There is an engaging film made in Halifax some years ago by the National Film Board (you can see it on YouTube), in which artist Kai Chan guides a roomful of surprisingly charming sub-teens through the stirring possibilities of art making.
One of the children has brought an egg to the session. “Do you look at an egg when you use it?” Chan asks them, his face the very essence of goodwill and encouragement. They admit they don’t, not really. You don’t?” he says in mock disbelief. “You just put it in your mouth and that’s it? You don’t lookat how beautiful the egg is?” Not so far, no. But I bet they will from that point on.
This filmic moment evinces one of the essential characteristics of Kai Chan’s approach to art-making: beauty’s bounty is everywhere, and the means of seeking it out and harvesting it for whoever wants to see are everywhere too—especially where you might not think to look.
When asked in a recent interview what his favourite medium was, he said “thread.” A quick browse through Chan’s production over the past two decades, however, turns up artworks made from balsa wood, bamboo, stainless steel, glass, a myriad of papers (especially Japanese Gampi paper), thread, twigs (dogwood, maple, almond, forsythia—which is a special favourite—rose, lilac, sand cherry, wisteria, peach, birch), oil and acrylic pigments, ink, gesso, newspapers, toothpicks, nails, dried grass, beads, cloth (cotton, canvas, silk), string, wire, telephone wire, tin foil, buttons and porcupine quills. His art ranges from intimately-scaled works you can hold, like jewels, in the palm of your hand, to theatrical, gallery-filling installations you negotiate with the fragile vigilance required of poetry and the protracted exhilaration that comes with ambitious enviro-scenarios enacted to perfection.
Kai Chan is in his seventies now—though he looks half his age. He is slender, tensile, like the taut threads and sturdy twigs he loves so much, and coiled like a spring. His features are sharp, bird-like and as aquiline as an arrowhead. It’s the lyrically poised face of someone who knows supremely well what he wants to do and precisely how to do it.
Chan was born in China in 1940 and immigrated to Canada in 1966. He lives in Toronto and exhibits across Canada and internationally: his 35 year retrospective exhibition, Kai Chan: A Spider’s Logic, organized by the Textile Museum of Canada and the Varley Art Gallery of Markham, toured six Canadian cities in 2012. He was won many prestigious awards, including the Prix Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in the Crafts.
This last brings up a niggling point. It strikes me that Kai Chan is perhaps too often regarded as a “fibre artist.” This seems as silly as identifying a painter as an “oil paint artist” or a sculptor as a “marble artist.” In fact, one might think of Kai Chan as more a quintessential artist than anything else, given that he turns his transformative hand to absolutely whatever he feels like using and making.
On his website (kaichanartist.blogspot.ca), Chan states that “In recent years simplicity is weighting strongly in the process of my creation.” But if this is the case, his “simplicity” ought to be understood as more a metaphysical condition than simply a morphological one. Even the most concentrated and labour-intensive of his enterable installation works—such as Shangri-La (2010), La Primavera—Homage to Botticelli (2015), Je t’aime (2015) and Naked (2017)—essentially a homage to Michelangelo—can be immediately grasped as overall idea first and contributing details second.
Take, for example, his Starry Night project, in all its phases and modalities (2013-2015). The ur-object, the seed-piece, for which the rest of the Starry Night work became a continuation, was a tight spiral of canvas (61 x 69 x 8 cm), in navy blue, wound with bright “swirling” bits of yellowish-white cotton thread. At first glance, the object looks like a giant hot pad you might put under a really big coffee pot. A moment’s reflection, or, better, free-association, will re-assign to it a witty and brilliant imagistic equivalent: it looks like—or at least evokes— a segment of Van Gogh’s wild and whirling night sky from his famous Starry Night painting of 1889.
This whirling shard of starry sky subsequently proliferated into am installation—at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant in Brantford, Ontario—for which many of these starry spirals, in varying sizes, lay in the floor like cosmic lily pads on a celestial pond.
Then, in its third incarnation, for which the artist says he “pushed the situation into a more contemporary mode,” Starry Night became a canopy of newspapers (some of them Chinese) into which Chan had punched holes (the new “stars”). The canopy of star-punched newspapers arched over the gallery—in this case Diagonale in Montreal—to furnish a new firmament, an event horizon of sorts, in which a less romantic, more “realistic” version of “starry” and “sky” were now on offer. Kai Chan’s new Starry Sky was a rather weary, beleaguered sky; a sky made up of information (little of it hopeful). This new sky was now an evocation of a sky (it would no longer be anything but quaint to refer to it as the “heavens”) imposed upon and transformed by technological life (satellites, space junk, techno-bric-a-brac) and speaking more of finitude than infinity.
I asked Chan about the holes he had punched in the papers. Were these random holes, I asked him, or holes made to represent specific constellations?” He smiled his most enigmatic smile. “They are my own constellations,” he told me.
Gallery 50 50, Toronto