Kai Chan: A Walk in the Wilderness

By Sarah Quinton, 2004

A Walk in the Wilderness is characterized by vast accumulations of readily available materials and the artist's emphasis on introspective and repetitive acts of “making” that draw on his understanding of textiles. In this exhibition, Kai Chan's focus is on transformation: materials are transformed by burning, painting, scraping and assembling; memories are transformed - and inspired - through the fragrance of incense, and; through time and distance, the artist is transformed - simultaneously away from and back to his Chinese heritage towards a less culturally rooted identity.

“A walk in the wilderness” is a soulful phrase that suggests isolation, a time when one might turn inward to find direction, or seek landmarks that might indicate a next move. Chan's artistic landscape is his personal history and routine existence; he draws from a map of his early life in China and Hong Kong that leads to Toronto, where he has made his home since the mid 1960s. It is also the trail of a much larger material world that he picks up and weaves into expressions of self-identity and his cultural ambiguity. Kai Chan is engaged in an extended act of self-portraiture.

Kai Chan's awareness of the textile medium began when he visited Wall Hangings, the 1969 group exhibition of art textiles at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Wall Hangings was a forerunner to the political and cultural idealism of the 1970s, and effectively captured the experimental tone of a genre that was then defined as “art fabric.” Chan particularly identified with the work of Americans Claire Zeisler (1903-1991) and Sheila Hicks (1934-), and he was particularly influenced by a seminal work by Hicks called The Principal Wife (1969) - an architecturally scaled sculptural wall of cables of wrapped linen threads. Bulky and physical, its simple and direct technique epitomizes the spirit of the period - a move away from classical, narrative tapestry toward an art form without apparent conceptual, material or technical limits. Hicks and her contemporaries repositioned textiles outside of the context of utility and tradition. “I had never heard of this kind of work before, let alone seen it,” says Chan. “After that, I made work that imitated what I had seen. That's how I became involved in textiles.”

De-emphasizing the perceived confines of technical prowess, Hicks's textiles of the late-'60s and early-'70s were physically exuberant and experimental - she wrapped, draped and knotted masses of cascading fibres. She pointedly did not work with woven structures even though she was an expert in the highly sophisticated weaving techniques typical of pre-Columbian textiles. But while Hicks actively turned her back on a literal translation of craft traditions and her hard-won skills in order to make sculpture that emerged from her experimental processes, Chan has never learned to weave, claiming to be intimidated by the technologies, but strongly attracted to the processes and materials used by weavers. His work is consistently characterized by low-tech handwork and low-value materials such as twigs, plastic shopping bags and cotton cloth.

Chan highly values thriftiness: “Material was very precious in my family. We didn't have much. I grew up surrounded by recycling. If you were to throw something out, it would be collected and sold or reused.” Materials of his own experience figure largely in the multi-faceted installation, Paris Diary (2004). A trellis of flowers made of slices of plastic water bottles is a record of his recent four-month studio residency in Paris. Water is, of course, a life-sustaining mainstay. For the artist to gather and assemble the disposable vessels of an overly packaged and marketed, hyper-consumed and yet fundamental natural resource (with all of its associated international politics and global economics) into such a lovely floral arrangement, could be seen as either an act of blithe worldliness or of true naïveté. But Chan's intent is more matter-of-fact than that. Paris Diary points to the human need for daily sustenance, and it marks time's passing.

Chan admits to being increasingly conscious of the path of his aging process, and it is a preoccupation that becomes evident in this body of work. An adjacent gallery houses another section of Paris Diary, where many metres of torn narrow strips of white cotton cloth are suspended from wall to wall; the strips are stitched at right angles to one another, suspended like over-extended streamers or elongated measuring tapes. The fabric is a stand-in for clothing (Chan often designs and sews his own garments) and Paris Diary's network of cloth takes note of the viewer's movement through space - and time. In order to experience the work, one cannot avoid rubbing shoulders with it, brushing up against it so that it is altered, unpredictably and unintentionally, with each passing.

For all of his no-nonsense interest in the economy of modest materials and the boiled-down rudiments of daily living, Chan pursues life's big questions through a synthesis of the mundane and the metaphysical. Kai Chan recuperates the cultural significance of craft in a dialectic that engages history, representation and identity.

In Hong Kong and China, he grew up with the ritual of burning incense in the home - it was part of his environment. As a boy, he resented what he perceived as the onerous task of having to light the incense at various locations throughout the family home: at the front door, in the sleeping areas, by the well and in the living room. It was difficult for him then to reconcile this tradition with his emerging “modern” ideas, and he questioned what he saw as a ritual that represented the blind following of God's ways.

