With essays by Stuart Reid and Robin Metcalfe
Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Ontario, 25 October - 7 December 2001
Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2 January - 24 February 2002
Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario, 8 March - 21 April 2002
Museum London, London, Ontario, 11 May - 23 June 2002
Art Gallery of Peterborough, Peterborough, Ontario, 3 August - 6 October 2002
Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Alberta, 7 December 2002 - 19 January 2003
Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Calgary, Alberta, 15 February - 15 March 2003
from the catalogue
[ 5,433 words ]
Lists for Kai
There are lists of things to do that clutter the pages of my daytimer. On fluorescent yellow post-it notes, they are wedged in their appropriate pages, bright flags to pertinent information. The book itself is an accordion-like fan of paper, contained within a leather folder. It defines not only a working life (being a master list of scheduled plans), but also houses lists of phone numbers and addresses that are the means of communication with an indispensable web of friends and colleagues all over the world. How worrisome, that information forming the underpinnings of a worldly existence is held in place by a narrow strip of somewhat unreliable adhesive on the back of a yellow paper post-it. What we call fate in everyday life is sometimes reliant on forces such as the strength of fridge magnets.
The marks, signs and symbols in an organizational system can be cryptic. Within the desktop daytimer, order is manifest in a mass of pencil and pen marks, stamps and clips, stickers and liquid paper, calendars and day-to-day scheduling pages. All this converges systematically to define one individual's co-ordinates as they intersect with a particular time.
There is beauty inherent in lists and the order they define. Lists draw together many disparate pieces of information under an arbitrary topic. They also function in an abstract way, defining a set of possibilities without assigning any certainty. They are open-ended but often prioritized. One can always 'add to the bottom of the list.' The 'top of the list' denotes a certain urgency.
Poetry springs from lists. Lists and poetry share a building-block style of stacked ideas and words. Lists cast a wide net, pulling in many items, sparking new associations from a random juxtaposition of ideas. Names, often the subject of lists, weave together meanings derived from the history of language and culture. There is certainty and coincidence in the way that names of roses come to reference mythic battles, exotic places, dead celebrities and saints. Such associations remind one of the quiet river of synchronicity that courses beneath the chaotic surface of everyday life. How else could Kai Chan, who works with the supple branches pulled from his garden, live on Greenwood Street?
The sculptural constructions made by Kai Chan share many characteristics with lists. They gather together bits and pieces, disenfranchised details from life, grouping them by intuition and aesthetic, physically linking them into constructions that prompt new ideas. These works are convergences that define the artist's particular coordinates on the path of his life: his home, his garden, his daily travels. Kai's works are temporal creations that spark myriad associations, linking title to image, image to concept, concept to structure and structure to maker.
This work does not arise by happenstance, but comes about through careful reasoning and planning. Because the materials are at hand, the artist has come to know the properties of those he chooses to work with and the possibilities that exist in combining them. As a designer with twenty-five years of experience with sculptural jewellery and interior, exhibition and theatre design, he has become adept at playing with materials and space. Sustaining his work is an interest in the potential for creating dynamic relationships between objects and people.
Perhaps arising from his experimentations with jewellery as body sculpture, Kai's work is often on a human scale, relating proportionately to the height and armspan of the viewer. Although many of the works read as architectural forms, their scale makes them easy to approach and examine as we would any household-sized object. They are hand-made and retain a proportionate relationship with the human body.
This exhibition surveys the artist's recent practice and incorporates two distinct bodies of work: wall-hung constructions of found materials and works made of strung toothpicks. The toothpick works, which have been a major part of the artist's output for the past ten years, are installations of ephemeral beauty. Sometimes emerging from a small cigar box container, the threaded strands of toothpicks don't look like much. These humble elements are like discarded lists scribbled on scrap paper, their meaning is not apparent. The artist must provide the template for construction: a pattern of nails hammered into the wall. It is within this map of nails that the strands are draped and woven. Once hung, the strings of little sticks criss-cross this large constellation of nails, creating a sea of marks that shimmers with colour and movement.
