Art and People
Interview with Leelee Chan
Jun 15, 2021
Leelee Chan is a sculptor, who reflects her experience living in Hong Kong, a city that embraces nature and urban landscape. Chan had a busy year so far, including having two presentations at Art Basel Hong Kong; a solo presentation Pallet in Repose (Resurfacer) at Art Basel Hong Kong in the Discoveries sector with Capsule Shanghai, and Tokens from Time, a project as part of BMW Art Journey, which she was the winner of in 2020.
Eazel interviewed Leelee Chan on June the 4th via Zoom to find out about the background and methodology in her practice, as well as about materials used in the artworks.
Eazel (E): For those who want to find out about your work for the first time, could you tell us about your practice and how you came about making work?
Leelee Chan (LC): Much of my practice is process-led, which means I usually don’t have a preconceived idea of what the sculpture will look like in mind and look for material to execute this idea. Instead, meaning and ideas are generated through the process of making, which involves dialogue and research of the materials that I am working with. My encounters with objects occur organically. The materials that speak to me are a reflection of my surroundings. For example, since my studio is based in an industrial neighborhood, you see a lot of industrial materials in my current body of work. I feel comfortable working this way because this process doesn’t feel forced on me and I am not trying to make something up that doesn’t exist. I incorporate materials that people might overlook, that are not memorable, or have no significant status. You will also find there is normally a contrast between the materials I use, such as the hybrid quality between the urban and nature, which is a consistent theme in my sculptures. I hope to create new meanings or alternative ways of looking at these objects.
E: Research around materiality is important in your practice, also finding new meanings for them. Where does the interest come from?
LC: Part of it is owed to my upbringing. My parents own an antique store on Hollywood Road, which is a historically important street for international antique trading in Hong Kong. They have objects from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty in their store. I spent a lot of time there growing up. My parents taught me that these objects have lives of their own and that one needs to nurture them.
E: This knowledge and skills that require eyes for detail and intricate hands are apparent in your work. For example, in your solo presentation at Art Basel last month with Capsule Shanghai, at the center of the booth was Pallet in Repose (Resurfacer), which at first glance the artwork seems bold and chunky but with a close inspection, you find all these nooks and crannies.
LC: Yes, it looks like a minimalist black cube from afar, but it is more like a geological cave inside. Upon closer inspection, there are traces of intricacy here. The tennis-court asphalt pieces, Lapis spheres, and resin create their own cosmology. Like a universe that has fluidity in movement.
E: We are often trained to categorise things and look for differences, but your work is all about blending those boundaries. Living in Hong Kong, do you also feel a sense of hybridity in your everyday life?
LC: Yes, definitely. For example, when you walk down the street and see the root of a tree growing out of the concrete sidewalks. I find it intriguing how they both find a way to co-exist.
E: And I think that is why it is hard to find where nature begins and industrial ends in your work.
LC: There isn't such a definitive division. My work is not meant to be binary. I am more interested in expanding possibilities. My sculptures are not easy to define, and they continue to evolve, the more time you spend with them the more you take away. After returning to Hong Kong and making work here has enabled me to re-connect to the city through engaging in research on materials and my encounters with people who are not in my usual perimeter. All these experiences make up my work so they are compression of my personal journey but also Hong Kong.
E: I think all of that shows in your work. They come across loaded not just in weight but with different layers.
LC: It might also have to do with the fact that I originally trained as a painter. From a blank “canvas”, I create a pictorial space by playing with basic elements such as colours, texture, form, and composition. Similarly, in my sculpture, I embrace the inherent quality or characteristics of the objects and they become these elements that come into play.
E: I was looking at Pallet in Repose (Resurfacer) closely, and the piece is very delicately made. Do you think the skills you use to restore antiques are evident here?
LC: Yes, to a certain extent. There is always this impulse to collect and preserve, which has become second nature to me. There is also this sensibility about my work, I like to surprise people and myself. Otherwise, it’s boring, right? Going back to the process of finding materials, it is actually the other way around. I think the objects find me, then the dialogue begins with understanding their histories through research and understanding my relationship with them and how they reflect our contemporary culture.
E: You mentioned a Mexico trip the other day. Is there a plan to undertake research in an unknown material there?
LC: Silver, crystal, obsidian! Although not so much unknown, something I have started using in my practice already. So it is more of an extension of my work. The Mexico trip is part of the BMW Art Journey. In normal circumstances, the presentation at Art Basel would have been the end of the programme, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I could not complete it. The trip is not about producing work but continuing to support my process-led practice.
E: Is there any other material that you are looking into that we are not familiar with?
LC: Actually yes, do you know about mycelium? It is a biodegradable material, which comes from the root of mushrooms. Mycelium is a sustainable alternative to the polystyrene and plastic that I used in my sculpture.
E: Finally, I have to ask a Covid question. Has your practice been affected by the pandemic especially when you have to go out to research a lot?
LC: Dealing with Covid-19 has been relatively ok in Hong Kong, so I didn’t feel so restricted. But what has been tricky is shipping things from overseas. In the past, I used to order things online quite easily, but now with quarantine restrictions, there are lots of delays. The good thing is that it led me to be more conscious about sourcing materials more locally. It helps to reduce my carbon footprint and supports the local community.
E: That is a positive outcome. Thank you for answering my questions.