On the corner of the Boomgaardstraat and the Witte de Withstraat, the smiling face of Melly Shum has become a familiar sight on these streets. Created by Ken Lum, this billboard has graced the side façade of the Witte de With Center since 1990. This is an unprecedented long period (over 20 years!) of exposure for a billboard.
Although Ken Lum has applied the codes of the advertising world, it is immediately clear that this isn’t just any ordinary billboard. After all, the sign isn’t trying to sell anything. We see a photo of the friendly, smiling Asian woman sitting at a desk in an office setting. The caption next to this is the text ‘Melly Shum hates her job’, which occupies the other half of the billboard. This is all there is. Normally, a billboard would be singing the praises of a product or service that would give Melly Shum more pleasure in her job, or even a job she enjoys more. Here, however, we just have to make do with the announcement that she simply hates her job. But is this true? The woman has a friendly look on her face as she looks at the camera, while the word ‘hate’, in red letters next to her, jumps off the billboard at the viewer. The photo and text do not tell the same story, so which of the two is true?
Ken Lum is not advertising anything, but his billboard does truly contain a ‘message’. He provides insight into the codes of advertising. By incorporating the stereotypical design of the advertisement, he is showing how ingrained our visual habits are. We automatically make a connection between word and image, and take the direct language of the sign personally. But is this woman’s name really Melly Shum? Is Melly Shum a real person? Since there is no telephone number, website, price or product shown on the sign, the only thing that remains is the contradiction between image and text. Unlike normal advertisements, this work of art does not provide answers, it merely raises questions.
The combination of language and image plays a large role in much of Ken Lum’s work. In the language paintings he produced in the latter half of the 1980s, the images created using letters are of primary importance. Banners, advertising pennants, signs; one finds ‘language paintings’ all over the world. A text that may not only be read, but one which also creates an image through its design. In a foreign country, this is all it is: a word picture that you can’t decipher. Lum based his language paintings on this concept; he used the shapes and fonts of the advertising industry to create illegible works in a non-existent language. Form and colour determine the emotions evoked by the text.
In the mid-1980s, Lum achieved fame with work in which he combined portraits with abstract logos and text. Placed side-by-side, the fake logos had an unusual effect on the portrait photos. The people portrayed in the photo were no longer individuals, but instead, representatives of a brand. Take the work featuring the Ollner family, for example. A cliché family portrait accompanied by red and white letters in italics, “Ollner”. The design of the entire image combined with the title transforms the family into a brand that exudes domesticity and cosiness. But since there is no address, prices or other information in the image, the effect text and image have on one another is clearly visible. The work asks questions about identity. To what extent do brands determine the identity of modern man? And how does the advertising world take advantage of this? Even after 20 years, these questions are still very current.