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Kai Chan works with materials you'd find in your home—such as thread, tin foil and toothpicks—to create breathtaking textile-inspired sculptures with minimalist sensibilities that ignite a childlike sense of wonder in viewers. The China-born, Toronto-based artist meticulously weaves found materials into nest and web-like sculptures, exploring deeply personal, yet widely accessible, concepts such as aging and the ties between memory, cultural identity and the self. Halifax columnist Lizzy Hill caught up with Chan as his travelling 35-year retrospective, A Spider's Logic—curated by Sarah Quinton and organized by the Textile Museum of Canada and the Varley Art Gallery of Markham—reached its final destination in Halifax at the Saint Mary's University Art Gallery.
Kai Chan, Mirage (2008), silk thread and nails, 178 x 229 (variable) x 2 cm. Photo: Cheryl O’Brien
LIZZY HILL: This was your first time seeing several of the works in the exhibition in many years, as some pieces have been in storage. How did you feel walking through your own retrospective?
KAI CHAN: I was really delighted that they still look quite fresh ... I was really amazed by it, actually—there's a kind of conversation among the works. They are talking back and forth.
LH: It's my understanding that your work serves as a vehicle to experience the passage of time. As you've gotten older, how would you say your approach to art-making has evolved to echo this?
KC: I think that one of the things I understand is that the process is very important—[my works] just don't pop up from nowhere ... Some of the ideas I have could be sitting around for years, but I have learned that if it doesn't come out at that very moment, you just have to wait.
LH: What strikes me the most, and I think many people, about your work is your use of very ordinary materials, things like dried grass and old buttons, to truly evoke a sense of the extraordinary. Why the preference for ordinary materials—what does the ordinary mean to you?
KC: I grew up in the war [the Second World War], so material is very precious. We recycle a lot of things. No one throws away anything actually, unless absolutely necessary ... I don't think the material that's placed in front of me as “art material” has any connection with me—like bronze definitely has nothing to do with me. And even painting, you know, oil definitely is not our medium, so I don't see the connection. But I start using textile material and then, from there, I start looking around in my kitchen for things that I could use. I just feel that if you put [ordinary materials] in the right place, they speak a lot about my life experience, which is more important than creating so called “art” I don't understand.
LH: You had a very rich life before becoming an artist. You were born in China in 1940 and, as you said, you grew up in the wake of the Second World War, then became a high school teacher in later life. To what degree is your work autobiographical, a reflection of your own background?
KC: Oh, my background definitely influences my work, because it's my life experiences that make me do what I do. Essentially, I think I started so late because I had to go through all these stages before I could find myself as an artist. Even as late as the last ten years, I still had a lot of doubt—not that I don't have doubt now, but I have more confidence now than I had before ... I'm brave enough to stand on my own.
Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.
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