by Sukanya DebPublished on : Sep 07, 2022
An exhibition of works by Hong Kong-based multidisciplinary artist Wallace Chan, titled Totem, is being presented as part of the 59th Venice Art Biennale. A self-trained sculptural artist, whose material-focused practice encompasses jewellery, sculpture and carving, Chan finds his works moving across disciplines. The art exhibition consists of a set of scattered parts of a disassembled 10-metre-long sculpture, the artwork being titled A Dialogue Between Materials and Time, Titans XIV. Taking from the title, the materiality of the sculpture becomes important to take into consideration. In conversation with STIR, Chan speaks about the time it took to “tame” the material, that being titanium, through his own spiritual journey.
In explanation for the use of titanium in his work, Chan says, “When I realised that titanium was not only light and strong, but also bio-friendly and colourful, I decided to give it a go. It took me eight years to “tame” titanium because it is stubborn and rigid. It comes with a melting point of 1700 degrees Celsius and strong memory. One can imagine how difficult it is to find a material that can withstand the heat and become its mould, let alone carving on it and inspiring natural colour gradient on it. The complex, difficult, and time-consuming process explains why titanium is rarely used in art. It is a popular metal for the science, aerospace, and medical sectors, but its potential has yet to be fully explored.”
The idea is also to create lasting works of art, as the artist says, attributing the artistic choice to the nature of the metal, that stands the test of time. Here, the title of the exhibition becomes of relevance, where the artist displays giant sculptural parts, ‘totemic’ in size and treatment of the faces that are repeated across the sculpture. This harks back to spiritualism in the object form calls across various cultures, if we were to take into consideration forms from idols to objects that are said to bring luck. The disassembly of the larger sculpture in this exhibition, however, indicates the fragmentation of reality and uncertainty in the last two years, as the artist tells STIR, or perhaps even a break in that spiritual symbolism.
Curator of Totem at Fondaco Marcello, James Putnam, says, “As its title suggests, this exhibition relates to the fundamental principle of the totemism that there’s a shared spiritual relationship between humans and mother nature who must work together in order to sustain life. The calm, enigmatic face depicted in Chan’s sculpture is a mystical spirit, a form of totem that expresses the transcendental state of absolute oneness.”
The immersive exhibition presents the object forms in a scattered notion, where the space almost looks like an excavation site where the material forms are unearthed from, or even a collapsed temple site, where ruins are found, due to its dramatised form. Suspended in what could be conceived of as a timeless disarray as well, the audience is thrown into the space, seeing the sculptural parts from all conceivable angles, as they seem to lie waiting to be animated to life.
Speaking to the symbolic congruences between the work and religious narratives, Chan says, “When you go to temples, you see The Eighteen Arhats, Four Heavenly Kings or Black and White Impermanence. They are distorted and their faces are painted green or blue. That is why they look scary. The Heavenly Kings stand at the entrance to stop evil spirits (or evil thoughts) from entering. Yet, once you are inside the temples, you see Guanyin and Buddha, who look very kind and plump. In reality, there is no such thing. The calm and mysterious faces of Guanyin and Buddha do not represent a particular person or deity. Rather, they symbolise the existence of a spirit, or Gaia, Mother Nature.”
The spirituality of the object art can be seen from European and American modern art’s notion of the art object as well, to historical temple art in Asia. The idea of a sense of spiritualism within the art object, through this idea of permanence and aspiration is inextricably linked to a history of worship.
However, in contrast to this intention within the artwork, Chan says, “To me, it is not about creating symbols but rather a reflection of the spiritual practices of the self. I seek to forget myself, my physical body and my spirit. The image indeed comes from our memories and consciousness. It appears in a state where there is no order and full of confusion. I attempt to create that image because I want to create a new form of life, a new source of energy that is more primitive.”
Speaking further about religious symbolism and its possible role in the intention behind the work, the sculptor says, “Gaia is the mother of all gods in Greek mythology. Indeed, Gaia is just like Nüwa in Chinese mythology. Statues of Nüwa also look very benign in some temples. The faces I created are probably influenced by religions, those of Mother of God and Guanyin. The faces just appeared during my spiritual practices, when I sought to reach the state of ‘non-self’. They do not symbolise anything in particular. Of course, I was influenced but that is what I got when I entered my consciousness.”
Speaking to the spectacle of the exhibition experience, the power of the impact lies in the size of the sculpture that is haunting in the way it holds its facial expression that can be seen to change in interpretation when placed in unified form and when it is disassembled. In its unified form as one can see through the form it took at the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair in 2021. The sculptural entity titled A Dialogue Between Materials and Time, Titans XIV was presented in its entirety, whereas at the Venice Biennale we find the deteriorated form, as if the sculpture has gone through a temporal storm. Previously at the Shangani Contemporary Art Fair, the work is deified, presented as mystical and powerful in nature, as the lighting takes place, something to be revered, perhaps. The site of the archaeological excavation is evoked through the darkened but spot lit parts of the whole, battered in their assemblage at the Biennale venue in Venice.
The sculptural art heads are spliced through with iron shapes that cause an interruption to the faces, where the head is also often cut through or only appearing in halves. These very same shapes are menacing in the second iteration of the sculptural installation. It is the primacy of the assemblage that is asserted, the parts to the whole.
Speaking to the title of the exhibition, the interdisciplinary artist says, “Totem, which refers to an esteemed ancestral spirit, represents ancestral spirits or guardians. They represent the belief that everything has a soul. This is why it is my goal to create lasting pieces of art – because they are not lifeless objects, but my connection to the universe. I spent six months as a monk in 2001. During my meditations, I saw versions of myself in different sizes – like the faces in Totem – appearing, disappearing and reappearing. I tried to assemble these different versions of myself into one.”
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice. 
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year’s edition of the art biennale.
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Sukanya Deb
Sukanya is a writer and curator based out of New Delhi. At Terrain.art, where she is Assistant Curator, her work revolves around developing online and offline exhibitions in conversation with artists, and working particularly towards instituting the Digital Marketplace. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, (memory, utterance, articulation), and re-thinking exhibitory formats.
Sukanya is a writer and curator based out of New Delhi. At Terrain.art, where she is Assistant Curator, her work revolves around developing online and offline exhibitions in conversation with artists, and working particularly towards instituting the Digital Marketplace. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, (memory, utterance, articulation), and re-thinking exhibitory formats.
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