Industrial junk, everyday items, and organic elements elegantly come together in the work of Leelee Chan. Her cool yet seductive sculptures demonstrate her affinity with materials – their sensorial effects, how they came into being, their sources and origins – while exemplifying the tensions between the natural and man-made that are at the heart of the Anthropocene era. Born in Hong Kong in 1984, the young, fast-rising artist is the latest winner of the BMW Art Journey, whose prize is a dream research trip. With the coronavirus pandemic raging across the globe, 2020 was never going to be an easy ride for the BMW laureate, but this autumn, while certain areas of the world enjoyed a brief respite from COVID-19, Chan finally headed to Europe.
During her journey, the artist sought out the origins of traditional materials and techniques; she was determined to discover more not just about where they come from, but also the people and communities around them. After a brief visit to Florence to soak up the wonders of the Renaissance – where she was particularly taken by the depictions of craftsmen on the facades – Chan visited Carrara, whose marble quarries have been used since classical antiquity.
‘Originally I was worried about how I would be received in Europe during times of COVID-19,’ says Chan, ‘but the artisans I met in Italy were very open-minded and generous with their time.’ She immersed herself in the life of the quarries, talking to and learning from the artisans. She found them still very attached to simple tools such as the hammer and chisel, which they used along with machines they affectionately called ‘robots.’
Invaluable to Chan’s exchanges with the workmen was Nathalie Alony, a local guide and marble sculptor from Israel who acted as a translator and introduced Chan to many of the artisans in the area. ‘The craftspeople I spoke to are highly dedicated to preserving the knowledge of the ancient methods and techniques,’ Chan says. ‘They are proud and aware of being a crucial part of the production process, since machines rely on their expertise and knowledge of materials – especially the limits of the material.’ She was also keen to avoid being a spectator and eager to get her hands dirty; the marble sculptor and instructor Kyle Ann Smith helped with the more practical side of things. ‘She also really explained the dynamics of sculpting,’ Chan explains. ‘Some people think it’s just about strength, but Kyle showed the right technique to swinging the hammer to accumulate force without exhausting yourself.’
While in Italy, Chan also visited an ironsmith who still forges using an ancient water mill’s power hammer, as well as medieval copper workshops, the world’s oldest tower-bell foundry, Campane Marinelli – and a lot of good restaurants. She tried her hand at mosaics in Ravenna, where she gained a new understanding of the ancient craft, and in particular of the traditional hammer and hardie technique, which involves a specific kind of chisel. ‘It takes years to really master the art of the mosaic,’ Chan says. ‘Even making one little work, you come out of it with a really different sense of time, since it can take years to work on just one surface.’
Chan’s abiding interest in materials has much to do with her background. Born into a family of antique restorers and dealers in Hong Kong, she grew up surrounded by rare objects, connoisseurship, and collecting – an environment she only recently realized has had a profound effect on her artistic practice. As a child, she imbibed her parents’ obsession with the forms, textures, feel, and ‘glow’ of the ancient ceramics, pottery figures, and bronze vessels they let her play with. Yet her studies brought her first to painting, initially at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was only later, after she came back to Hong Kong, that sculpture became her primary medium. Initially, her studio was located in Fo Tan, an industrial area dotted with warehouses, auto-repair outlets, hardware stores, and family-run craft shops in Hong Kong’s New Territories. There, Chan encountered an array of discarded objects that had been used as packaging or in light industries. Her collecting instincts kicked in and she saved whatever caught her fancy.
Chan’s sculptural practice seeks out unknown potentials in and interrelations between objects through trial and error. For Protector (2018), she created a totem-like object from, among other items, egg packaging, a car windshield, and mother-of-pearl tiles – the piece’s monumentality belying its light weight. For Navel (2018), Chan laboriously sanded polystyrene packaging into a biomorphic form, coating it with the patina of effort and time. Displayed at eye level, the sculpture could be an ethnological mask from an undetermined place – the future, perhaps – with the found-seashell casting a spellbinding contrast. There is a sense of ‘material deception’ or uncertainty that forces the viewer to scrutinize the object and look again with new eyes and greater awareness of the apparently mundane.
Chan is not only interested in history and crafts – far from it. Her practice also reveals her fascination with cutting-edge materials. During her journey, she visited the Laboratory of Construction Materials in Switzerland to find out more about the latest research into new substances, which includes finding new ways to make concrete. In contrast to the Italian craftsmen’s obsession with art and aesthetics, the people she encountered there were solely focused on streamlining production in order to reduce carbon emissions. ‘One scientist I met couldn’t see the point of a collaboration between art and science,’ Chan says with a laugh, ‘so focused was she on changing the world!’
Before she had to cut her trip short due to the pandemic, Chan also managed to take an exclusive peek at the high-tech research facilities at BMW’s headquarters in Munich, where she saw engineers working with new types of glass and designers thinking through one key implication of having driverless cars: the need to create vehicles fully conceived as living spaces. The artist was also due to meet up with a microbiologist in the Netherlands and other researchers in the US to look into the new uses of mycelium, a fungus being grown as a replacement for plastic and polystyrene.
Chan’s interest in this material, which unites the natural and the artificial in complex ways, reflects an important strand in the artist’s oeuvre, namely her fascination with the mimicry of nature. In Pallet in Repose (marine) (2019), a found plastic pallet contains translucent bluish resin to conjure the deep sea, with hex nuts wrapped in cable ties resembling mechanical sea urchins. The pandemic has temporarily put Chan’s research into mycelium on pause, and for now, the artist is back in Hong Kong, well rested after two weeks in quarantine. But she is eager to continue her trip as soon as the conditions permit. Next stop: Mexico. ‘My journey isn’t just a survey about craft!’ she says. ‘It’s about materiality in past and future forms as well as the people who have dedicated their lives to these materials.’
Daniel Szehin Ho is Editor at Tai Kwun, where he also directs BOOKED: Hong Kong Art Book Fair.
Launched in 2015, the BMW Art Journey is a collaboration between Art Basel and BMW, offering artists an opportunity to undertake a journey of creative discovery. Find out more about the artists’ work and the initiative here and follow BMW Group Culture on Instagram and Facebook for regular updates.
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