South China Morning Post | Contemporary relics from Leelee Chan showcase her passion for making art from found objects

Aaina Bhargava, South China Morning Post, June 26, 2020
  • Call it art to define 2020 for people not yet born - Leelee Chan is among five sculptors creating 'relics' in collaboration with Hong Kong antiques stores
  • Chan specialises in art made from found objects and materials, including ceramics - her parents were antique dealers


Nestled among Tang dynasty horses, stoic Han dynasty figurines, and a 3,000-year-old Neolithic vase is a miniature bust of a woman with a fresh yellow flower tucked behind her ear, protruding from a seashell. This whimsically adorned Ming dynasty artefact is in fact a contemporary artwork by 35-year-old Hong Kong sculptor Leelee Chan.


"I wanted to do something fun and playful," she says of the work, which adds a humorous twist to the dignified displays of funerary art at Bonnie Lai Antiquities.


Chan's work is part of a group exhibition, "Up Close", a collaborative project involving four antique stores on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong's Central district that aims to spark a dialogue between history and modernity and between art and craft.


Curators Hilda Chan and Iven Cheung commissioned five contemporary sculptors - Oscar Chan Yik-long, Lam Tung-pang, Lau Hok-shing, Bing Lee, and Chan - to create contemporary relics, ones which define the present for people in the future.


Chan addresses her obsession with found objects and materials - the basis of her art, for which she was recently awarded the BMW Art Journey, a prize presented to artists taking part in Art Basel Hong Kong (usually emerging artists, but broadened to mid-career artists this year because of the pandemic).


At her sun-filled, high-ceilinged industrial studio in Kwai Chung, near Hong Kong's container port, is a profusion of tools and contraptions for cutting and manipulating materials; it resembles a heavy-duty workshop. Broken bits of green and blue painted asphalt from tennis courts occupy a large part of the space. Chan plans to use these for a presentation at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021.


"[Caterpillars] adapt to the environment, and we adapt the environment to ourselves, and look where we are" Leelee Chan


Shards of ceramics from the Song and Ming dynasties are also visible - these she meticulously cut and enclosed in metal strips and embedded them onto a metal chain for her installation Celadon Weaver (2020), on view at Gallery149 in Hollywood Road.


Although this is the first time the artist is working with ceramics, her fascination with them began early - her parents are both antique dealers. Chan's Surface Morphology (2020) series, for instance, is inspired by her memories of attending auction previews with her father to assess the authenticity of ceramics.


"[He] would bring along a magnifying glass," Chan recalls. "Determining the authenticity - it's a multisensory experience.


"You feel it with your fingers, you feel the weight to see if it's normal for the type of ceramic, you feel the glaze to see if there's glue - they can create a fake patina with a chemical. You smell it to see if there is a suspicious chemical smell. You look carefully to see if the scratches on it are naturally occurring or artificially created.


"Actually the imperfections like that determine how valuable the object is and its authenticity. The more imperfect, the more valuable."


This quality of imperfection translates into her affection for found objects. Chan is attracted to the "abandoned, anonymous quality they possess".


She uses them in a way that often reflects on the meeting of nature and urbanisation in Hong Kong.


The steel rods that fortify the loft in her studio are also elements of her work Blindfold Receptor (Caterpillar Yellow), exhibited last year at Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong.


She fitted them with omni wheels - the kind used on logistics company tracking belts that allow packages to be rotated a full 360 degrees - to signify evolution and adaptation. Then she coated them in marble-effect clay, inspired by the ability of caterpillars to sense colour through touch, and to adapt to nature to protect themselves.


"They've outsmarted us," Chan says of caterpillars. "They adapt to the environment, and we adapt the environment to ourselves, and look where we are."


From a distance, the work evokes the view from her studio of high-rise residential buildings packed tightly together. Viewed up close, variations in the height and layers of the material compel you to walk around it and discover something different from multiple perspectives.


"I want to create a sense of discovery and engagement," says Chan, "I want you to linger."


Inherent to Chan's intuitive and process-based work is her feelings at the time she creates it. "It reflects how I perceive my surroundings," Chan says, "what it means to live in the moment. Everything is channelled and reflected in the work."