The toothpicks hang together like items on a list, like notes on a musical scale. Subtle movement is possible with such suspension. The shape of the toothpick is like a brushstroke, one end being broader than the other. When grouped together, the patterning creates a dense nest of marks that conveys complexity, that conjures mystery. It is interesting to note that Kai studied biology in Hong Kong before emigrating to Canada in 1966. He has retained an interest in the inner workings of nature and the manifest patterns and rhythms that humans strive to comprehend.
Kai recently stopped dying the toothpicks with chemical dyes and now laboriously paints them with acrylic or watercolour paint. The regular application of colour, when all the toothpicks come together, creates a pixelated surface that suggests the electronic hyper-activity of the ubiquitous computer screen.
In one of Kai's works, Rainbow Legs (2001) each toothpick has been applied with the spectrum of colours: violet, red, orange, yellow, green, blue. The mapping of the strands of threaded picks forms the shape of a life-size pair of pants. One leg of the trousers is bent at the knee, as if the wearer were standing in a relaxed position. It is not unlikely that the piece is a nod to the Gay Liberation movement, and the rainbow flag of diversity that is a symbol of that struggle. The slight flare and low-slung hippiness of the blue jeans suggests the prevailing style of the 1970s, when the pre-AIDS sexual revolution was in full swing: a time of sexual freedom and promiscuity that later generations of gay men would not experience in the same way. Kai's image of the jeans is emblematic. It becomes a pride flag, of sorts, pushing an image of an intimate personal item into the public domain. It commits the personal object to a public space, which happens to be the wall of the museum.
The pants are an important image for Kai. There are several toothpick works that use the image of trousers or the shape of brief undergarments, namely, Four Intimate Pieces (2001) and Deep Blue Sea (2001). While the image of a pair of pants is really just an abstraction, a pattern to play with, they are also a particular type. They are based on baggy woven pants (width of the loom) that are one of the most basic clothing items in China. They look a lot like the cotton, drawstring, pyjama-like pants that Kai often wears. They are basic to the point of being utilitarian, structurally simple to the point of being sculptural.
Kai tells a story of a family in China who were so poor they only had one pair of pants to share. Each time someone would leave the house, they would have to wear that pair of pants. Of course, this meant that only one family member could leave at a time. These pants, the only pants, become a personal icon for Kai. The repressive, homophobic nature of traditional Chinese society is also a house that one can't leave — the house where a gay man does not belong. To leave the house, to leave the family, one must break with traditional code and leave without any pants. Kai's depiction of pants has no wearer, since, metaphorically, Kai has left the house without pants.
Deep Blue Sea takes the image of the pants and enlarges it so that they become huge like the sails of a ship. The deep indigo colour and rippling movement of the suspended toothpicks (10,000 in this work, Kai estimates) conjure up images of a vast sea. Kai's work reminds us that the sea is the conduit for travellers, the space between lands, continents, the east and the west. Combining the images of the pants and qualities of the sea sets up interesting convergences: past and future, personal and universal, symbolic and representational. Kai urges us to examine a list of everyday objects and see the vast unknown and potential that exist between every line.
The other major grouping of works in the exhibition is comprised of constructions built from found materials that hang on or protrude from the wall. There is a great deal of time and physical labour in the collecting, sorting and preparation of materials for Kai's sculptural constructions. The artist is a curator of a storehouse of bits and pieces of stuff that have fallen off, or become dislodged from, their original purposes. It is the detritus of everyday life. The household garbage yields treasures: a champagne cork, buttons salvaged from clothing, twist ties, aluminum tins, a garlic stem. Like many artists, Kai cannot throw anything away. There is a subversive politic involved in the re-fashioning of that which would normally be discarded. In the western world, disposal is part of the work of being a good consumer: continually buying new things fuels the machine of capitalism.
