The UN Brief interviewed Leelee Chan, a Hong Kong-based artist who is participating on a travelogue throughout Europe's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, an initiative sponsored by BMW in partnership with Art Basel.
As the 2020 winner of BMW Art Journeys, she will travel through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Great Britain, examining material culture from the past, to discover the "places where the materials come from, the people, and the local community around them. Being a sculptor in Hong Kong, where most factories have moved to mainland China, we tend to be very detached from how things are made and from where they originate. It may seem a simple idea, but that was precisely the point: I wanted to focus on a simple concept, but immerse myself deeply into the research".
She seeks to immerse herself in the cultures preserved on Italy's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, its Christian and Roman mosaics. Art Basel and BMW Art Journeys will document her visits and conversations with artisans, and her participation in workshops to learn about ancient craftsmanship using copper and marble.
Leelee Chan will be researching ancient materials and investigating the possible substitution of these materials by exploring advances in the emerging fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology.
Maya Plentz: Which UNESCO World Heritage Sites have you visited, and are you visiting this week?
Leelee Chan: During my stay in Ravenna from 21- 27 September, I visited all eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I visited Cappella di Sant' Andrea and Battistero Neoniano. I took a five days' mosaic class in the Mosaic Art School in Ravenna, and it included a guided tour to Basilica di San Vitale, Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Basilica di saint Apollinare Nuovo on Friday, the 25th. On the following day, I visited Basilica di Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Mausoleo di Teodorico and Battistero degli Ariani.
This week, I will visit the Campane Marinelli foundry located in Agnone, in Molise. It is considered to be the oldest bell foundry in the world.
At the end of my Italy journey, I will visit another UNESCO protected historical site, Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily from 2-6 October.
MP: How are you making those choices?
LC: One of the critical ideas of my BMW Art Journey "Tokens from Time" is to explore the ancient materials and craftsmanship, in particular silver, copper, marble and mosaic. I am interested in the question of how they transformed a place and its local community, even until today. When I was doing research about Roman mosaics on the internet, I was struck by the images of Ravenna's Roman mosaic. How some of the mosaics from the 4th to 6th century look incredibly contemporary and how it still manages to communicate to people today. Also, I was inquisitive about the history of Ravenna, how a small city has 8 UNESCO heritage sites? I want to experience being immersed in a space full of Roman mosaics and be able to look at them from a close distance. Mosaic has always been an identity of Ravenna. For example, one can easily spot mosaics in the street, embedded in street signs, how this ancient craft as a communication tool has evolved from church to post- First World War fascism. Today, it remains a major international centre for the study and production of mosaics.
MP: What is it like to be in Europe at the time of this health crisis, does it change how you work?
LC: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, even travelling in Europe has taken longer than expected. Each country has different travel entry restrictions which are changing daily. The cases have gone up rapidly right after I left London. Mainly, that means that I need to be flexible with the order of countries that I want to visit.
The up-side is that I get to spend a long time at each destination. I prefer slow travel anyway. Plus, there are fewer tourists, and everything tends to be a little more quiet, giving me the opportunity to 'feel' the local community. This is important since part of my research on material culture is about how ancient materials and craftsmanship like marble, copper, silver and mosaic have continued to shape the lives of today's local community. For example, I visited six different marble artisan and artist studios in the marble capital Pietrasanta, in Tuscany; a hundreds-years old mosaic studio and a five hundred-years old family-run blacksmith studio in a valley of Lucca; on top of various local craftsman's workshops in Florence that I encountered by chance. In turn, this extended time has served me well so far.
MP: What guided your imagination when developing the itinerary?
LC: The word 'craftmanship' is very broad, but this art journey is not meant to be a survey of craftsmanship around the world. The major question, since every old civilization has ancient crafts, why did I choose these particular destinations? I wanted to go to places that I dreamed of going, such as the world's second-largest crystal cave in Spain and sites that I had always been curious about, such as the marble quarries in Pietrasanta. Besides, I wanted to go to places where the materials come from, the people, and the local community around them. Being a sculptor in Hong Kong, where most factories have moved to mainland China, we tend to be very detached from how things are made and from where they originate. It may seem a simple idea, but that was precisely the point: I wanted to focus on a simple concept, but immerse myself deeply into the research.
On the practical aspects, I had the COVID-19 situation in mind when I was developing the itinerary. I wanted to minimize the number of flights. Europe was the perfect choice as the first stop for this reason. I am hoping to have a chance (Covid-19 permitting) to complete my exploration of materials, such as crystals, copper, and silver, and visit some of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mexico, at a later stage.
Leelee Chan is represented by the Capsule Shanghai Gallery
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