Leelee Chan: Solidification in Reverse

Leo Li Chen, February 16, 2019

As a young artist living and working in Hong Kong, Leelee Chan has—quite surprisingly and intriguingly—dedicated herself to sculpture. This choice is a result of her artistic education and her training in painting and sculpture in the United States. But in Hong Kong, a city with limited space and a highly commercialized art scene, it takes a daring artist to choose sculpture as one’s primary medium. The complexity of Hong Kong’s environment and space, however, allows Chan’s creative practice to stray from both abstraction and formalization. Chan incorporates myriads of ready-made daily objects in her works, revealing the cheap labor and emotional exploitation beneath the refined surfaces of these objects through a blurred state between nature and industry. Her sculptures are not “abstract,” therefore, but are concrete and primal, laying out artificial objects in a seemingly natural arrangement. In this sense, the abundant, fragmental, and discarded manmade materials have enabled her to set up obstacles and revelations only visible in the final appearances of her works.  


This interplay between closure and exposure is most evident in Pallet in Repose (Marine) (2019). The empty square grids of a plastic pallet are filled with resin, evoking a classical Chinese window panel. Black foam packaging materials collected from auto repair shops are filled and wrapped with concrete, forming the exterior structure. The hexagonal metal parts embedded in the concrete structure and the nylon cable ties resembling marine creatures clinging to the surface create a refined harmony between industrial vestiges and a simulated nature. The orderly structure and the unveiled exposure—two seemingly incongruous existences—create a strange but exquisite appeal that captivates the viewers. Similarly, in Pallet in Repose (Portal) (2019), the artist removes the original core components of value from discarded product waste (wooden pallets, pink foam packaging blocks, half-moon shaped glasses). The materiality and the design previously used for auxiliary functions are neatly integrated to rebuild a series of elaborate, skeletonized structures, wisely recalling perceptions of nature. In Leelee Chan’s artistic practice, the objects discarded behind an auto shop, a supermarket, or industrial zones become important artistic materials. Chan decontextualizes the inherent properties of these industrial and commercial vestiges—transforming them into an elevated, fictional nature. Thus, in Chan’s works, form is more than a metaphysical meditation or a re-creation of a landscape, it is rather a complete embodiment of an object, whose form and nature are fully preserved and grafted. She explores the questions: "Why is the form in this form? And what is the essence in these essences?"


Chan’s sensibility to capture transient moments of the mundane is reflected in her work. The primitive essence of an object becomes contradictory and witty. For example, she embeds hardware metal nuts into a plastic egg container filled with concrete condensing into 380 hard “acorn barnacles”[1] (Barnacles, 2019). The material’s original form and structure are solidified in reverse; while the subjectivity completes its transformation: real eggs would break if they were to come into contact with these gray “acorn barnacles.” In Protector (2018), Chan employs a variety of different materials such as a car windshield, seashells, an egg packaging, concrete, and mother of pearl to assemble an untouchable “capsule toy machine.” These materials all share a “protective” function, they are woven into a totem of a modern society, sealing a gleaming but fragile hope. In House of Leaves (2017), leaves skeletons are encased in an imaginative shrine composed of a found fake stone-textured plastic frame and stone mosaic tiles, resembling those shrines tucked away in the alleys of Hong Kong’s urban space—these objects satirize the paradox between archaeology and modernism. Here, all these quasi-natural objects juxtapose with the fragile quality of the leaves skeletons, taking on a prominent presence.


Leelee Chan uses many manmade products to recreate a simulated nature, demonstrating her inclination towards imitating nature and the artificial attributes in her works. For example, in the sculpture installation Sunset Capsule (2019) displayed in the gallery’s outdoor courtyard, LED construction lights are combined with perforated concrete casts of their covers, metal parts and entangled cables. Giving off an artificial amber glow, the device aims to re-create a lasting sunset. In Chan’s practice, all the ready-made or artificial materials serve her intentionally fabricated nature. Industrial objects —though they fundamentally retain industrial attributes —are transformed into a more intimate and refined desire for nature. Chan forcibly rejects the absolute reality of nature but instead incorporates it into her criticism of the consumerism that plagues everyday lives. It is understandable, then, why Chan wraps these ready-made products in concrete and Aqua-Resin, elevating their forms and exposing their underlying crudeness and artificiality. The abundant information and social insinuations contained in these objects do not constitute specific events, but permeate the economic model of our daily production. It is less important whether the information is buried or exposed. To some extent, Chan’s artworks reject a direct gaze, or they eliminate a simplistic interpretation of meaning through a given object’s existing form and structure. Chan’s objects are often re-wrapped and re-solidified by a fluid similar to concrete. Whether fully covered or partially exposed, these objects and their invisible textures and apertures all suggest a state of endless implosion and constant fluctuation.

[1] Acorn barnacles are shoreline animals attached to seaside rocks. They are usually conical, becoming immobile once fully grown, and often mistaken for plants. The artist uses this name in reference to these animals’ communal nature.