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Oct 19 2018

Recap of Ken Lum’s International Dumpling Festival

by Henry Heng Lu

Photo documentation of KEN LUM’s International Dumpling Festival, 2018, at “The Things They Carried,” Nuit Blanche Toronto, September 29, 2018. All images courtesy the City of Toronto unless otherwise stated.

The 13th edition of Nuit Blanche Toronto kicked off on the slightly chilly evening of September 29. From sunset to sunrise, a series of public interventions transformed the cityscape as part of the 12-hour, after-dark contemporary art festival. For this occasion, Vancouver-born, Philadelphia-based artist Ken Lum created a new work titled International Dumpling Festival (2018), a participatory installation disguised as a functioning night market, featuring seven food vendors that sold a selection of dumplings including Chinese wontons, Jamaican patties, Tibetan momos, Colombian empanadas, and Polish pierogis.

The work was integral to “The Things They Carried,” a main exhibition zone curated by Tairone Bastien that “reflects on the immigrant stories of Toronto.” Dumpling is a popular, globalized dish with myriad cultural variants, many of which have become iconic menu items in ethnic enclaves around the world. As Lum put it, dumpling is “an allegory of Toronto, with its working-class roots. It’s a peasant food, with immigration built right in.” Fittingly, the installation was situated on James Street, which was part of the Ward, formerly home to Toronto’s first diasporic Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Black communities during the late 1890s and early 1900s. These communities were later relocated and the Ward, considered as a slum by many, was eradicated in order to make space for the construction of the Toronto City Hall and its surrounding facilities. 

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Photo documentation of KEN LUM’s International Dumpling Festival, 2018, at “The Things They Carried,” Nuit Blanche Toronto, September 29, 2018. 

Set up as a welcoming street food scene with decorative lights hung above the stalls and foreign tunes playing in the background, International Dumpling Festival placed dumpling as a culturalized symbol at the center of its investigation into the ghettoizing and commodifying of marginalized cultures. Continuing Lum’s ongoing interest in the interrogation of issues attached to cultural capital in the public spheres, the installation presented a glimpse into the livelihood of the immigrant communities through a mode of call and response, serving up cultural signifiers to be activated by the participant-consumers. Walking into the night-market-installation, visitors perhaps experienced an impression of cultural specificity that felt at once close yet unfamiliar, enjoying broadly recognizable delicacies while, at the same time, being overwhelmed by (or deliberately ignoring) the multiple, distinct cultures from which the food and their vendors originate. Referencing Lum’s well-known diptychs that draw on commercial signage to explore identity within modern, Western capitalist society, each food stand was accompanied by a brightly colored, cheery, billboard-size sign that included a portrait of the vendors and text stating which culture they were “representing,” bringing the people behind the food—and customers’ expectations of an authentic cultural performance from vendors—to the front of the culinary encounters. 

Photo documentation of KEN LUM’s International Dumpling Festival, 2018, at “The Things They Carried,” Nuit Blanche Toronto, September 29, 2018. 

Installation view of KEN LUM’s Across Time And Space, Two Children Of Toronto Meet (detail), 2013, two bronze sculptures, each 2.4 m tall. Photo Northvanrules. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The reactions of visitors at times seemed to channel the same flippancy with which the Ward was purged of its migrant residents and gentrified over the course of the 20th century. Compliments as well as complaints over the eats could be intermittently heard from the lines in front of each dumpling stand. While some expressed the joys of participating in an art project involving dumplings, others appeared unaware of its creative premise and were just glad to enjoy hot street eats in the cold weather. Despite the work’s celebration of Toronto’s immigrant history, it ironically reflected a continued tendency not to see migrants and their cultures as distinct and worthy of appreciation beyond their superficial, consumable contributions. In between the trends of cultural consumption and recognition, where do the peoples to whom the commodified minority cultures belong position themselves in the larger socio-political structure? 

Interestingly, just 200 meters away from International Dumpling Festival, in an alley adjacent to the new Toronto City Hall is Lum’s public sculpture Across Time and Space, Two Children of Toronto Meet (2013), featuring a young boy wearing a traditional Chinese jacket and a girl in a plain utility dress, seated on opposite plinths and looking curiously at one another. While both works exude a kind of warmth, humor and lightheartedness, they not only acknowledge the marginalized immigrants who once gathered in this central area of the city, but, conversely, are also testaments to Toronto’s faded history of inequality and discrimination. 

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