No. 523, Nov.11, 2004

Weaving Spells

There's Magic in Simplicity

It seems like things are getting more interesting at the Textile Museum of Canada these days. Perusing their contemporary exhibition schedule for the last couple years indicates they are certainly not shying away from showing queer work.

The latest exhibit at the Textile Museum, A Walk In The Wilderness (curated by Sarah Quinton), comes from Toronto’s own Kai Chan. Although Chan has an impressive list of credentials (The Saidye Bronfman award for Excellence in Fine Crafts, A Chalmers Craft Award, and exhibitions across Canada, The United States, Japan and Australia for starters) his work is far from being intimidating. In A Walk In The Wilderness, Chan uses everyday materials such as toothpicks, garbage bags, twigs, and plastic bottles to create immersive, and highly involved, installation pieces.

As a counterpart to Chan’s installation, a selection of works from the Museum's collection (spanning almost 2000 years) are interleaved amongst A Walk In The Wilderness. The integration of historical artifacts such as loin clothes and dresses from India, New Guinea, China, and beyond, create an engaging dialogue between art and craft, past and present. Though Chan’s work is not strictly textile-based, it is clear to see that he is influenced by weavers and other textile artists. Rather than weaving himself, Chan turns portions of the museum into proverbial looms where viewers have the opportunity to weave through his work. For example, the piece Wading through black and white fills a room with several platter shaped forms that hang roughly at ceiling and ankle height. The forms are joined with lengths of string, challenging viewers to make their way through the room without getting tangled up.

The magic in Chan’s work does not come from his technical mastery. The work is not sleek and immaculate. Where the magic does come from however, is the work’s simplicity, and Chan’s ability to re-examine his culture and surroundings. He turns thrifty materials on their ear. He makes his personal experiences and daily activities into rituals and environments, and relates them back again to the rituals and experiences of other cultures around the world.
In What it is I came for, I turn and turn, Part VI, Chan creates a wall-sized portrait of his mother by inserting thousands of incense sticks into a wall. The fact that the image is on the indistinguishable side of things does not hamper the experience of the piece. The incense sticks hint at having some sort of order, forming a code with their smell and arrangement. The piece is both abstract and familiar. Growing up in Hong Kong and China, incense was a piece of Chan’s environment. Now, years later, he has made the incense itself into an environment.

Kai Chan’s process is transparent, he makes something into something else. There is nothing to hide really. As a nice closing touch, he acknowledges visitors’ “I could do that myself” feelings. As though he were in agreement with the sentiment, Chan provides a space where viewers can attach their feedback to a grid, creating an evolving work of art that fits right in with the rest of his work. Yes, you could have made this, but Chan beat you to it.

Kai Chan: A Walk in the Wilderness
Curated by Sarah Quinton
September 22, 2004 - January 2, 2005

55 Centre Ave.
Toronto, ON