The economy of recycling what is within reach also draws attention to different rhythms and cycles in life. The sphere of experience is reined in to the quiet, day-to-day passing of moments and days, the time that hangs between sleeping, cooking, eating, washing, tending the garden. Kai's work called In The Bathtub (2001) is a wide cradle-like structure that incorporates many types of woods, varying in colour and thickness. The structure is bottom heavy, with wide arching sticks on top creating open space. Like a figure lying in a bathtub, the cluster of mass hangs ponderously on the bottom. Kai intends the work to be viewed like a Chinese scroll painting, as a whole piece from a greater viewing distance, but also intimately as an unfolding narrative. The earliest illustrative Chinese scrolls, forerunners of the narrative type, date from the late 4 th century C.E. and teach Buddhist moral lessons. Such a scroll is opened from right to left and viewed on a table. In the Bathtub demands such close attention, a leisurely reading as one walks along the length of the construction.
The perceived insignificance of a piece of thread, a toothpick or a garlic stem is minimized when these bits are amalgamated into new constructions. Viewers are encouraged to re-examine, to reassess their perceptions of such materials. What was garbage is now an important part of a new whole, a new integrity. The sticks and branches are the fragile bones of the works that form the fleshless skeletons that hang on the wall. The poignancy of their nakedness cannot be denied.
Kai uses subtle and various colouring on these pieces. Sometimes the wood is rubbed with a pigment, sometimes colour appears as a painted object that hangs like an organ suspended in the skeleton of sticks. The artists city backyard garden provides a generous inventory of woods: dogwood, sand cherry, wisteria, crab apple, mock orange. The sticks are harvested at particular times of the year, stripped naked of their bark, to reveal the intended colour.
Most of the materials the artist uses are from natural sources — organic materials in the process of disintegrating. Kai acknowledges that his pieces will not be around forever and that they are part of the ongoing cycle of life and death. He also points out that nothing is really untouched by humans in our present world. All the plants in his backyard have been altered and hybridized, fertilized and coaxed, developed far from any traditional sense of wildness. Still, they are the antithesis to human-made shiny metals, resilient plastics and the general trappings of modern technology.
Kai often works from a drawing or sketch, planning the architecture before beginning the 'building' of the piece. The act of drawing, the pencil being an extension of the maker's hand, infuses the work on many levels. The constructions featured in this exhibition are basically constellations of points where lines meet. These points are then pulled into three dimensions.
Kai draughts plans and conceives of space like an architect. His pieces have a rigidity and structure, a rhythm and proportion, that is reminiscent of a certain type of building or shelter. We see in them a hand-wrought materiality akin to rural China, which he experienced as a youth. They marry natural materials to labour and ingenious construction. However, their vulnerability and impermanence speak of scarcity, of making something from nothing. This action and its obsessiveness are rooted in basic human impulses, to build, to cover, to protect, to shelter, to warm, to hide oneself.
Some of the constructions in the exhibition, such as In Two Oceans (2001), pull architectural tenets into ambiguous territory. The rhythm and orderly placement of the sticks that traverse In Two Oceans is reminiscent of the pattern of windows across a façade. The drawing of red lines distinctly contrasts the interior and exterior of the form that stretches widely across the wall. The work links wooden elements with a thin filament of copper wire. One gets a sense of the materiality of an architectural construction — a pleasing finish covers an infrastructure of metallic strength. The piece has a broad span, like a bridge or an arching corridor that links places. Hovering on the wall it becomes a horizon line itself. Displaced from any mooring, it is a metaphor for movement, passage and travel.
The finished appearance of Kai's work shares a certain kinship with traditional basket-making, although the works are not woven. In fact, the structures are hand-built with fine drilling tools from the artist's jewellery-making days. Drilling, and the occasional dab of glue, create joints for sticks and branches. Other bits of wood are punched with a hole to allow threading. The pliability of bamboo provides graceful curves in many pieces and is a material Kai uses again and again. The supple bamboo can be easily perforated to allow for an interlocking connection or it can be shaved down to hair-like strands that still retain strength.
One of the assembled constructions in this exhibition is called Mountains and Water (2001) because it resembles the Chinese characters associated with those concepts. This work utilizes some arching straps from a barrel that provide graceful curves. Its abrupt verticality sets up a beautiful tension with the pull of the arches. Like the abstract relationship between the concepts of mountains and water — one being structurally rigid and still, the other fluid and fleeting — the two forces at work in the construction reach a peaceful balance. As in many of Kai's works, each piece of wood supports each other piece. The structure is strong and surprisingly resilient despite its fragile appearance. Each single element, each item on the list, seems integral to the whole.
