Whitewall | Leelee Chan Investigates the Evolving Meaning of Material Culture

Eliza Jordan, Whitewall, November 11, 2020

In 2015, BMW launched the BMW Art Journey in collaboration with Art Basel, to support artists in their pursuit of research, discovery, and the creation of new work. Thanks to travel made possible by the award, artists are able to realize a project that in turn helps us see the world from a new perspective.


The program's latest awardee is the Hong Kong-based sculptor Leelee Chan. Through her journey "Tokens from Time," Chan will engage with artisan families and scientists in Europe, Asia, and the Americas to learn about both natural and synthetic matter, traditional and cutting-edge methods. Investigating questions of ecological and cultural sustainability, she'll explore crystal caves in Spain, marble workshops in Italy, and synthetic quartz factories in Japan.


Chan, who is known for sculpting with everyday objects and detritus, spoke with us about the evolving meaning of material culture.


WHITEWALL: Tell us about your upcoming BMW Art Journey.


LEELEE CHAN: "Tokens from Time" is a journey that aims to trace material culture from the past, present, and future. I will visit historically important artisan families in Italy and Mexico that are still practicing ancient craftsmanship techniques of copper, marble, and silver today. I will further experience material in its rawest form by visiting the second world's-largest crystal cave in Spain, and contrast this by engaging with world-leading scientists, engineers, and researchers from Japan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United States that have dedicated their everyday lives to develop postindustrial bio- and nanotechnology, such as self-healing concrete, synthetic quartz crystals, metal foams, and mycelium fungus.

I have deliberately chosen materials that stand out due to their persistent historical significance, but also because they allow for an intimate hand-material and human-material relationship, which have been an important element of my sculpture practice. The title "Tokens from Time" implies that material objects and how they evolve through time can also be regarded as "tokens" that serve as a tangible representation of the key qualities and feelings of living in societies in different historical and cultural contexts. As such, my journey seeks to raise the question: "How does the evolving meaning of material culture project our needs, values, desires, and ideas as human inhabitants living in the Anthropocene"?


WW: How did material objects originally become the core of your practice?

LC: Having been trained as a painter, it was only during my second year in grad school at Rhode Island School of Design that I experimented with making my first sculpture. Since then, my studio practice has oscillated between painting and sculpture. But it was with my move back to Hong Kong five years ago, after living abroad for 15 years, that sculpture became my primary medium. My practice has gone through a drastic development ever since.

My studio in Hong Kong is located in an industrial neighborhood with lots of warehouses, motor repair, hardware, and small family-owned craftsman shops. This meant that I started to come across an interesting mixture of all kinds of remnants and objects on the side streets and dumpsters on the way to my studio. I simply cannot help saving the most interesting ones. Having these objects in my studio, in turn, has given me the impulse to make something out of them. Also, the process of collecting objects has become a journey to discover and explore the city again.


WW: What kind of traditional and future materials will you get to explore on your BMW Art Journey?

LC: I live in Hong Kong, a city that is far detached from how material objects are made, since most of the manufacturing industry moved to Mainland China and merely small family handcraft shops remain. This is why I want to take advantage of this Art Journey-to visit places where the materials originally come from and to experience the people and communities whose lives have been shaped by them.

To explore the possibilities of ancient materials and cultural sustainability, for example, I am planning to visit the marble quarries of Pietrasanta, Italy, which has become one of the world's most renowned marble sculpture capitals since Michelangelo first recognized the beauty of pure Pietrasanta marble in the 15th century. Artists have continued to produce works with the help of quarry workers and local artisans who still insist on carving manually with old-fashioned chisels for the most part. In Italy, I would also like to visit the world's oldest bell foundry in Agnone, which has been operating for the last thousand years.

I will explore the possibility of the future and ecological materials by visiting researchers in Switzerland that have been influential in the advancement of concrete technologies over the past century. Intensive research is now ongoing to further improve cement and concrete, focusing on environmental issues and aiming to achieve a zero-carbon-emission footprint of this basic building material.


WW: How does your work enable you to reflect on your surroundings and daily encounters?

LC: My process-based approach usually enables me to gain a deeper understanding of the historical context, communities, human behavior, and social relationships surrounding the objects that I choose. I am using this duality of materials to probe the condition of coexistence between human inhabitants and nature.

Hong Kong has also fundamentally influenced the way I perceive space. As one of the densest cities in the world, Hong Kong has layered and hidden spaces everywhere. This compression of space is reflected in my sculptures, which often contain multiple micro-spaces that can be discovered when one walks around them. I hope these discoveries can reinvigorate the viewers' senses and slow down their perception that I think is lost in the hectic, fast-paced environment in Hong Kong. I want to create sculptures that have a sense of unfolding, evolving, and becoming.