Artist Leelee Chan on the regenerative nature of her works

Artist and Prestige Woman of Power Leelee Chan, whose projects in 2023 include presentations of new pieces in Singapore and Spain, and a large-scale sculptural installation for the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s forthcoming Joan Miró exhibition, talks about the regenerative nature of her work.

What are you working on at the moment and where can people see your art this year?

I just finished some new sculptures for Art SG, an art fair in Singapore from 12-15 January 2023. I will present these new works alongside two other artists, Mevlana Lipp and Miranda Feng, with Capsule Shanghai gallery. From 22 to 26 February, I will then have some new and recent sculptures in a two people booth with the artist Sven Johne in ARCOmardrid, an art fair in Spain, presented by Klemm’s gallery in Berlin. I’m really excited about these new works, and it will be the first time I show them in these two countries. A few of my older paintings will also be included in a group show curated by Zoie Yung, “Splendor of the Sun’, in Gallery Du Monde in Hong Kong from 5 January to 25 February.

Right now, I am working on a large-scale sculptural installation for the Hong Kong Museum of Art as part of the “Joan Miró – The Poetry of Everyday Life” exhibition, which will open on 2 March. Also, I will have a solo exhibition in Capsule Shanghai toward the end of the year. So, I will have a busy 2023 for sure.

Your art revolves around found objects, with plastic pallets becoming your signature. Which new materials have fascinated you lately?

Found plastic shipping pallets have been a consistent element in my practice since I returned to Hong Kong. They have a special meaning to me: they reflect my memories of growing up near the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal. And yet the plastic pallets have also become a vehicle to explore my interest in the ambiguous dimensions of the global supply chain of consumer capitalism and how it pertains to Hong Kong. Pallets are crucial to how “stuff ” circulates in our contemporary world. All my found pallets carry their own history but are lost in obscurity. Their circulation worldwide and the ceaseless state of movement from one mega-infrastructure of container ports to another can be thought of as a pattern of meditation.
My practice revolves not only around found industrial and household objects, but also other ubiquitous by-products of industrial processes, such as ball wheels and packaging. I also incorporate various minerals – obsidian, lapis lazuli, calcite, granite – and other natural elements like seashells and metals (copper, bronze, stainless steel and silver), as well as ancient Chinese artifacts. These disparate objects are the driving force in my practice, because they each have a unique materiality, cultural origin, history and evolving symbolic signification.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with alabaster and resin that recalls the luminosity and vivid colour of stained glass. It took many experiments and trial and error to develop the effect of a rippled surface of a stained- glass-like surface which, to me, embodies a state of becoming. I’m interested in how these materials can create a sacred and transcendental space when interacting with light.

Leelee Chan artwork
Oculus (Budding Amethyst), 2022
Found plastic pallet, chevron amethyst, stainless steel mirror and hardware, steel, epoxy, urethane resin, UV-resistant pigment. 72 x 72 x 17 cm.
Photo courtesy of the artist and Capsule Shanghai.

From a background as a painter, what was it about sculpture that attracted you?

Making painting for me has always been an introspective process. I love looking at paintings and definitely have a soft spot for them. What attracted me to sculpture is that it entails a process-based journey that allows me to rediscover my city. As I’m working with such diverse materials and techniques, I’m also able to work with people from diverse backgrounds (logistic workers, metal- and silversmiths, quarry workers, architects and historians) and go to places in the city that I wouldn’t otherwise experience. It’s fulfilling to enhance my understanding of the city from my encounters with these people, as well as from within my studio.

Did your experiences with the BMW Art Journey affect the way you approach your own art?

For my BMW Art Journey, I deliberately chose materials that have profoundly impacted human civilisation to understand material culture and materiality from the ground level. This felt particularly significant during a time when everyone was trying to distance themselves from each other because of the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m glad to say that I’ve made personal connections that have lasted longer than just the duration of my journey. For example, for my recent solo show at Klemm’s gallery, I collaborated with marble stone artisans from Pietrasanta in Italy, whom I met during my journey.

I’ve also thought deeply about how I can utilise the knowledge I gained during my journey in the context of my daily studio practice. In Hong Kong, we get most of our materials from China as many related industries are no longer located here. The reality of being a contemporary artist in Hong Kong means ordering all kinds of materials from Taobao, essentially via shopping through jpegs. Although it’s convenient, you decide which materials to use entirely remotely. It also means you have no idea where this “stuff ” initially comes from, who’s extracting and producing it, or what people in those communities think about their changing roles in the time of globalisation.

My journey was very much about tracing the origins of materials, and this is something I still think about a lot when working in my studio today. I’m now unable to think of materials in the same way I did before.

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