Born in 1984 in Hong Kong, LeeLee Chan is well known for sculptural installations that transform discarded mass-produced objects from daily life into hybrid and often organic forms. For Chan, there is no discontinuity between the human, natural and technological spheres; she has developed a holistic approach to the world and to society. Art allows her to connect these realms creatively, opening up new and sometimes surprising perspectives on our urban environment.
Caroline Ha Thuc: You left Hong Kong at the age of 17 to study in the United States and you spent 13 years abroad, including two in the UK, before coming back in 2015. How did this journey shape your work?
LeeLee Chan: I guess it changed my perspective on Hong Kong and how I now appreciate my family’s heritage. My parents are antique dealers, and I grew up surrounded by Chinese antiques, yet I did not fully appreciate them until I came back. I am also more open to the urban environment I am now living in, in Kwai Chung, and I have been reflecting on its specificities. Besides, it was with my move back to Hong Kong that sculpture became my primary medium, and my practice has gone through drastic development ever since. My first studio in Hong Kong was located in Fotan, an industrial neighbourhood with lots of warehouses and small, family owned craft shops. I came across all kinds of objects on the side streets and in dumpsters on the way to my studio. I simply could not 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. I am interested in people’s desire to mimic nature in urban environments. This interest was, again, sparked by my return to Hong Kong. This place is extremely urbanised, although its people live, in fact, close to nature. Hong Kong 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. Sculpture making has become a journey
to discover and explore the city again.
CHT: Most of your sculptural installations, as you call them, are indeed based on objects collected from the streets or building sites. How do you select them?
LLC: The objects I collect need to open up my imaginary and to trigger my curiosity. This is mainly intuitive. I am not interested in everything, for instance vintage items or objects that have memorable value. The objects I select usually tend to be mass-produced, mundane, industrial and household objects that are overlooked and have an anonymous quality because they offer room for my freewheeling imagination. There are a few pieces in the studio that haven’t found their place yet, but usually I know straight away if a piece will be relevant or not.
CHT: I can see plastic pallets, polystyrene packaging and lots of boxes with various objects inside. How do you connect these found materials to your working process?
LLC: I always start from the object itself, from my personal connection to it, and then I develop ideas and think of new forms and association of materials and forms. I usually move things around, try different positions to change my perspective on the material, being extremely aware of its materiality and hidden potential. It implies a series of experimentations and going through a process of unlearning and relearning. For example, when I moved these plastic pallets vertically, I suddenly saw stained glass windows instead, which opened up new possibilities to work with them. For me, the best works come usually from mistakes that I make, and new ideas that are generated from those mistakes. Ultimately, this is why I do not define myself as a conceptual artist: ideas are important, but they do not guide my practice.
CHT: You already used these pallets in the installation Pallet in Repose (Marine) (2019), but they didn’t look like windows at that time.
LLC: That’s right, and I also used bigger ones. These are Japanese pallets that are not so easy to find in Hong Kong. When I put one upright, its intricate structure brought back a memory of a stained glass window. Since the pallet already had blue buttons encrusted on its surface, I decided to create a stained glass prism effect with various shades of blue resin. However, I felt that the pallet itself wasn’t interesting enough, and remained too literal, so I incorporated some polystyrene car packaging together with concrete and metal components. It changed the physical presence of the pallet, giving it a heavy, bulky quality that transformed it into a kind of mechanical device. It made me think of an underwater archaeological artefact such as a shipwreck that would rest quietly deep down in water.
CHT: Reverse Conductor (2018) was a site-specific sculptural installation commissioned by Tai Kwun and made from the lamps you found on the work site before the opening of the exhibition space. How did you connect with these objects, and why?
LLC: I found these lamps when I visited the site at the time of its construction. They were used to light up the work and were attached to makeshift metal stands made by the workers for purely practical reasons. For me, they were like the guardians of the site, illuminating its dark construction space. I asked the workers to keep a few of them, and I replicated others, although I mixed up some original pieces with new pieces so that, in the end, they had all something in common. I wanted to recreate this feeling of a group. In fact, like humans, they are all different, but they form a kind of community, like members of an orchestra. Inside their structure, the light changes constantly and, now that they do not serve as lights for the building site any more, they light up their own inner landscape. The hues of green respond to the different shades from the Tai Kwun environment: the basketball court, the street neon lights, the trees. Most of the sculptures were installed next to the spiral staircase inside the gallery space, which is surrounded by glass walls, while others were placed outside, on the balcony. They were thus connecting and blurring the boundary between the interior and exterior spaces. For me, it is important that the sculptures respond to their surrounding environments: when viewers look at the artwork, they not only look at what is in front of them but also at what is behind and around the sculptures, bringing awareness of their surroundings.
CHT: When you talk about your work or about these objects, you seem very attached to them, as if they were living entities.
LLC: Yes, I am attached to them. Like my father, I consider objects as living entities. When I came back to Hong Kong, he taught me how to evaluate antiques, mainly ceramic pieces, by touching and feeling them, and it opened new horizons to me as to how I could consider them. What I like the most is to unlearn what I know about an object and rediscover it from another perspective. When I work with existing material, I do not aim at erasing it but at reviving its identity from a different perspective.