What it is I came for, I turn and turn, Part VI (2004) is part of an ongoing series of works that questions his spiritual and physical whereabouts. A floor-to-ceiling, head-and-shoulders portrait of his mother as a young woman is made out of these fragrant sticks, recalling rituals and banks of memories that he thought he had left behind. Spiritual ancestors and gods that permeated his mother's household still carry with them the memories of distinctly “un-modern” ways of life that the artist meant to sever when immigrating to Canada as a young man: “I forgot about this ritual until I came to Canada - now it comes back again.” With a note of irony not often seen in Chan's work, he has installed this piece by drilling holes into the north wall of the gallery; the wall that faces onto an alley behind a family-run Chinese restaurant in Toronto's Chinatown - a conglomerate of noisy late-night restaurants and cheap souvenir shops.

Kai Chan has an extensive personal collection of handmade ritual and tribal objects from around the world that he has acquired from flea markets, antique dealers and friends. The great scope of his collection is a testimony to his fierce inquisitiveness and his responsiveness to the world around him. It is not surprising that there is such a vibrant resonance between the conceptual and formal relationships of his work and that of the museum artifacts in this exhibition. (Chan studied the Textile Museum's ethnographic collection for a year in preparation for this installation.)

Chan mines the material of his own lived experience and lavishes it with his own brand of fine craftsmanship. This attention to detail is also seen in a grouping of museum artifacts on display: exquisitely simple, twisted vegetal fibres; threaded and plaited grass loin cloths; tie-dyed raffia skirts, and; beaded and braided fringes of men's and women's aprons and loincloths. His decision to include distinctly gendered garments throughout the exhibition illuminates his intrigue with gender identity and role-playing, autobiography and coded experiences that refuse tidy explanations. As Chan states, “Classical straightforward thinking doesn't give an answer; but to knock on alternative doors, we can find answers. To me, that's what artists do - what an artwork means.”

A Walk in the Wilderness integrates new, large-scale installations with the artist's selection of artifacts from the Textile Museum's collection of historic 19th- and 20th-century textiles from India, New Guinea, China, Mali, Borneo, Egypt and the Philippines. This coupling brings together the artist's studio practice of the “here-and-now” with craft practices of the “there-and-then:”

“What is so attractive to me is the simplicity of these textiles: the beauty of the material jumps out in front of my eyes. There is no technical wizardry to deviate from. It was not obvious to me at first, but after a while I realized this work has a direct connection to my toothpick pieces even down to the way the decorations are applied. I have said the toothpick work is derived from weaving without ever thinking of historical references. Now, here it is. I have owned a New Zealand pui pui (skirt) for over 20 years without making this connection.”

Viewing Chan's sculpture is an immersive experience that throws a magnifying lens onto the adjacent fragile, aging and seldom-seen museum artifacts. The intimate accessibility of his installations thus heightens the viewer's reception and perception.

The Wall Hangings exhibition of 1969 marked a time when there was a move to establish textile arts as a distinct discipline: the drive was to be separate from craft traditions, and challenge the institutions of art and the patriarchal hegemony of the art world. In subsequent years, the textile arts came to be dominated by issues of gender, feminism and domesticity. Craft, and its association with traditional, communal practices that are handed from generation to generation, brings with it notions of collectivity, or the “non-intellectual,” which is in tension with the perceived ideal of the cult of the individual.

More recently, these oppositional thrusts have shaped much conceptual terrain, as seen in the work of Barbara Layne (Canada), Anne Wilson (U.S.A.), Jennifer Angus (Canada/U.S.A.), and Ann Hamilton (U.S.A.) whose work, while realized in a surprising variety of media, is still a response to how cloth functions as a social indicator. Their technical training in the textile arts informs their artwork, but is seldom their primary vehicle of expression.

Throughout, Kai Chan's studio practice has perched on the peripheries of basket making, jewellery production, textile design, ceramics, sculpture and installation. He neither dedicates his practice to a single media or to an excessively conceptual purpose. But while he pays little notice to the ideal of the distinct discipline that was proposed by the art fabric movement of the 1970s, A Walk in the Wilderness is an extension of textile practices, just as it is an interrogation of social, cultural and personal borders.

Kai Chan ruminates as he transforms materials: “Toothpicks, incense, wood chips, string, burnt wood and organza… are the same kind of sensibilities as a piece of thread. You can weave them into anything.”

Like a weaving: Reams of wood shavings and toothpicks criss-cross and interlace to form a fibrous, textured surface held together with threads that zigzag under tension.

Like a carpet: Hundreds of incense sticks are poked through tiny holes in the wall, creating an exaggerated pile surface that flexes at the slightest touch.

Like a basket: Interlaced twigs and branches are locked into voluminous shapes.

Like a quilt: Swatches of multi-coloured plastic shopping bags are pieced and sewn together in a mural-scaled patchwork.

All quotations are from conversations with the artist.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada