“A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In a fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself”
— Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees,” from The Bends (London: XL Recordings Ltd., 1995)
Leelee Chan’s exhibition Core Sample, on view at Capsule Shanghai, outlines a parallel between “core sampling” in the scientific sense and the artist’s practice of extracting the basic essence of individual objects to build sculptures that act like excavations of the urban environment. Chan’s works operate as tokens of contemporary society, embodying both industrial materials—product waste, dumpster detritus, mundane objects not worth preserving that she relentlessly collects—and natural elements such as leaves, concrete, plaster. These give shape to a duality that expresses the artist’s interest in the way people long for simulated nature in cities (for instance, by employing materials like artificial plants or faux marble), while also marking her practice as a “personal resistance” to the excesses of consumer culture.
In the following interview, Chan draws on her family history, the role of the cities she has lived in, and her study of art to retrace her innate interest in the objects she gives shape to.
CHIARA MOIOLI: A core sample is a cylindrical section of a (usually) naturally occurring substance. Can you talk about the choice of this title for your solo exhibition at Capsule Shanghai, in relation to the inception of the show?
LEELEE CHAN: When I chose the title for my solo show, I wanted it to convey a clue to my overall studio practice and my personal background. Most people will recognize the term “core sample” from its use in geology or archaeology—i.e., drilling into sediments or rocks to extract material and gain crucial information from the inside. Rather than being from nature, my sculpture is like a geology or archaeology of the urban environment. There is a direct parallel relationship between core sampling in the scientific sense and my practice of aiming to extract the basic essence of my individual objects in order to build a sculpture. Not least, core sampling is also used for testing the authenticity of antiquities. This brings up very personal memories of growing up in my parents’ antique shop in Hong Kong, where they have sold ancient Tang and Song dynasty ceramics and pottery figures since I was a child. But, of course, core sampling as I understand it in the context of my solo show is a completely subjective and spontaneous endeavor. All sculptures in this show are composed of objects that I collected from Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other places that I lived in the past, including rural Yorkshire and New York. To me, each sculpture is a compression of time and represents a remnant from these various sites, similar to the cylindrical core samples in which compressed layers are exposed.
CM: Can you expand on your decision to employ sculpture as a primary medium?
LC: Having been trained as a painter, it was only during my second year in grad school in Rhode Island that I experimented with making my first sculptures. Since then, my studio practice has oscillated between painting and sculpture, but it was with my move back to Hong Kong, three years ago, that sculpture became my primary medium. However, this was not a conscious decision but rather an organic process and gradual transition. 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 means that I 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 but save the most interesting ones. Having these objects in the studio, in turn, gives me the impulse to make something out of them, the result of which are the sculptures included in Core Sample.
CM: Your sculptures act like tokens of contemporary society, embodying both industrial materials—product waste, dumpster detritus, mundane objects not worth preserving—and natural elements such as leaves, concrete, plaster. Can you investigate this duality? Does it embed a component of social, ecological, and economic critique?
LC: It is true that my sculptures act like tokens of contemporary society. This is also what I wanted to emphasize when I created my artist book, Primal Matter, in collaboration with Hong Kong artist Eunice Tsang. This book was designed in Hong Kong in parallel to my three-month studio practice in Shanghai, acting as a platform for dialogue and playful interpretation of the found objects that take up very different roles in the book and the exhibition, respectively. Rather than a conventional exhibition catalogue, this book is meant to serve as a “wordless dictionary,” a kind of assistant that one can use to decipher my works. It specifically focuses on the different industrial and natural elements of my assemblage sculptures—from a seashell, to polystyrene packaging, to a car windshield—in an attempt to bring out the plethora of their distinct personalities.
To explore the boundaries of these found objects in my sculptures, I often place them together with industrial or everyday objects that mimic nature, such as a faux plant or a faux marble pattern fitting. I am interested in people’s desire to mimic nature in urban environments (e.g., in architecture, their private homes, or work spaces). This interest was—again—sparked by my return to Hong Kong, which is characterized by an extreme degree of urbanization, although its people are, in fact, very close to nature: a twenty-minute bus ride from most places in Hong Kong is enough to transport one back into nature.
Although I am using this duality of materials to probe the condition of coexistence between human inhabitants and nature, it is not my focal point to use this duality as a strategy for social, ecological, and economic critique. These issues are present, no doubt, but commentary is not the motivation behind my sculptures. In fact, I’m not fully convinced that they would be the most effective way to produce such a criticism in a coherent manner. Having said this, I see my daily studio practice as my very personal resistance to the excesses of consumer culture.
