Leelee Chan on her BMW Art Journey in 2020 © BMW AG

For many artists, travel has become an unnecessary luxury in the wake of the pandemic which, in turn, has forced them to reassess their relationship with materials. However for some, like Leelee Chan, travel remains integral to their practice. Last September, the Hong Kong sculptor embarked on her own odyssey for a worldwide investigation into material culture.

As the 2020 winner of the BMW Art Journey award, a collaboration between Art Basel and BMW which allows emerging artists to develop their work through travel, the 35-year-old has been able to realise her project “Tokens From Time”, which has taken her across Europe to research materials and techniques, from the handcrafted to the post-industrial.

Mosaics at Pietrasanta, Italy, in 2020
Ironsmith Carlo Galgani at his workshop in Lucca, Italy, in 2020

Chan, who is represented by Capsule Shanghai gallery, is known for the playful use of found materials, incorporating everything from Ming dynasty ceramics and household objects to throwaway items into her sculptures in order to interrogate questions of value. In “Tokens From Time”, the artist has been able to broaden her understanding of her practice by examining not only how sculptors have engaged with materials across millennia (she visited both Roman mosaics at Unesco heritage sites in Italy and labs in Switzerland and Germany developing low-impact substances) but also by gaining a deeper insight into sustainability.

This inquiry has meant that Chan’s research has taken on a futuristic slant as she has investigated the possibilities of engineered materials. The artist spent time with design experts at BMW’s research centres in Munich and also discussed the potential of fungi — the new superstars of sustainability — with a microbiologist at the University of Utrecht. All of this scientific and cultural research has led to the creation of a sculpture which will be presented alongside films documenting her travels at the BMW Wanchai Showroom in Hong Kong during Art Basel.

Leelee Chan’s ‘Pallet in Repose (Marine)’ (2019) © Qiu
‘Pallet in Repose (Portal)’ (2019)

But this is by no means the end of Chan’s journey. While the health crisis has, until now, meant that the artist has had to limit herself to a European route, she still plans to take a trip to Mexico later this year to study the symbolic significance of crystals in Maya culture and traditional silver techniques — travel restrictions allowing.

Despite these challenges, Chan believes that the pandemic has given her research greater poignancy: “Living under the Covid-19 restrictions in Hong Kong, people have become so used to not touching anything outside their homes,” she says. “I believe that has made me hypersensitive to my new surroundings — watching the hand movements of the craftspeople, feeling their worn tools and materials in my hands.”

May 19-23, bmw-art-journey.com

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