Watching artist Khan Lee’s video installation, Hearts and Arrows, the colourful sky of dawn at the Stanley Park seawall, greets your eyes. Set against the backdrop of the ports and North Shore mountains, it takes a moment or two to realize that the silhouetted figure working energetically in the foreground is chipping away at an ice sculpture.
Lee is a Korean-born contemporary artist living in Vancouver. Growing up, Lee was interested in the arts from an early age. In high school, he thought he would be an engineer or scientist but ultimately chose to attend architecture school, following in his father’s footsteps. It was, explains Lee, a happy medium between his artistic and scientific inclinations.
Once Lee finished school in 1994, he moved to Vancouver with his family, intending to continue his architectural studies. Instead, he enrolled at Emily Carr University, a renowned art institute, and his natural flair for contemporary art grew.
“I decided to practice art instead of making buildings,” says Lee.
The process of creation
In Lee’s performance video, he ice-sculpts against an iconic Vancouver backdrop. For him, art is as much about the process as the end result – something he feels contemporary artists often overlook. He says that contemporary art education has a conceptual aspect to it, and he decided to take a different approach.
“I wanted to bring the idea of craft and skills back into the works,” says Lee. “It was an experiment of me trying to carve.”
His video shows the natural change from darkness into daylight as his sculpture begins to take shape, but not without interruptions from his location. Joggers run past, birds fly by, and the sounds of traffic and seaplanes all play a part.
Before starting on his work for Hearts and Arrows, Lee had never ice-sculpted before. He attempted to get assistance from professional ice sculptors, but to no avail. In the end, he decided to do things his own way.
“I read some books and tried it out. I had to learn to carve ice and make the ice. It took me more than a year to have enough practice to feel confident enough to carve in front of the camera and a lot of it was a learning process,” says Lee.
Exploring material potential
The common thread in all of Lee’s artwork is his passion and talent for disassembling and reassembling objects in new ways. He says that every material has unique potential and that through some trial and error he’s attempting to make that relationship work in the hope that it becomes art.
“Like the shape of a cup dictates how it’s going to stack together…a lot of modern industrial items are made that way [too],” says Lee.
Haema Sivanesan, director of Centre A, is working with Lee for the second time. She appreciates Lee’s unconventional approach and his focus on labour and materials.
“He really is someone who is interested in experimenting with material and forms and there’s something quite playful about how he works,” says Sivanesan.
Sivanesan is pleased to open a new art space with work from a local Asian-Canadian artist. Centre A is a non-profit public art gallery dedicated to the research, production, presentation and interpretation of contemporary Asian art. It has presented over 300 works of Canadian and international artists.
Returning to his birthplace
According to Lee, the practice of art is very different in Korea compared to Canada.
“It’s very free here, but back [in Korea] it relies more heavily on special education,” says Lee.
He plans to return to his roots later this year as part of Instant Coffee, an artist collective formed in Toronto in 2000, and now with a presence in Vancouver.
“We do a lot of public art work together, and we have got a residency in South Korea in the fall, so that will be my first time going back to Korea as an artist,” says Lee.
Hearts and Arrows is the first work to be exhibited at Centre A’s new location. The new gallery is located just off Main Street, a popular area for the city’s art scene.
“We recently moved, so it’s been a little bit of a whirlwind,” says Sivanesan. “It’s in a great neighbourhood, because there’s quite a community of artists and creative people.”
Sivanesan believes Lee’s work is vital because we live in such a diverse city. She believes it is ultimately about having different communities participate in the cultural life of the city.
She explains that the centre generates different types of dialogue about where Vancouver sees itself compared to Asia, and the exchanges and encounters that can occur through art.
“Whether it’s to do with experiences of immigration or social issues, or cultural issues or whatever it is, it allows for a different kind of platform,” says Sivanesan.
Hearts and Arrows runs from May 24 until July 27 at Centre A’s new Chinatown location.