CM: Where does your interest in objects originate, and how does the selection process work? What draws you to them? Do you go hunting for materials by yourself?
LC: In retrospect, my interest in objects started from spending countless hours with my sister playing with packaging materials and broken antiquities waiting to be restored in my parents’ antique shop as a child. I only made this connection recently, once I started to learn some restoration techniques myself. This also made me remember how my parents were obsessed with objects—from ancient pottery figures, ceramics, bronze vessels, jades, to scholar’s miniature items—and often talked to me about how, for instance, the “tender glow” generated from a genuine old ceramic is different from a fake one.
Indeed, when it comes to spotting fake antiques, one can only really make valid judgments through experiencing the objects—for example, by observing the patina and air bubbles inside the glaze of a ceramic through a magnifying glass; using one’s sense of smell to spot any potential residue of chemical restoration; or cradling the antique in one’s hands to assess its weight and the surface of the glaze. This obsession with examining objects through perception is also reflected in my practice. I always want my work to create an experience that brings awareness to our senses.
I mostly go material hunting by myself because frankly I am too slow to make decisions for anyone to come with me. The slowness gives me the necessary head space to truly think of each material’s potential. It is also a commitment to select any object because of the very constrained studio space in Hong Kong, and I hate throwing things out. Yet the truth is that I usually don’t find anything if I go hunting intentionally. More often than not, it is the objects that seem to find me instead, in unexpected ways.
CM: After having studied in the United States, you came back to Hong Kong. What impact have this return, the city, and its surroundings had on your practice?
LC: Besides the extreme urbanization, the coexistence of nature and inhabitants, and my experience of working in my parents’ antique shop, 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 microspaces that can be discovered when one walks around them. I hope these discoveries can reinvigorate the viewers’ senses and slow down their perception. I want to create sculptures that have a sense of unfolding, evolving, and becoming. The microspaces manifest a glimpse of the transient moments that everyone should experience in some way in their everyday life.
CM: Your work flows into the tradition of the found object (objet trouvé) and assemblage, dating back to Dadaism, Surrealism, Pop art, and even, in some respects, to the commodity sculpture of the 1980s. Which were your influences?
LC: I was influenced by the automatist way of working in Dadaism and Surrealism (such as in Max Ernst’s paintings and Hans Arp’s sculptures) and the utilization of everyday objects in the Arte Povera movement. In general, the works that I am drawn to tend to be psychological and expand consciousness through materiality. For example, the retrospectives of Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim and Robert Gober at MoMA were mind-blowing to me when I was living in New York. Seeing Matisse’s massive paper cut-outs in person had a similar effect on me. I also admire Eva Hesse, Tishan Hsu Jessica Stockholder, and Sarah Sze.
CM: Are you familiar with the school of thought of object-oriented ontology (OOO)? If so, has it shaped your thinking in relation to your artistic practice and attention toward the materiality of forms?
LC: This question takes me back a little bit in time, but I remember quoting Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory”1 in my MFA thesis paper back in 2009: “We look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture—above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things. Things ambiguous within the everyday.” This difference between “thing” and “object” is still something that I think about today, although I have not consciously connected my studio practice to OOO and its related theories after leaving graduate school.
Thinking about it now, I see some connection between my studio practice and the OOO’s belief in the sensuous and metaphysical presence of things—that is, how things and other nonhuman entities experience their existence independently of a human-centric definition of consciousness. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that humans are no exception to things (i.e., me is the same as a hair claw clips). So, while I regard the objects that comprise my sculptures and the sculptures themselves as living entities in their own right—as “living” beyond the realm of human perception—I’m much more fascinated by the materiality of forms and how objects and materials generate emotion.
There is an old story that I always liked about a Song dynasty emperor who told a craftsman to create a ceramic bowl with a specific blue color reminiscent of a calm sky after the storm. Similarly, in my sculptural installation Sunset Capsule (2019), the shades of amber were chosen to reflect the surroundings and to charge the atmosphere of the outside space of Capsule Shanghai. I always want to create things that are intriguing not only formally but also psychologically. Calling attention to itself as a thing. Not about the idea about things, but the thing itself.
 Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (Autumn 2001): 1–22.
Leelee Chan was born in 1984 in Hong Kong. She received her MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009 and her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006. She currently lives and works in Hong Kong. Her work has been exhibited internationally including at Tai Kwun Contemporary (Hong Kong); Neptune (Hong Kong); Artemis Project Space (York); Dorado Project (New Jersey); Flux Factory (New York); Parallel Art Space (New York); Tompkins Projects (New York); Horse Trader Gallery (New York); Three Season Gallery (Chicago); and Sol Koffler Gallery (Providence).