Thursday, January 20, 2011

Am I Kai Chan Crazy? Yes, Yes I Am.

OMG, am I Kai Chan crazy? I have realized, looking at all that I have written about his work in the past few years, that I must be. The latest iteration of this (and, I promise, in the name of balance, my last word on the subject for some time) is a condensed Q&A with the artist, out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q You studied biology and interior design. How did you start making art?

A I always wanted to become an artist. But it wasn't until I saw the 1969 Wall Hangings exhibition at MoMA that I just went, "Wow! Thread and textile can be a very expressive form." Somehow I feel very close to textiles. I think because I grew up in the countryside, and everything was handmade and textile was obviously part of the environment, I feel very comfortable with it.

So after I came back from New York I started to imitate that kind of textile art. But I had no training. I just went, "Oh, here's some threads and I'll mix them all together!" Ha! That's how I started.

Q You've written that traditional art materials can't express your views. Why not?

A Well, I think bronze sculpture and that kind of thing is just so alien from our everyday life. But when I'm working in the kitchen, I look at the things I'm throwing away and I think, "This could be very beautiful material. Why doesn't anyone use it?" Like a garlic stem, which I use in some of my pieces. And leaves, and grass. We have a little backyard that has trees and I prune them every year. Then one year I went, "I can't just throw these branches out!" So I began to use them.

There can be other sources for my materials, too. Following up on that Wall Hangings show 40 years ago, I found a Toronto sock company that was closing. So I bought their entire thread stock. I'm still using some of that. Another time, in Quebec, I asked locals to donate buttons. There were tons and tons! Buttons have a beautiful shape but also have lots of history because they depend a lot on fashion. I've made three or four works with those. More recently, I've used this red silk thread from Tibet, where I was one year. It's a thread Tibetans braid into their hair. I saw it in the market and just loved it. I bought a few bunches and said, "I need to use this for something."

You can read the rest of the Q&A here.

In terms of extra tidbits that I enjoyed but which didn't make it into the final interview, I liked hearing from Chan about some of the twists and turns of his career--like losing his interior design job, which prompted him to start a satay restaurant across from OCAD with some friends in the early 1980s, which in turn gave him an extra day a week to work on art. It was also interest. Another point I'm sure other artists will be interested in: though Chan's work has differed a lot from what other artists (or craftspeople) have been making in Canada through the years, there were often one or two sources outside the country who kept encouraging him in his work. For example, he once informally made jewellery for a party he was throwing for a visiting artist, which someone suggested he send to a juried show of nonprecious jewellery in the UK, which ended up being one of two Canadian works in the show.

It's all to say that Chan has had a very varied career, yet it's remarkable how his material practice has remained, in a way, very meditative and focused. The show is up at the Textile Museum until May 1 and at the Varley to January 30.

(Image of Kai Chan's Red Flood from

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