Lee Lee Chan: Object Healer
“It developed my interest in handling objects, making things with my hands,” says Hong Kongese artist Lee Lee Chan of growing up as the child of antique dealers. Chan recalls memories of her parent's antique shop, where her father restored objects and established the authenticity of ceramics — touching their glazed surfaces, feeling their weight, and examining their patina through the lens of a magnifying glass.
Her childhood experiences also inform how she aesthetically links contemporary life to history. "Similar to an archeologist conserving the past and trying to understand past civilizations, humanity, culture, and society through artifacts," says Chan. "I preserve the contemporary life by means of discarded items and materials as a kind of ‘object healer.’"
Chan began her career with painting while studying in the US. There, she created abstract compositions — layers of transparencies and blocks of colors — that were painted, seemingly, from underneath the picture plane with rays of light. Later, she found inspiration in the practice of installation artists Jessica Stockholder and Judy Pfaff, sparking in her an interest in creating sculptures. “Being trained as a painter myself, this intersection of pictorial and physical experience, the idea of a 'collage in space,' really opened up possibilities for me.”
For her first sculpture, entitled “Engine,” she used a lamp and a light panel sheet purchased from Home Depot, over which she placed a plastic windshield and bits of car parts she found on the road. Chan finds discarded materials appealing for their inconspicuous nature. “They have no aesthetic value,” she says. However, when placed out of context, they become a vehicle of meaning, expressing that which exists between urban and natural forms. “Choosing these materials has never been a fully conscious decision," says the artist. "I’m hoping to give them center stage and highlight the mysticism that exists between nature and human inhabitants [of the city].”
But her way of painting in space is not only intellectual, “it’s a bottom-up approach.” Chan plays with objects to reimagine their possible uses and discover their particular qualities, reaching a perfect balance between abstraction and concreteness. “I can’t just sit down and think about a concept to fit the idea without any material in front of me.”
After thirteen years of living abroad, Chan returned home to Hong Kong in 2015. The city, with its mixture of high-rise buildings, concrete formations, and glistening windows, now plays a crucial role in her artistic sensibility, as her eye is particularly trained to extract snippets of visual meaning from her surroundings. This trait is revealed in the work titled Absorber.
Absorber was displayed at Duddell’s, one of the go-to restaurants of Hong Kong’s art world elite. On a wall in the eatery, Chan placed glittered fragments of Hong Kong’s asphalt in a circle, referencing the intermediary and ephemeral nature of the urban pavement. She found a way to give aesthetic nobility and movement to this dying material — to an object that most people would otherwise discard as detritus.
She seems to view the city through glimpses and play of light too. Poetically, she describes how after rainfall, neon lights appear to grow larger when observed from behind a foggy window. “When you walk, you experience these moments,” says Chan. “I think everyone has them; they just have them with different things.” Therefore, it is only fitting that for her most recent piece, Reversed Conductor, Hong Kong's cityscape was just as significant as the work itself.
Exhibited at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong’s new center for heritage and arts, Reversed Conductor consists of sixteen construction lights on metal stands placed against a backdrop of the city's skyline. “I didn’t invent that format,” says Chan, when referring to how the lights are positioned to stand on their own — a configuration often used by construction workers in Hong Kong.
However, unlike typical construction lights, Chan’s lights shine in different shades of green, working as a visual reference to the large tree in Tai Kwun’s courtyard, which is visible through the art center's many glass windows, and to the sign of a piano shop that is visible in the distance. “These lights remind me of ancient pottery figures from the Tang dynasty. When everything is dark, they’re standing there and welcoming you into the space.”
Through the process of creating artwork, discarded materials reveal to Chan new metaphors and even narratives. It is an opportunity to question past and present ideas associated with objects, learn how value is assign to them, and examine their place in modern culture.
Discarded items also offer Chan more space for creative exploration when compared to highly aesthetic objects. "For me, using the aesthetic isn't interesting. My concern is not to appropriate the aesthetic of the past to make it contemporary. It’s more about opening other possibilities to see the objects around us and to understand myself better through this process."
Lee Lee Chan’s sculptures increase our awareness of everyday items, bringing them into our consciousness, and is also, perhaps, a nod to her childhood experience of life in the antique shop, where she first learned to pay close attention to the beautiful intricacies of objects.
Words Cristina SK