For many artists, travel has become an unnecessary luxury in the wake of the pandemic which, in turn, has forced many to reassess their relationship with materials. However for some, like Leelee Chan, travel remains integral to their practice. At the beginning of September, the Hong Kong sculptor embarked on her own odyssey for a worldwide investigation into material culture.
As the winner of the BMW Art Journey award, a collaboration between Art Basel and BMW which allows emerging artists to develop their work through travel, the 35-year-old has been able to realise her project "Tokens From Time", which will take her across Europe to research materials and techniques, from the handcrafted to the post-industrial.
Chan, who is represented by Capsule Shanghai gallery, is known for the playful use of found materials, incorporating everything from Ming dynasty ceramics and household objects to throwaway items into her sculptures in order to interrogate questions of value. In "Tokens From Time", the artist hopes to broaden her understanding of her practice by examining not only how sculptors have engaged with materials across millennia (she plans to visit both Roman mosaics at Unesco heritage sites and biotechnology labs developing alternative substances) but also by shedding light on wider concerns about sustainability.
The project's title seems appropriate, as Chan's own movements are subject to restrictions imposed by a major world event. The health crisis has meant she has had to postpone trips to Japan and Mexico, limiting her to a European route through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK - which itself will be adjusted according to ever-changing regulations.
But Chan believes that the pandemic has given her research greater poignancy: "Living under the Covid-19 restrictions in Hong Kong, people have become so used to not touching anything outside their homes," she says. "I believe that has made me hypersensitive to my new surroundings - watching the hand movements of the craftspeople, feeling their worn tools and materials in my hands, I am ready to soak it all in."