In his work, Kai seems to return to the space between the items on the list, dwelling on the intangible qualities that are only defined by the indistinct summary of disparate elements. One piece called Moon in Water (2001) takes its name from an old Chinese saying that asserts that you can't catch the moon in the water. You cannot hold something by grasping its reflection. You cannot attempt the impossible.
Moon in Water reflects upon itself, creating symmetrical weavings of sticks above and below white discs that hover in the middle. There is not one moon, but three sets of seven moons that reside in Kai's construction — a reference to the Chinese festival of the Seven Sisters, which is a coming-out festival in the community for young girls at the age of marriage, held on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. In 2001, it is August 29 (by coincidence the day on which I am completing this paper).
The centre set of moons is larger while the two outer sets are smaller discs. The piece is symmetrically balanced, right to left, top to bottom. Its surface is particularly regular, a grid imposed upon the subtle shifting elements behind. The grid tries to catch the moon in its net.
Certainly the lists and systems, daytimers and calendars that are used to order a busy life are not entirely futile gestures. A study of Kai's work, of Kai's lists and priorities, brings us back to a quiet beauty and peaceful understanding of greater cycles at work in nature.
The artist makes these pieces because this is his way of life, his synthesis of material around him, the summary of his existence. They are concerned with the issues of living in the modern world, reconciling where we come from with where we plant our garden today. By considering the tangible evidence of our existence, the spirit and traditions instilled in materials that surround us, we come very close to catching the moon in the water. Suddenly the long lists of numerous items we carry with us are reduced to one, and for a moment we understand.
Owen Sound, August 2001
At the end of August, 2000 — exactly one year before I wrote this essay — I sat by myself in Kai Chan's shady backyard. While Kai was off in his kitchen orchestrating a transition from one refreshment to another, I spoke quietly into a hand-held digital recorder no larger than a stack of a dozen credit cards.
'I have a cold,' I told my digital confidant. 'This garden would be a perfect place to doze and drowse through the afternoon.'
I was trying to record the synaesthetic experience of the garden. 'The sound of water running,' I murmured, 'cicadas, opera drifting out from the kitchen, sometimes audible, sometimes not, traffic noises, airplanes passing overhead, squirrels fussing in the undergrowth. Peripheral vision, peripheral sound: ants and yellow-jackets and other insects going about their business. The taste of fresh pasta with tomato sauce, of salad with an oil-based dressing, of coffee ... How do you express all of this?' I asked myself.
'How do you communicate it digitally, how do you put it on a website? You don't.' Synaesthesia — it sounds like someone sneezing, but it means a confusing simultaneity among the senses, whereby one begins to hear smells and see sounds. This all-at-onceness distinguishes ordinary experience from most of its representations — particularly in literature, but also, often, in other media, where 'distractions' are filtered out to allow a more concentrated attention to specifics.
It takes time to tell you about the things I saw and heard and tasted while sitting in Kai's garden, but it was present in a single moment. It is a paradox of writing (including art criticism) that it attempts to translate or transcribe complex, synaesthetic experiences into a single strand of code, sequences built up from 26 letters with spaces and punctuation, the DNA of language. Like DNA, language works by an unfolding through time of the infinite possible combinations of its finite components.
The works I was there to see, one year ago, at Kai Chan's home and studio were constructed, to a large extent, of supple branches harvested from that very garden. Although Chan's use of natural materials can be seen as a romantic, elegiac gesture towards (in the artist's words) 'a part of the world that is disappearing,' he is quick to insert a critical note. 'The nature I am holding onto is very artificial,' he says, looking around at the constructed paradise of his garden. 'The natural world is not natural anymore.' His work is less about reifying a presumably essential and ahistorical 'nature' than it is an intervention in a long tradition of structuring nature and its materials to cultural ends.
