LeeLee Chan: Art That Finds the Extraordinary in Ordinary Objects

In 2016, when the wall and part of the roof of the Central Police Station collapsed, the fallen granite stones were carted over to Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Sha Tin racetrack for storage. They have stayed in a dark basement ever since. 

Until now. LeeLee Chan is set to give new life to these forgotten bricks at Poetic Heritage, a group exhibition opening next month at Tai Kwun’s JC Contemporary. Continuing the practice of fusing materials in unlikely ways, the Hong Kong artist wants to deposit the granite stones inside plastic pallets in a way that seems to defy gravity. “I haven’t really figured out how yet,” she laughs during an interview at her Kwai Hing studio. “Nobody cares about them, but I’m putting them at the centre of my piece. They are literally saying, ‘Look at me.’”

The past year has been a whirlwind for Chan, winner of the 2020 BMW Art Prize. She had a solo show at the Capsule Shanghai booth during Art Basel, right after she returned from a two-week-long trip to Mexico. That trip was part of her project, “Tokens of Time,” which also saw her visit the Italian city of Carrara, home of the famous marble. She is also set to participate in two group exhibitions this month. 

Chan is 37. She grew up in Kwai Fung but left for community college in the United States at age 17, landing in a Mormon town in Utah. “It was a cultural shock,” she recalls. “You can’t drink caffeine, you can’t drink alcohol. You get pointed at if you were in a tank top.” 

But it was also there the idea of becoming an artist took off. While she’d always known she enjoyed drawing, becoming an artist had never crossed her mind. Her conservative parents—owners of a Chinese antiques shop along Hollywood road—didn’t encourage it. “They didn’t feel I could make a living out of art,” she says. The Hong Kong education system also didn’t encourage artistic agency. “In Hong Kong, someone is always telling you what to draw or make. The focus was very much on getting it ‘right.’”  

Her art lecturer at Utah encouraged to make whatever she wished. Chan found that intimidating at first, but when one of her paintings finally elicited a “You got it!” after “many classes,” she was overjoyed. After two and a half years at college, she was admitted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which was a “world of difference” compared to Utah. Not only did she get a front-row seat at the city’s thriving alternative art and music scenes, but also the classical paintings that donned the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

After Chicago, Chan moved to Providence to study painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). “I feel I’m connected to paintings, even if they were painted hundreds of years ago. Whenever I see a very good painting, I feel alive,” says Chan, who names Henri Matisse, Cecily Brown and Amy Stillman as some of her favourite painters. In her own early work, Chan says tried to depict transient urban moments. “For example, when you are on the streets, you see a foggy window, and you peer through it to the thing behind.”

Her repertoire began to expand in Rhode Island, where she started to break out of the canvas. “I was painting on fabric, making collages,” she says. “I’d cut magazine pages out and paint over it. I was constructing imaginary landscapes.” From there, Chan started creating paper maquettes. She relished in the “non-preciousness” of old magazines, as it allowed her to make mistakes. At one point, although still nominally focused on painting, Chan found herself making more sculptures than students studying sculpture itself. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just doing it,” she says. She recalls taking reference from Frank Stella’s early paper maquettes. 

Granite stones from the roof of the former Central Police Station Compound which collapsed in 2016 – Photo by William Furniss for Zolima CityMag

Today, Chan’s studio is littered with unloved objects that had more glorious previous lives, like styrofoam protectors for car parts that she picked up from the streets of Fotan, home to many car repair shops, or common objects she wants to reappropriate, like plastic pallets. “You don’t see me collecting objects from the flea market or vintage shops,” says Chan, who emphasises that she isn’t looking for what she calls “nostalgic objects.” Years after those early magazine works, she still wants the freedom to make mistakes. 

Her work at Up Close – Hollywood Road, an exhibition last year that put contemporary art works inside shops on Sheung Wan’s famous antiques strip, is one example of this. The curators wanted to create a dialogue between history and the present day, but Chan didn’t want to just “contemporise” old objects, she says. To demonstrate, she takes out a box full of blue-ish grey ceramic fragments and begins to sift through them. “From a collector’s point of view, these are just scraps. They aren’t sellable. And that’s why they are interesting to me. I can project myself [onto these objects].”

What transpired was a stainless steel and ceramics sculpture taking on the form of a Ming Dynasty-style coat hanger, but which also evoked what Chan calls “Chinese medieval armour.” The art piece sits comfortably amid precious fabric works and Ming furniture in the shops. What isn’t obvious is that Chan bought some of the materials from Taobao, the Chinese shopping website known for its cut-rate items. 

Chan says that she has recently undergone a “pivot” in the way she makes art. “When I started my practice, it was very intuitive. I was just picking up interesting objects from the streets,” she says. “As time went on, I wanted to know why I’m interested in these objects, so I started doing a lot more research.” She is interested in how these objects came to be. Where does the silver in silver coins come from? How many hands touched a slab of Carrera marble before it was made into a dining room centrepiece?  “I want to know what miners, what archeologists, what artisans are thinking,” she says. 

That’s what led to her travels last year. Winning the BMW Art Prize gave Chan a chance to visit the ​​Fantiscritti marble quarry in Carrara, and obsidian and silver mines in Mexico. Upon her return, shortly after completing her 21-day quarantine in a Hong Kong hotel, she was still bubbling with excitement about the journey. “Ever since reading a book about Frida Khalo in university, I’d wanted to visit [Mexico],” she says. The trip allowed her to get up close to silver mines – although not too close, as many of them are controlled by criminal cartels. She did manage to enter the depths of an obsidian mine, though.

The trip went a long way to satisfying Chan’s curiosity in the way certain materials have impacted global trade and history. In the case of silver, she notes how it connected the Americas, Europe and Asia long before modern-day globalisation. “In the Ming dynasty, the state overprinted paper currency, which led to major devaluation, so they decided to replace it with silver coins,” she says. “China didn’t produce any silver coins, so they had to import huge amounts of silver from Mexico, which had to come via Spain. The Europeans wanted wood, ivory and silk from China, and in return, China wanted silver. The silver trade also created the largest emigration of Chinese to the Americas.”

When it comes to obsidian, Chan is as fascinated by its smoky, translucent beauty as by how it influenced Mexican culture. “When you throw a piece of obsidian onto the ground, it shatters into many pieces. It’s very sharp,” she says. “It was used for hunting, [carving] meat, and blood-letting sacrificial ceremonies. The Mexicans didn’t bother inventing metal as they didn’t need to. It is known as the stone of God, but it was also an everyday object.”  

Absorber #2 by Leelee Chan – photo courtesy of the artist

All of this newfound knowledge will eventually be funneled into Chan’s future projects. “Our materials say a lot about us,” she says. “Humans project their desires and imagination onto objects. It’s also ever-changing. The way we think about silver is very different from a thousand years ago.” But for now, the artist is showing her 2017 piece “Absorber #2” at Para Site’ Liquid Ground group show, opening on August 14. For that work, Chan salvaged bits of old asphalt. “I want to make sculptures that the audience can engage with. They are not just dead objects,” she says.  

Liquid Ground runs from August 14 to November 14, 2021 at Para Site. Poetic Heritage runs from September 1 to November 21, 2021 at JC Contemporary.

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