Leelee Chan in conversation with András Szántó


Leelee Chan

András Szántó: You studied at RISD and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But now you are back home in Hong Kong, this bustling, intense, ambitious city. What does it mean for you to be from this place?

Leelee Chan: One reason why I moved back to Hong Kong, five years ago, is to gain an opportunity to explore my roots. At first, I was still making abstract painting influenced by the New York School. Yet, I started to realize that there was a big gap between the work I was making and my surroundings in Hong Kong. Something was missing.

It was with my move back to Hong Kong that sculpture became my primary medium, and my practice has gone through a drastic development ever since. My studio is located in an industrial neighbourhood with lots of warehouses and small family-owned crafts shops. I came across all kinds of objects on the side streets and in dumpsters on the way to my studio. I simply cannot help saving the most interesting ones. Having these objects in my studio, in turn, has given me the impulse to make something out of them. I often place them together with industrial or everyday objects that mimic nature, such as a faux plant or a faux marble-pattern frame.

I am interested in people’s desire to mimic nature in urban environments. This interest was—again—sparked by my return to Hong Kong. This place is extremely urbanized, although its people live, in fact, close to nature. Hong Kong also fundamentally influenced the way I perceive space. As one of the densest cities in the world, Hong Kong has layered and hidden spaces everywhere. This compression of space is reflected in my sculptures, which often contain multiple micro-spaces that can be discovered when one walks around them. Sculpture making has become a journey to discover and explore the city again.

AS: Your practice is deeply indebted to materials of all kinds, old and new. How did this fascination come about?

LC: I find that using objects with no "aesthetic value" gives me the freedom to re-imagine their possibilities and to discover their particular qualities. Meaning in my sculpture is primarily generated through the process of making and the method of building. The objects pose questions: Can an thing with “no aesthetic value” have value? What gives it value, and who decides? How do the answers to these questions reflect upon our culture as a whole?

I recently started to incorporate precious materials into the works, such as 925 silver, ancient Chinese pottery, and ceramic. I spent my childhood growing up in my parents’ antique shop in Hollywood Road (an antique street in Hong Kong), where they sold ancient Chinese ceramics, pottery figures, bronze ritual vessels, and stone sculptures. I never made any conscious decision to explore this part of my upbringing. However, since resettling in Hong Kong, I have been spending more time learning about antique authentication and pottery figure restoration.

There is an old story about a Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) emperor who told a craftsman to create a ceramic bowl with a specific blue colour, reminiscent of a calm sky after the storm. Similarly, in my sculptural installation Sunset Capsule (2019), the shades of amber were chosen to reflect the surroundings and to charge the atmosphere of the outside space of Capsule Shanghai, my gallery. I always want to create things that are not only formally, but also psychologically intriguing. As humans, we have never cease to stop projecting our desire, value, and imagination through objects.

AS: This obsession with materials is reflected in your upcoming BMW Art Journey. You are interested in old crafts techniques as well as the most advanced scientific innovations. What you are proposing to do?

LC: I will visit historically important artisan families still practicing ancient craftsmanship techniques of copper, silver and marble. I will further experience material in its rawest form by engaging with leading scientists and engineers who are probing the future use of these materials or their synthetic substitutes. My journey raises questions such as: What does material culture in different epochs tell us about the human-cultural-material relationship? How does the evolving meaning of material culture project our needs, values, desires, and ideas as human inhabitants living in the Anthropocene? And most crucially: What does it mean to be a sculptor working with matter today?

AS: You called this journey in your proposal Tokens from Time. Why?

LC: Matter has continuously shaped the way in which humans experience the world, through architecture, trade, and consumerism. Material objects and how they evolve through time can be regarded as ‘tokens’ that are tangible representation of the key qualities and feelings of living in societies across different historical and cultural contexts.

AS: Can you outline specifically what you intend to do at each location of your journey?

LC: The journey starts off in Europe. I will quarantine in Florence, and once allowed I will see the great cultural institutions there. From there I go to Pietrasanta, in northern Tuscany, Italy’s sculpture capital. It grew to importance in the 15th century because of its connection with marble. Michelangelo was the first sculptor to recognise the beauty of its stone. Artists have been flocking there since, from Henry Moore to Isamu Noguchi to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. I will visit the workshops of Franco Cervietti and Nicola Stagetti, and some of fifty-five marble workshops and bronze foundries in The Piazza Duomo. I will visit the Museo dei Bozzetti (Maquettes’ Museum), which is devoted to artists’ original plaster casts. I will then spend a week in Ravenna, the city of mosaics, to take class in local mosaic art school and to visit the eight different UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its early-Christian mosaics.

My fourth stop in Italy will be Agnone, known for its copper artisan work. At one time, there were thirteen copper foundries there. I will visit the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, the world’s oldest bell foundry, owned by the same family for the last thousand years and one of the oldest companies in the world. I will observe the artisan process of the manufacturing bells and visit the 4th generation master coppersmith Franco Gerbasi. After Agnone I will travel farther south down to Sicily to explore more sites connected to the making of Mosaics.
From Italy, I will head to Lausanne, Switzerland. I will visit Karen Scrivener, director of the Laboratory of Construction Materials at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Founded in 1918, the lab has been instrumental in the advancement of concrete technologies, lately focusing on zero-emission cement. I will stop by the town of Hérémence to admire the concrete architecture of Walter Maria Förderer’s Saint-Nicolas Church.