The living presence of Chan's garden constitutes a surprisingly dense and varied set of spaces, like rooms or stage settings for scenes in a pastoral comedy, in one of which I sit sipping coffee and muttering into my palm. This space, however, can be entered from any one of several points, can be experienced in a variety of sequences that generate innumerable potential narratives.
Kai Chan's wall constructions are like that garden, or the unfolding of a text or a strand of DNA. They curve and twist with the slow gestures of vegetal growth, of the eloquent limbs of shrubs and trees from which they are derived. In so doing, they create inner volumes like the rooms of Kai's garden. A work such as Mountains and Water (2001), for example, is a thing of incredible lightness, consisting almost entirely of spaces and joints and lines — lines that have surfaces but only the barest of mass, delicately inflected with painted colour along some of their edges. Their thinness refines them to a gestural essence, so that the work resembles drawing as much as it does sculpture.
That dense linear tracery does not so much enclose space as open it up, generating pathways and thresholds. Its liminality means that one is, as a viewer, always on the verge, always in motion between potential experiences, never fixed. If the gestural line of the stem or twig is one fundamental element of Chan's recent work, the node is another — the point of intersection, where (sometimes) a stem branches off in more than one direction or (more often) one slender piece of wood penetrates and pierces another with a delicacy reflecting the artist's experience as a jeweller.
Although these works have an architectural logic, their lightness brings to mind structures that are flexible, permeable, mobile and often tensile in character, rather than fixed and closed — like the riggings of ships; like fishing weirs, suspension bridges and the frameworks that support the wings of early biplanes.
Australian indigenous artist Yvonne Koolmatrie has created (and exhibited at the 1997 Venice Biennale) three-dimensional works that echo traditional forms of eel and fish traps. They honour and extend the tradition of Ngarrindjeri weaving while remaining contemporary art objects. In a similar, if less specifically referential way, Chan's use of fibre, in works such as In Two Oceans (2001), draws on cultural memories of a range of functional objects and the expressive techniques whereby they are made.
Chan is quick to reject any claim to being a weaver or basket maker, out of modesty and respect for the skilled practitioners of those crafts. However, much of his work can be seen as arising from a dialogue with, and a commentary upon, those practices and with jewellery, as much as with traditional visual art media such as Chinese landscape painting. His Toronto home contains a diversity of visual reference sources, including Oceanic masks and books on subjects ranging from Modernist photography to the Chinese tea ceremony to traditional art and crafts of the Torres Strait.
The artist's early works, produced during the 1970s, were textile pieces inasmuch as they were constructed from threads. One piece on display in Chan's home, a veritable Niagara of loose threads, cascades about six feet to the floor from a wooden rod like a thick fall of hair. It was, says Chan, the three-dimensional quality of the thread that attracted him to it as a material. His more recent work continues to explore the ability of a linear fibre element — in this case pliable stems and slender pieces of wood — both to support a surface and to describe a spatial volume. He complicates that volume through the intersection of lines. These nodes, like the branching of synapses inscribed in neural pathways, generate multiple spatial narratives.
The word 'node' derives from an Indo-European root, gen-, which means 'to compress into a ball.' It gives us the words, 'knit,' 'connect' and 'nettle,' and once named several plants of closely related genera, such as the ever-useful hemp, that were anciently employed as sources of fibre. The same root provides sailors with the words 'net' and 'lanyard,' the name of that peculiarly nautical accessory, the knotted cord sailors wear around their necks.
'All the sailors in the world,' wrote Tennessee Williams, 'walk to the rhythm of "Managua, Nicaragua."' There is a particularly spirited connection between gay erotics and the life of the sea, and Chan's wall works contain repeated references to water and sailing. Homer (2000) resembles a high-masted ship and Moon in Water (2001) recalls one of the ancient Greek triremes that carried Homer's hero, Odysseus, so far away from home. Rainbow Lakes (2001), Chan says, is about freedom as represented by a floating, flying motion and the view seen from an airplane. Rainbow Legs (2001), on the other hand, refers specifically to the rainbow as emblem of gay Utopian aspirations.
