Art Frontier | Leelee Chan: Giving Form to Intangible Ideas

Wang Wei, Art Frontier, March 14, 2019

Most of Leelee Chan's sculptures consist of recycled daily objects. By observing and re-combining them, she explores potential qualities and possibilities embedded in them, thereby recreating new metaphors and an internal logic in the process of creating sculptures. At the same time, her paintings use an abstract language often related to subjective transformations of a certain moment or a sudden taste of a feeling or a memory. This generates a power between the materiality of the painting and the spirituality of the individual.


Art Frontier (AF): Does the title of your first solo exhibition 'Core Sample' refer to certain major concepts in your work?


Leelee Chan (LLC): 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. 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.


AF: You've adopted a lot of ready-mades from abandoned daily objects as we can find in your sculptures. What is your consideration behind your preference of materials?


LLC: The use of readymade and found objects is not a conscious decision but rather an organic process. It started after I move back to Hong Kong three years ago. My studio in Hong Kong is located in an industrial neighbourhood 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. It is an attempt to bring out the plethora of their distinct personalities. I found that using objects with no "aesthetic value" gives me the freedom to re-imagine their possibilities and to discover their particular qualities. In my sculptures and paintings, meaning is primarily generated through the process of making and the method of building, although these resulting objects at times give rise to evocations, metaphors and even narrative.

Since the objects I choose for my sculpture are already interesting in and of themselves, there is not much room or even need for me to transform them. This is what makes the objects I chose very different to highly aesthetic objects. At heart of my practice is a keen interest in the questions these objects themselves are posing: Can an object with no aesthetic value have value? What gives it value and who decides what this value should be? How do the answers to these questions reflect upon our culture as a whole?

Living in this fast-moving digital age that is increasingly dominated by social media and the virtual world, we are in danger of losing touch with the sense of touch itself (e.g. people are preferring flattened jpeg images to real photographs). I therefore want my work to create an experience that brings greater awareness to our senses. This impulse was deeply sharpened by my childhood memories in the antique shops of Hong Kong as well as my recent experiences of restoring antiquities and learning to determine if an ancient artifact is real or fake (e.g. feeling the surface of the glaze, looking at layers of patina with a magnifying glass, judging the weight by cradling it in one's hands, etc). These experiences developed my interest in handling objects and making things with my own hands - to make it possible to pay close attention to very wonderful mundane things.


AF: The objects that used to be incoherent are now juxtaposed and reorganized, and new interactions are aroused in your work. The work has an abstract or unfamiliar form. What is the basis of combinations of diverse objects? Is the form of your work implying an abstract reality?


LLC: I use a 'bottom-up' approach, by which I mean the work is driven by the process of making rather than trying to conceptualise it beforehand. There is no fixed formula in terms of the arrangement of the objects I choose. I respond intuitively to their respective materiality and often deliberately place them in a position that they are not supposed to or that I haven't seen before. I enjoy this curiosity of "doing the wrong thing", and it is this experimenting with failure that often produces the most compelling results. In placing the diverse objects together, I make more than simply an aesthetic decision. Rather, I am searching for the objects' unknown potential amongst them and, like an "alchemical puzzle" aim to bring to the fore their hidden relationship. Each resulting object combination generates its own internal logic in an attempt to expand consciousness, and to create psychological associations through materiality. Both my painting and sculpture don't depict one particular subject matter (such as a person or realist landscape in a conventional sense) but they are self-contained and have a specific atmosphere.

As I mentioned before, they are typically not driven by an imposed meaning or narrative, but are intended to remain open-ended and yet engage the viewer to project their own perception and interpretation into the work. What intrigues me here is the notion that the viewers' perceptions and interpretations are not fixed, but evolve over time subject to their very personal life experiences and circumstances: e.g. the same viewer might engage with the same work with a one, five, or ten year gap in between, and each specific moment in time may offer a completely different meaning. My works are meant to capture these transient moments in daily urban life, but at the same time they exist in their own right. Not unlike a Jazz tune that has tangible existence despite not having any lyrics, for me, my works are not abstract. Like the Jazz tune, they come from a process that is highly physical and tactile. So, in short, I am not trying to "abstract" reality, but in fact aim to give form to formless thoughts, and turn a transient moment into a tangible object.


AF: Natural objects such as shells, leaves, etc., are juxtaposed with artifacts in your works. Furthermore, the form and name of these works, such as Barnacles and Spine, may also lead to associations with nature or biological forms, although they are composed of industrial materials. The characteristics of natural objects and artifacts seem to be blended and blurred in your works. Can you tell me more about it?


LLC: This duality of materials comes from my interest in the ambiguous in-between space and probes the condition of coexistence between human inhabitants and nature. I am also interested in people's desire to mimic nature in urban environments (e.g., in architecture, their private homes, or work spaces). This interest was 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 thirty-minute bus ride from most places in Hong Kong is enough to transport one back into nature. For example, Barnacles was made out of 380 concrete casts of plastic egg packaging. Of course, this specific work is not about an actual depiction of a group of barnacles in nature. Instead, it is meant to capture the way they en-cluster, the specific arrangement of each group evoking a sense of glow. To be more precise, embedding the barnacles with hexagon nuts, laying some flat, some upright, filling some with blue colour resin, and extending some with spiky zip ties, gives them a sense of individuality while they "inhabit" the gallery space in groups of different sizes that seemingly have life on their own. They may all look the same from a distance, but up close, they are in fact very different. It is almost like looking at an organism under a microscope and suggests that - through my process of making - what once was a generic, mass-produced, and hollow egg packaging, has now become unique, animated and solid. Similarly, each mass-produced wheel in Spine is covered by hand with a marble- patterned clay. Together as a group the covered wheels provoke an uncanny reminiscence of a mammal spine, octopus suckers, or curling fern leaves and create animated motion through placement and repetition.