CHT: Your last exhibition, Up Close – Hollywood Road, was a group show in an antique shop on Hollywood Road that aimed to revive antiques by creating a dialogue between ancient artefacts and contemporary art. How did you approach these historical collections?
LLC: This exhibition was very important because of my family’s history. In Hong Kong, there is no link between antiques and contemporary art practices, and I wanted to create this link by showing how they can respond to each other, and how antiquities can be revived through a contemporary perspective. I worked from ceramic shards in different shades of green dating from the Song (AD 960-1279) to the Ming (AD 1368-1644) dynasties that my father helped me to gather. I wanted to be sure they were authentic. I polished the shards into oval discs and embedded them in silver bezels, which were then connected to chainmail that was draped over a freestanding structure, resembling a piece of fabric flowing over a clothes rack. This installation was displayed along with the antique shop owner’s collection of textiles and a Ming dynasty clothes rack, so I tried to create a sculpture that would connect to the fluidity of textiles. I displayed the sculpture under daylight so that the ceramic surface would change according to the light. I read that in the Song dynasty, the literati looked at ceramics only at a specific time of day, since the natural light enhanced the sedate beauty of the monochromatic glaze.
CHT: What was your own relationship with these valuable pieces?
LLC: For me, there is no hierarchy between various materials, and normally I do not make any distinction between them. However, this time I felt a responsibility because these ceramic shards and fragmented pottery figures are a part of history and are also bound to my personal upbringing. I am very much inspired by the art philosophy of the Song dynasty, how even a humble ceramic bowl or a stone pebble could become more than an object: a mirror of the universe. It is a reflection of an overarching worldview that speaks to me.
CHT: Evolution and transformation are at the core of your recent series of caterpillar sculptures, Blindfold Receptor (2020). They seem to reflect on the evolution of both species and technique.
LLC: I was inspired by an article dealing with how caterpillars adapt to the changing environment. At that time, I was installing some steel structures in my studio to create storage. The column structures echoed the buildings I can see from my studio’s windows, and they recalled the image of peppered moth caterpillars straightening their bodies to mimic the straws for a scientific experiment depicted in that article. I wondered how a caterpillar would look in the urban environment of Hong Kong. Therefore, the steel columns in the Blindfold Receptor series function as a metaphor for the skyscrapers in Hong Kong. I wanted to create an impression of movement to reflect on this feeling of adaptation, a sense of evolving, even though the columns are rock solid. So I incorporated multi-directional rollers, or omni-wheels, and manipulated some of them by transforming them with a marbled pattern, camouflaging the colour of the surrounding wheels. Here the caterpillars morph into multiple omniwheels, which, like the caterpillar’s variegated ways of seeing and changing colour, evolved from a long lineage of wheels, dating back to the Stone Age, to move in all directions in smooth-rolling motions. Omni-wheels have since been widely adapted in robotics, manufacturing and logistics to improve productivity and efficiency. This continues my ongoing interest in the coexistence between nature and human inhabitants in an extreme urban environment.
CHT: You’ve said that, as an artist, you feel like a mediator. What do you mean by that?
LLC: I don’t think my role is to fully control the objects and material I am working with: it is a back and forth conversation between what I set out to do and what the materials and objects can do. I try to push their limitations and potential as far as I can. They are not a tool to illustrate. The work is not about me either, yet the creation process enables me to materialise my thoughts, visions, ideas and imagination, reflecting my experience and my feeling about my surroundings. For me, it is important to be surprised by the sculptures I create. I think that, above all, I wish to create a mental space, beyond textures and forms, that would provoke thoughts and create a sense of wonder.
CHT: Tell us about your BMW Art Journey Award-winning research project Tokens from Time (2020), for which you travelled in Europe, looking for traditional and futurist materials that could inspire you.
LLC: I mainly aimed at discovering the stories behind essential and very ancient materials such as marble, copper, iron, silver and crystals, and at investigating on how they had evolved through time. Regarding marble, for instance, I went to Carrara in Italy and found that most of the marble used today is transformed into powder for chemical products. The part used for art is very minimal. I also went to Ravenna and Sicily to learn about Roman and Byzantine mosaics. However, my journey is not a survey of ancient craft; I want to capture material culture in different times and explore the polar opposite experience of spending time with the artisans and scientists who dedicate their life working with everyday materials. It makes me realise how fascinating it is that we are still living in a world in which both of these two things coexist. The concrete, polystyrene packaging and plastic that I use in my sculptures inspired my research on sustainable alternatives to these materials. This led me to my research on lowcarbon- emission cement in Lausanne, as well as mycelium in the Netherlands, a type of fungus that can be grown as a replacement for plastic and polystyrene.
CHT: Your sculptural installations, so far, do not include any new technologies, yet you are very much interested in science. Is this a path you would like to explore in the future? What role does science play in your practice?
I would say I am not a science geek, but I like to listen to some science podcasts and read National Geographic magazine in my spare time. One of the goals of my art journey is to leave my comfort zone and expand my understanding of materials by meeting with engineers and material scientists. We discussed some potential collaborations, and I am excited to see where this might lead in the future.