Next stop: Munich, Germany, where I plan to visit BMW’s engineers and its science lab to explore the latest metal foams and other high-performance, sustainable materials. The visit to Germany will also allow me to see Cologne’s sculpture park and the wonderful brutalist concrete structure of the Mary, Queen of Peace church, designed by Gottfried Böhm, in the small town of Velbert, near Düsseldorf.

From there, I head to the Netherlands, specifically Utrecht, to meet Professor Han Wösten, a microbiologist who is developing sustainable materials out of mycelia and fungal human pathogens. In Amsterdam, I will visit Mediamatic and see exhibitions on nature, biotechnology and art+science. My final stop in Europe will likely be Spain, where if all goes well, I plan to visit Pulpi Geode, in Andalucia, the second largest crystal cave in the world.

I plan to travel to Mexico at the end of the year, I will visit the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, to look into crystal’s symbolic role in Maya culture and talk to specialists. I will go to Santa Clata del Cobra, in Michoacán, where the indigenous Purépecha people practice ancient coppersmith techniques to this day. I am looking forward to speaking with Abdón and Ignacio Punzo Ángel from the Punzo family, considered the best coppersmiths in Santa Clara del Cobre. Finally, in Taxco, in Guerrero, one of Mexico's "Pueblos Mágicos" (Magical Towns), I will research the history of silver in the William Sprawling Museum (Museo Guillermo Spratling). I am planning to visit Las Delicias silversmith workshops to meet with Delia Gonzalez, a jewellery designer connected to craftspeople in Taxco. I hope to interview silversmiths from different generations.

AS: An incredible journey, as long as conditions allow it. Crystal, marble, fungus: these are natural, physical, chemical substances. Yet they are also cultural. How exactly?

LC: Natural crystals in their untouched form have been revered for their mystical power and symbolism in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Greek culture, as well as for their self-healing properties in the New Age movement. Crystal placement is still a common Feng Shui practice today. Crystal lifestyle products have recently been commodified into a luxurious wellness experience. Synthetic quartz crystals, which are 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, are used for nanocrystal electric devices including the latest smartphone, 5G, and automotive products.

Marble carving has always been regarded as an art form in itself. Artificial, handmade marble patterns have re-appeared in my sculptures and I am developing ideas to incorporate natural marble in my future projects. Craftspeople in Italy have for centuries translated artists’ ideas into marble sculptures. Although it is possible to three-dimensionally scan a complete model of a marble sculpture, and then have a machine carve the marble to match, artisans continue to craft by ‘hand and eye’ to make the material come alive.

Mycelium fungus is a fascinating material. Fungus foam is considered ‘the plastic of the future.’ It is a biodegradable alternative to polystyrene, already in use by major corporations. It is made from live mycelium fungus, which combines with agriculture waste and can be moulded into shapes. NASA is experimenting with myco-architecture, which can be stronger than reinforced concrete and can repair itself. Other fungi can break down certain types of toxic, synthetic polymer materials, creating natural hybrids in the process. I am interested in exploring the potential of these new materials that would otherwise be out of reach in Hong Kong.

AS: One of your goals is to engage with the latest technological innovations, such as nanotechnology and metal foam. Why do these fascinate you?

LC: I am fascinated by metal foam because it is a biologically inspired nanotechnology. Lightweight metal foams have a cellular structure composed of 90 percent air-filled pores, making them ideal for sound insulation or energy absorption. So-called nano-coating can apply metal particles to the lattice structure of the foam. This new foam system is inspired by bones, with their hard-exterior shell that encases a porous, lattice-like network of bone tissue in the interior. Copper nano-coating makes a foam exhibit high thermal conductivity, while a silver nano-coating has antibacterial properties. Metals have been modified to cope with rising raw material costs and a growing need for stronger, lightweight components in construction, aviation, and the automobiles.

AS: This is a difficult time to travel. How has the coronavirus figured into your planning? What are you anxious about?

LC: This has been difficult, no doubt. The global pandemic keeps changing almost on a weekly basis, so things are unpredictable. My only option is to stay open, be flexible, and think smart. My initial plan was to travel to all the proposed places in a single journey, but now they will be separated into a separate journeys. We changed the sequence of my destinations along the way in response to where it is safe to travel, and I expect more adjustments as we go along. I may need to be quarantined between journeys, and I am thinking about how I may be able to turn this into a productive time rather than being ‘trapped’ at home or in a hotel. I try to keep a positive mindset.

AS: A long journey transforms the traveler. How do you expect this journey might change you?

LC: I live in a city that is far detached from how material objects are made. Most manufacturing has moved to Mainland China, and only a few family-owned handcraft shops remain in Hong Kong. Visiting places where the materials come from, experiencing the people and communities whose lives have been shaped by them, talking to researchers, engineers, and scientists who have dedicated their careers to exploring them will open a lot of creative possibilities for me.

I expect the journey will challenge me in diverse cultural contexts. All this research on materials, and my personal memories of encounters, discoveries and experiences, will take time to unfold in my studio practice. I'm not expecting to incorporate everything I learn on this journey into a single exhibition, but rather I expect that it will influence my practice for a long time to come.

AS: What else is on your to-do list before you set off?

I am still trying to finish some sculpture projects that I agreed to before the BMW Art Journey selection. I am expecting that the journey will give me a different perspective on many aspects of my practice. I would rather start fresh in the studio with new ideas when I come back than have to deal with half-finished sculptures that have been waiting for me in my studio.

July-August 2020