystery but possibly linked to the once-sizable Roman Catholic population living in East Vancouver. Over the years, the symbol has been appropriated in a number of ways: school children carved it onto desktops, graffiti artists sprayed versions of it on the sides of buildings, and gang members flaunted it on their jackets. The word “rules” would occasionally be included underneath the cross to read “East Van Rules.”
Lum’s transformation of this symbol entailed the construction of a seventeen-and-a-half-metre sign fabricated out of steel and light-emitting diodes that automatically turn on at dusk and off at dawn. Located above a fenced-in and weed-filled demolished lot at the intersection of Clark Drive and East Sixth Avenue, the sign faces west toward the downtown peninsula to challenge the symbolic power associated with the downtown and west side of the city. Yet, the issue of audience is complex; it includes not just those residents living on the east and west sides of the city, but also SkyTrain commuters passing by daily on their way to and from the suburbs, and the many others who encounter the cross while stopped at the busy traffic intersection over which the sign towers.
Monument for East Vancouver is almost invisible during the day due to the silver colour of its frame against the sky. It is at night when its white glow is impossible to ignore. Visible from kilometres away, the sign hovers like a nocturnal talisman intended to protect those living on the east side of the city.
The cylindrical base anchoring Lum’s cross attracted graffiti following its installation. This illicit mark-making not only echoes the graffiti covering the concrete wall bordering the lot beneath the cross, but also evokes the earlier and more ephemeral manifestations of the East Van cross. Contrary to the early images of the cross, however, Monument for East Vancouver functions as a distinct physical marker that calls attention to the historical and ongoing division of the city along class lines. There is a growing belief that the traditional divide between the east and west of the city no longer exists due to rising real-estate prices across the entire city. Yet, it is still a reality that the current real-estate prices are generating even more of a crisis for the poor who, by and large, reside on the east side and are finding the cost of housing too expensive to afford.
The monumentalization of the East Van cross results in a provocative reminder of the social, economic and political divides that exist in Vancouver. Monument for East Vancouver not only pays tribute to a particular place and time in the city’s history, it prompts us to think about the lives of those who call East Vancouver home.
By Paloma Campbell – Campbell is an editor who lives in Vancouver.
Monument for East Vancouver was commissioned by the City of Vancouver through its Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, Mapping and Marking: Artist Initiated Public Art Projects, Vancouver 2010.
About the Artist
Ken Lum was born in East Vancouver in 1956. He studied at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby) and New York University before earning a Master of Fine Art degree from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) in 1985. Since then, he has participated in solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada, Witte de With, and the Vancouver Art Gallery, which held a major retrospective in 2011. Prominent international group exhibitions include the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the 2008 Gwangju Biennale, the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, Documenta XI and the 1995 and 2001 Venice Biennales. From 2000 to 2006, he was Head of the Graduate Program in Studio Art at UBC. He is also the Founding Editor of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. He has received numerous honours and awards: in 1999, he was made a Guggenheim Fellow; he was also the 1998 recipient of the Killam Award for Outstanding Research and won the 2007 Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award. Currently, he is director of the undergraduate fine arts program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
The City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program celebrates 25 years of creating extraordinary artworks for public spaces. Every two weeks during 2016 we’ll share the story of a unique artwork created through the program. Over 260 pieces have been commissioned since 1991 through civic initiatives, community grants or private sector rezoning requirements. These are only a few of the key pieces that have helped to define Vancouver as a unique place and a world-class city for public art!