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Fascinating Forms: The AGO Delves Into Furniture Art

By taking everyday objects and installing them in a gallery space, these Canadian artists have given furniture a whole new meaning.

By Ciara Heath

On June 25th, the AGO unveiled two new furniture exhibitions, Death and Furniture by Ken Lum and Present: Past/Future by Ed Pien. The two Canadian artists both used photographs and furniture sculptures to bring personal history and new voices to the AGO.

Death and Furniture

Ken Lum’s Death and Furniture showcases an extensive range of works from his 40-year practice in conceptual art. Pulling pieces from his ongoing series, Furniture Sculptures, Lum reconfigures and rearranges everyday items to give them new meaning. While the placement may seem simply unconventional at first glance, viewers will quickly realize how deliberate Lum’s choices are. Corners, Barriers and Corridors places couches on their sides throughout the exhibition space. While Lum’s original vision entailed placing all the re-oriented sofas in a straight line, he had to readapt his vision to fit within the AGO’s gallery space — in doing so, he invites visitors to follow the couches from one corner to the next, seamlessly merging the rooms in the gallery.

In a seemingly more traditional arrangement, four pink-velvet, tufted love-seats paired with glass side tables and lamps are positioned to face one another. For this piece, Lum selected furniture that “his mother would have liked” — the array of flamboyant sofas reminding him of his childhood growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. As a child, he had collected furniture flyers and came to associate plush sofas with luxury. 

But although these couches may look inviting, they are arranged in a way that prohibits visitors from sitting down. Lum’s powerful message about classism and access is felt sharply by visitors to the exhibit.

Present: Past/Future

In another wing of the AGO, artist Ed Pien’s exhibition uses antique furniture mixed with video components to reflect on the passage of time, illustrated with stories told by Cuban elders engaged with the ongoing Cuban revolution. While Pien himself originally emigrated from Taiwan, this project was commissioned by Elegoa Cultural Productions and the Laboratorio Artístico de San Agustín (LASA) network to illustrate what life might look like for those living through a revolution. Travelling to the Cuban community of San Agustín regularly since 2014, Pien met with a group of local elders, slowly developing a connection with them and watching their stories progress over the years. In that time, he collected a considerable amount of footage — which is now projected onto antique televisions as part of the exhibit. 

The glass cabinets and dressers hold various personal mementos belonging to Pien and those who participated in the project. From a hand-carved wooden sunflower to a ceramic mug, the items are just as unique as the stories of those who participated. For every item gifted, Pien made sure to donate a personal item of his own to the exhibition, beautifully weaving together moments from his life with theirs. 

The two furniture exhibitions opened at the AGO on the same day, both striking a nerve with unique storytelling — both showcase how everyday objects, which can be easily overlooked, have a way of preserving our collective histories.


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