Expansive Terrain

TEXT Stuart Keeler
PHOTO Morris Lum

Mississauga-based Morris Lum is an urban/suburban geographer who records the plaza spaces and recycled architectural icons of popular culture located in the edge cities of Ontario. Within his new body of photographic work, night-time abandoned spaces become symbols of the impersonality of super-modernity. The artist presents these spaces as areas where the human figure is void and the automobile is central to the experience, capturing the physical space of the strip mall, the parking lot and other marginal places, highlighting social isolation and unease.

A distinguishing aspect of Lum’s voice is the attention paid to the liminality of suburban space. Born in Trinidad-Tobago, he and his family immigrated to Mississauga in 1989. Always interested in the photographic image and the landscape of a city in flux, Lum focused upon this interest while attending Ryerson University. Active in the Toronto art scene, he is committed to the exploitation of a new suburban terrain, and we are asked to assess the order, value, and even beauty of the suburban Mississauga landscapes that Lum knows intimately.

The images clearly have a visual force and intellectual rigour that command attention and consideration. Ultimately, the buildings that Lum documents are recycled: a former Pizza Hut with the iconic hip roof is now a Cambodian restaurant, and an old Taco Time fast-food outlet has morphed into a Vietnamese noodle house whose cactus-emblazoned signage is now overwritten with the new establishment’s name. The artist reminds us that the social space of the newcomer to Canada reimagines the built environment, unwittingly employing sustainable practices in the process, for the benefit of all.

The work creates a new understanding of decentralized social spaces to provoke thought about the future of the edge city as a post-suburban condition. Lum also demonstrates that an emotional bond or exploration of the familiar is crucial to the understanding of a place. Philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan suggests that the built world should strengthen our memories, enhance the self, and provide layers of meaning to a space.

In his study of Divine Wok 2010/Saigon King 2012, Lum exploits the immigrant’s dream as a terrain, forcing us to question normative, reflexive ideas about metropolitan order and beauty, as well as our assumptions about suburban/urban conformity. Again, does the recycling of built form lose its associations?

The effect of urban sprawl is also considered—the houses and developments continue as if in fractal formations, the repetition a complex headache of sameness. This sameness can be witnessed in recycled architectural forms such as the famed yellow arches, the all-too-familiar icons of the North American fast-food economy. At the core of this body of work, Lum points to the aging of postwar suburbia, and the suburbanization of new Canadians and others who have created, in their edge cities, a world that contains more identities and notions of sustainable building practices in the quake of forging a new landscape. CA

Stuart Keeler is the Curator and Director of Programmes at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.