It was September 2020 when Hong Kong-based artist Leelee Chan, who’s represented by Capsule Shanghai, set off on her well-deserved BMW Art Journey across Europe, where she was researching past and future materials for her latest showcase. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most ideal of times, seeing that the world was still deep in the clutches of the pandemic.
Chan admits to not knowing what to expect, saying that she worried that people wouldn’t want to approach a lone Asian woman in a foreign country, interested in the dying crafts of iron forgery or copper-making.
“What’s so meaningful about this journey is also impossible during Covid because a journey about materials is also very tactile. It’ something I can’t do virtually. It was also about encounters,” she drifts off with a laugh. “I didn’t know what to expect but I was very lucky.”
Europe is only the first leg of her journey, and she still plans to visit Mexico and Japan when the opportunity comes along. But still, her first journey proved fruitful, with encounters in a marble quarry in Carrara, to copper mining in Agnone in Italy, and learning about making future cars and future concrete in Germany and Switzerland respectively.
Chan, whose approach to art has always been very process-based, builds her sculptures around found objects in her environment, proverbial trash that she’s picked up and turned into new art with a new identity. But, Chan insists, she’s not recycling. She hates being labelled as upcycling art.
We paid the BMW Art Journey 2020 winner a visit to her studio to learn more about her journey and the inspiration behind her Pallet in Repose sculpture series. Her works are currently displayed at Capsule Shanghai’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, as well as at the BMW Showroom.
Your art form has always revolved around mundane objects found in your environment. How do you choose which object to pick up?
I don’t pick up every single piece of Styrofoam I see. But some pieces speak to me, because it reminds me of a face, or a belly button, or a mask I see in the anthropology museum. It’s like, I’m the only person who can see this, but the object forms an image in my head. My friends always call me and say they’ve picked up things for me, but it’s not like that. It’s not about up-cycling, or recycling, but really about very specific objects that tend to be anonymous — like Styrofoam, or plastic pallets, you know, things that are mass produced. I think because of its openness, I can project my imagination on it without any kind of burden.
What is your inspiration for your work with the plastic pallets?
I always want to create a new possibility for people looking at the objects. When people look at the objects they think they know what it is, but I wanted to create intimate details so you can discover them the longer you looked at them. There’s always a handmade element, even though I use a lot of mass produced objects and industrial objects. I like creating connections between things that are seemingly not related to each other — like tennis court rubble and the pallets — and creating a dialogue and new meaning for these objects.
When you look at pallets on the street they’re usually laid down flat and stacked up. Here, I’ve set them standing upright, in a cube shape. I wanted to create this flow of energy within this pallet cube and the way I arranged these asphalt pieces inside the pallets is very particular because I want your eye to move in a certain way, to create a sense of movement.
You’ve finished your first leg of the BMW Art Journey in the middle of the pandemic last year. Can you tell us about some of your experiences in Europe?
My journey is Tokens From Time, split into ancient materials and future materials. And what’s so meaningful about this journey is also impossible during Covid because a journey about material is also very tactile. It’s something I can’t do virtually. It was also about encounters. I didn’t know what to expect but I was very lucky. I went to the marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, and the sculptor was very well connected and introduced me to these ironsmiths who worked in an ancient iron foundry. Then I went to an Italian medieval town that used to be a copper mine called Agnone.
In fact, one of the BMW artworks incorporates a copper plate that one of the coppersmiths gave to me. For the future material, I went to Munich and talked to scientists and engineers about making future cars. Then went to Switzerland to learn about future concrete, and it got me thinking about alternative sustainable materials.
Is environmental issues something you try to address in your work?
Because this BMW Art Journey also talks about sustainability, I think so, yes. At the beginning, I didn’t really know what to think about it because I’m not an environmental artist. I don’t make environmental art and I think it’ll be very fake of me to claim that. But what I think was interesting about my journey was to rethink the term sustainability. Because I think it’s been so overused. It’s become a term that everyone just puts in, but without understanding what it means. Does it mean sustainability of the art practice? Or of culture? Of what? So for me, that’s the reflections and the realisations I’m having on this journey, to think about these terms.
I didn’t start this journey thinking about how I can make sculptures using the latest technology or sustainable materials. It was not my idea because it didn’t feel authentic to me. I met Samson Young and he told me he’s still unpacking things he’s learned from his BMW Art Journey. So I’m hoping to do the same. I want to find something that becomes essential for my practice as I continue to find meaning in my encounters.
(Hero image: Artist Leelee Chan photographed at her studio)