Khan Lee: Hearts and Arrows
Centre A has left its former cavernous space at the corner of Hastings and Carrall street and relocated to a much smaller and more suitable venue on a burgeoning street in Chinatown. The gallery’s focus remains contemporary Asian art and it is the only public art gallery in the country with this mandate. For the inaugural show in its new space, Centre A is presenting a new real-time video work by Khan Lee who was born in Korea where he studied architecture, but has been based in Vancouver for several years. We have followed Lee’s work for some time–he often works with everyday objects creating simple but remarkable installations that change the way you view these quotidian items: dishes piled in concentric circles to form an egg, a large sphere formed from shiny copper pennies, and pencils stuck to the wall forming a piercing grid. In his new performance-based video, Hearts and Arrows, Lee employs a common substance–ice–to make something quite extraordinary.
Hearts and Arrows depicts Lee carving a block of ice beginning at dawn, his figure shrouded in darkness, as he hunches over the mass. He sets to work while the sun is below the horizon and the sky is still heavy with night; Vancouver’s scenic shoreline is across the water in the distance, the gantries of the port and the twinkling lights forming a beautiful seascape and a recognizable backdrop. At first, the artist’s intent is unclear–what does he mean to create? Slowly, as he angles his saw repeatedly, cut after cut, a diamond begins to emerge. The title of the work refers to an ideal cut for diamonds in which the crown contains eight symmetrical arrows and when viewed in the table down position, the pavilion contains eight symmetrical hearts. Less than 1% of the world’s diamonds are cut to these exacting standards and this is the onerous task Lee performs in his video. Before attempting this real-time performance, the artist practiced the feat for a year, teaching himself how to carve ice. His skill shows as you watch him angle his chisel, apply just the right amount of pressure, cut to a particular point before he knows to knock the block so just the unwanted portion falls to the ground.
Taken at its most literal, the video is a documentary: with a stationary lens and stoic eye, it records Lee’s labour-intensive process as he forms the ice into the traditional 57-facet diamond form. But the video, which extends more than an hour, has a meditative effect: birds float overhead, a helicopter flies by and runners speed along while Lee chisels, saws and shaves off ice, gently smoothing out his handiwork. His hair falls in his face as he toils; he appears completely unaware of the camera. As you watch the artist saw back and forth, his physical labour and concentrated effort becomes a metaphor for artistic struggle as he strives to create a thing of ideal beauty out of something entirely ordinary. He begins this intense process at dawn with the sun barely perceptible. As the sun rises, its glow warms the sky so its amber, coral and mauve light and extends across the horizon and you realize Lee is in a race against time. As the artist is making his finishing touches, the sun climbs high enough that its rays hit the diamond he has created which literally bursts with golden light creating a moment of transcendence. There is something wonderfully idealistic and poetic about his action–contrary to a real diamond which is an enduring symbol of eternity, Lee has expended his time and effort to make something perfect, something ideal but something that will eventually melt away. Still, for just a short time, he has created something magical.