This Hong Kong Artist is Putting Buddhist Art in a Venice Chapel

For decades, Buddhist philosophy has shaped Wallace Chan’s life and art. The jeweller-turned-artist even lived as a Buddhist monk for six months in the 1990s, a period that he says has inspired much of his subsequent work, which ranges from delicate pieces of jewellery to monumental sculptures that often feature serene, Buddha-like faces. So the setting of Chan’s latest exhibition might surprise his fans. From April 19 to September 20, 2024, Chan is hosting a show titled Transcendence in the Santa Maria della Pietà, a Catholic chapel in the centre of Venice. 

This is Chan’s third exhibition in the city, after TITANS in 2021 and TOTEM in 2022. Chan says he’s drawn to Venice because it’s one of the “few places where traditional craftsmanship and contemporary art are equally appreciated,” making it a fitting home for his sculptures, which are inspired by antiquity but of the present. All three of Chan’s Venice shows have been curated by James Putnam, a British writer and curator who has worked with some of the biggest names in the art world, including the French photographer Sophie Calle and the Young British Artists Sarah Lucas and Marc Quinn. Putnam says the Christian chapel that is hosting Chan’s latest exhibition does not jar with Chan’s Buddhist-inspired art. In fact, he says, it does the opposite. 

“The idea of the metaphysical and spiritual is very important to Chan’s work,” says Putnam. “It’s nothing to do with what religion you are. Chan’s sculptures are inspired by Buddhist sculptures and yet they could come from any region in the past, present or future. I think that when you’re looking at them, you cannot help but have some experience of the otherworldly, something beyond what we can understand. In this exhibition, the work has a dialogue with the space, which is of course a spiritual space, a devotional space.”

Chan and Putnam sensed the possibilities for the exhibition when they first visited it in mid-2023. It both echoed the key ideas conveyed in Chan’s art and was fitting from a more practical standpoint. “The space is rather narrow,” explains Chan. “The corridor presents itself like a journey. It invites you to walk towards the light.” Putnam and Chan have used the architecture to their advantage, hanging four sculptures from the ceiling in a row above the central aisle. The first sculpture is almost grotesque, featuring plant-like forms erupting from a gaunt, skull-like face. As visitors move along the corridor — and towards the light — the faces in Chan’s sculptures become gradually more tranquil, then finally metamorphose completely into a flower. It’s an evolution from horror to beauty, from chaos to peace. 

Behind the flower is an altar. On it, Chan has placed two final works: a sculpture of Jesus and a sculpture of Buddha, but Chan has swapped their heads. “The message is that the religions have a similarity, or can at least be compared,” says Putnam. “It’s quite a statement, but it’s done in a subtle way, so as not to offend anyone.” 

For Chan, these tabletop works are both a bold declaration about the similarities he sees between the two religions and a simple reflection of his own experiences as a child. Chan was born in Fuzhou in 1956, then moved with his family when he was five to Hong Kong, where they lived in poverty. “My parents, three siblings and I lived in my grandmother’s apartment, and there were 12 people under one roof,” says Chan. “I would go to the church early in the morning and recite the bible because they gave out bread and milk to children. But when I returned home, my grandmother would tell me to burn incense for the Taoist gods and our ancestors on her shrine. My religious experience is always a bit of both. When I was older, Buddhism came into my life through Buddhist art and Zen philosophies.”

He finds all religions inspiring, he adds. “Religion, if I may put it this way, is the ‘ancestor’ of all knowledge: history, philosophy, humanity, they are all derived from religions. But love is the ultimate spiritual practice – the love for all things in the universe.”

Chan’s fascination with the transcendental is one of the factors that Putnam believes makes him stand out in an art world often dominated by trends and the issues of the day. “Without sounding clichéd, he is a very spiritual artist. The way he expresses himself through his art is very instinctive, very honest,” says Putnam. “His work is not about fashions in contemporary art. There is a real sincerity to him, a humbleness.” 

While Chan does not aspire to be part of any trend, he may now unwittingly be part of one – or he might have helped to spark one. “I have noticed a renewed tendency towards spiritual concepts and iconography in contemporary art works that would have been unthinkable in the previous few decades,” says Putnam. “Maybe this is due to the wars, conflicts and the crises of the present, and a reaction to consumerism, which seems to have prompted a desire for transcendence, for something more profound to believe in.” Putnam says another artist whose work explores these ideas is the British sculptor Antony Gormley who, like Chan, has spent time living in Buddhist monasteries. 

Putam has long been drawn to artists whose work brings together the past and the present, and the spiritual and the material. He is now an independent curator and writer, but worked for decades at the British Museum, where he earned a reputation as a maverick with a talent for juxtaposing the old and the new. In 1994, he curated Time Machine, an exhibition that positioned contemporary art among ancient Egyptian artefacts. The most dramatic piece on show was Sandwork, a temporary sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy made up of 30 tonnes of sand, which the artist shaped into serpentine dunes that snaked through the gallery. From certain angles, it looked like the antiquities on display were rising out of the sand, as if they were just being unearthed.  

“I’ve always been interested in the very contemporary and the very old,” says Putnam. “These things are not totally divorced from each other. There are connections between them. That I think is the exciting thing.” This belief is perhaps best summed up by a saying that appears on his website: “all art was once contemporary.” 

Putnam has found a like-minded collaborator in Chan, who also relishes the challenge of using art to explore the links between the past and the present, which is not the case with all artists. “It takes a certain amount of courage for artists to place their work in historic contexts,” says Putnam. “Thinking about the chapel, there are some decorative aspects of the windows. We did ask, should we block them out? Should we make the space a bit cleaner? But we decided no, let’s let everything coexist and see what happens. Some artists would think it’s too distracting, but for Chan I think it’s an attraction.” 

While Transcendence clearly engages with the past, it remains rooted in the present. Like the 2022 exhibition TOTEM, Chan and Putnam have planned Transcendence to coincide with the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art. Transcendence will therefore be in conversation with hundreds of other shows taking place around the city, which will feature contemporary art from all corners of the world. 

Additionally, Chan’s sculptures are accompanied by a soundtrack composed by one of the most famous musicians alive: Brian Eno. Putnam worked with Eno in 1997, when Eno composed a piece to accompany an exhibition of sculptures by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino at the Roundhouse in London that Putnam was curating. “I thought this piece of music would be perfect for Transcendence,” says Putnam, who says Eno happily gave Putnam permission to reuse the piece in Chan’s show. “It has a mystical feel that I think works well with the sculptures. And you’re hearing music, as you perhaps would do in a church, where there might be a choir or monks chanting. It helps to give that more sacred effect that you would have traditionally had in that space.” 

Both Putnam and Chan talk eloquently about the many ways in which the exhibition has been set up to inspire a feeling of the transcendental in visitors. There is the venue and its history; the positioning and evolution of the sculptures along the aisle; and Eno’s mystical music. But more than anything else, Chan hopes that people feel the same serenity looking at his sculptures that he experiences when he makes them. 

“The artistic process is a spiritual practice to me,” says Chan. “When I create, I minimise my own existence and go into the world of the unknown. I inject energy into my creation – I inject love into the pieces so that these pieces will make people feel hope, light and joy.” 

Chan hopes to continue inspiring these emotions through his art for years to come, although he’s unsure whether he’ll exhibit in Venice again. “Venice will always have a special place in my heart,” he says. “But whether I will return for the fourth time is also a matter of destiny. I am approaching my 70s, and every day is about optimising the use of my time.”

Transcendence runs from April 19 to September 30, 2024 at the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà, Venice.

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