NARRATOR: Ken Lum has been making artworks based on signage since the 1980s. This is a sign for an imaginary strip mall—though, as he explains, it responds to a real one near Lum’s home in South Philadelphia.
KENLUM: Beside the sign there’s this huge South Vietnamese flag flying proudly and, I would say, somewhat defiantly too.
NARRATOR: Ken Lum.
KENLUM: Defiantly in the sense of it representing a country that no longer exists politically.
I often ask myself who the people are behind each of these shops. I always try to imagine the subjectivities that are constituted behind these signs, behind the public façade of these signs.
I also think about how it breaks all the rules of proper, so called good design because it’s so cacophonous. It transcends the question of taste. These slats representing each shop have to embody a lot of information.
All the names of each of the shops that are here like Pho 459 or Phan Thi Kim Phuc Apothecary, and so on are actually names of principles and events and battles of the Vietnam War.
It’s almost an allegory of what transpired, and how all those issues, all those signifiers amassed themselves onto this boat, I guess, that arrived on the shores of America and started this very vibrant and successful shopping plaza for this community of Vietnamese people, boat people, in South Philadelphia.