AF: Sunset Capsule is a site-specific work for Capsule Shanghai, are these glowing installations in the garden conveying messages of local identity? What is your inspiration?


LLC: Sunset Capsule (2019) is a light installation developed from a site-specific installation I made for Tai Kwun Contemporary last year called Reversed Conductor. The light stand structure was invented by construction workers in Hong Kong out of practicability, turning a construction light into a free standing light made out of rebars. This kind of construction light can be found everywhere in Hong Kong, usually being placed over footbridges, parking spaces, communal areas, but often completely overlooked by people. In this instance, my ambition was to give individuality to this ready-made object by inserting concrete casts and colour filters inside the lighting case to create a unique composition for each case. The use of colour filters is not only intended to emphasize individuality, but also to manipulate the cool fluorescent light into band of colours, which reflect its surroundings and 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. When I first saw these light stands glowing in the dark at the Tai Kwun Contemporary building site, I was attracted by their mysterious quality. For me, they are like guardians guiding you into the space. For Core Sample, I placed these light stands in the garden to guide the visitors into the exhibition. With all the big windows inside Capsule Shanghai, I like the idea that the exhibition actually starts before one walks inside the gallery space and that it only fully unfolds when viewers arrive in the last room of the exhibition. This is because it is only then that they see one light stand that is similar but different from the rest. This light stand takes on a more sculptural presence, with holes drilled into the cast to reference the solar system, like a secret code, and as if sending messages to the outside lights, with which it engages in a continuous and fluid conversation. The orange and amber colours came about when I lived and worked in Zhujiajiao for three months prior of my exhibition in Capsule. During my residency there, I became highly aware of the drastic change of light in the mornings and afternoons of a Shanghai winter. While it would have been up to 26 degree celsius in Hong Kong, with the sun being up until 6pm, when working in Zhujiajiao, the sun would set much earlier – around 4pm – and turned sunlight into something precious that I tried to “catch” as much as possible everyday. So, there was something interesting about the idea of the sun contrasting the cold and dark winter nights, which compelled me to “re-create” an eternal sunset for the winter garden of Capsule Gallery. The cold fluorescent construction lights were thus manipulated into a amber light that generates warmth and heat.


AF: Paintings are also in the exhibition alongside your sculptures, which are all presented in abstract forms. Although we collectively name non-figurative paintings as abstract paintings, but actually there is diversity of reasons how these content are generated. It seems that your abstract paintings are not merely construction of forms. Are they integrated into certain expressions related to reality and feelings as well?


LLC: You are right, this is a very good observation. For me, abstraction is a language, not a style, and abstraction just happens to be the language that I speak. What I mean by that is that I’m not interested in Abstraction for its own sake – i.e. when I paint, I don’t think “I am going to make an abstract painting now”. Although my paintings such as Good Bait and “Sunchaser”are nonfigurative, I am trying to create a specific atmosphere from my memory; a pictorial space that gives form to intangible emotions, memories and elusive moments. My painting employs a diversity of colours, gestures and textures, which evoke a sense of place, sometimes recalling landscapes, though more frequently alluding to inner space and otherworldly realms. My process-based approach explores the way in which meaning and energy is generated amidst the ‘in-between space’ of the painting’s materiality and my personal psyche. My painting invites viewers to linger as images emerge and unfold in their mind’s eye recapturing the sensory primacy that is lost in the daily dominance of the virtual world.


AF: Though you’ve applied different media in your work, I can feel the coherence in both of your sculptures and your paintings. What’s the relationship between them in your practice, is there an inner link?


LLC: Even though I don’t usually make painting and sculpture at the same time, they share some recurrent motifs and feeling, which has become apparent in some of my previous answers. Interestingly, I only became aware of these connections after they were pointed out to me by visitors to my shows and studio in Hong Kong. Although my painting and sculpture are a completely different medium, they derive from a process-based approach. I don’t have a sketch or a specific idea in mind when I start painting and the same is true when start assembling objects for my sculpture. Instead, when I paint I always respond to the materiality of paint, to what is right in front of me at this moment, such as washes of colour, gesture marks, texture surfaces, and in an attempt to to create a pictorial space and image on a flat canvas, to go from visceral to visual. I want my paintings to to invent themselves and to surprise me. This is not unlike me trying to carve out a micro space within a sculpture by solving the “alchemical puzzle” (as I mentioned before). Another similarity is that I think of my painting and sculpture as a compression of time unlike other time-based media, such as photographs or movies, which has image sequences and allows to go forward and backward. Although there are many commonalities, there are of course also some differences between my painting and sculpture, the biggest being gravity and the fact that with painting all the problems are confined within the canvas (whereas with sculpture, I have to be much more aware of its surroundings). In Core Sample, Pallet in Repose (Portal) is my first ever piece that consciously combines painting and sculpture at the same time. The work completes with the viewers’ engagement, as they look back and forth between the two in a circular movement. One can experience different images by e.g. looking down upon the sculpture and stepping back. The viewer’s perception is always in play because our eyes don’t look at things, they look through things. This is why cameras cannot capture what we see.