A very particular branching form — the lower half of the human body, with its genital node — and the garments that clothe it, provides the representational framework for all but one of the strung toothpick works in this exhibition. One source for this form is the loose peasant trousers of southern China and Indochina, but it also recalls the classical sailor pants fetishized in much gay male literature. The title of Deep Blue Sea (2001) is very suggestive of this association, while the flirtatiously cocked contraposto of Rainbow Legs is positively cruisy.
The body is, explicitly or implicitly, the ground of much of what Chan has produced over the years. Many of his recent wall works have a figural aspect, as reflected in the title of Portrait of a Young Man (1999), based on an antelope mask from Mali. Skeletal references in Chan's recent work — skulls and fishbone structures that recall Picasso — reflect, he says, his sense of his own mortality now that the deceptively youthful artist has passed the age of 60. The arching cagelike structures of In the Bathtub (2001), within which hang objects that make specific anatomical references, echo the ribcage cavities of the body itself. They also allude gently to that other narrow space within which a body might lie, the grave. In the Bathtub might be understood less as the visual image of a bathing body than as an evocation of the experience, something to be entered imaginatively. Seeing Chan lifting the pieces by hand in his studio, it seems as if they are made to be worn, like his earlier jewellery works, as much as to be observed.
The evocation of bodily space links Chan's architectural wall constructions to his strung toothpicks. While representing articles of clothing (pants and underpants), the latter also allude to the structure of woven fabric. Their method of installation — the coloured threads strung taut between nails driven into the wall according to a precise template — recalls the warping of a loom. The toothpicks are analogous to the weft, but a discontinuous one, a shimmering, pointillist field of dangling splinters of colour. Their surfaces offer a support (narrow, constrained) for a painting practice — Chan having abandoned the use of dyes for that of watercolours.
Painting, sculpture, jewellery, something that is and is not weaving or basketmaking — it is characteristic of Chan's practice over time that he resolutely avoids any reductive categorization of media. Instead, his work occupies a liminal space that straddles discourses of art and craft, fibre and sculpture, clothing and jewellery, traditional Eastern and Western visual epistemologies. With its piano keys, cinnamon sticks and garlic stems, In the Bathtub flickers between the visual and the other senses, including sound and smell and the memories of taste and touch.
The world has made one complete rotation around the sun since I first sat in Kai Chan's garden. As I write now, a tenor voice is singing opera from somewhere among the trees planted below my window. My industrious neighbours enjoy the nature they have constructed in their gardens. The green buzzing of insects evades my attempt to weave it into my text and the late summer land escapes.
London, September 2001
from the catalogue Rainbow Lakes
Text: © Kai Chan, Stuart Reid and Robin Metcalfe. All rights reserved.
2. Materials used in Kai's work
in the City of Toronto
that contain the word
'wood',up to and including
4. Names of oceans
5. Some films with
'moon' in the title
Man on the Moon
The Moon and Sixpence
Moon in Scorpio
Moon over Broadway
Moon Zero Two
Bad Moon Rising
Full Moon in Blue Water
Jungle Moon Men
Shoot the Moon
Box of Moonlight
Curse of the Moon Child
Valley of the Moon
The Dark Side of the Moon
Three Sisters on Moon Lake
Moon over Miami
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Amazon Women on the Moon
Teahouse of the August Moon
The Moon Spinners
Moon over Parador
Two Moon Junction
6. Chronological list
of the names of
7. Things that include links
8. Patron saints of bachelors
Benedict Joseph Labre
Boniface of Tarsus
Caesarius of Nanzianzen
Casimir of Poland
Gerald of Aurillac
Guy of Anderlecht
Luke the Apostle
9. One-word title songs
by Tom Waits
10. Various Homers
11. Names of green paint chips
from Martha Stewart
Lily pond green
Water pitcher green
Lily pond blue
Strawberry pot blue
Old enamel green
Japanese bottle gourd
Tag sale green
Drop of green
Batter bowl green
12. Names of roses
blooming in Kai's garden
on July 24, 2001
13. 'Seven' in many languages:
Spanish, Swedish, Russian,
Danish, French, German,
14. Masculine names beginning
with 'K' from the
Random House Dictionary
15. Flowers blooming
in Kai's garden
on July 24,2001
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