In Israel, Mixed Media Artist Explores How ‘A Space Becomes a Place’

Suki Chan—born in Hong Kong, living in London, and now displaying her work in Tel Aviv—combines film, video and photography to create mixed-media installations.

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Click photo to download. Caption: "A Place on Earth" by Suki Chan, a Giclée print of Thames Town, China, with pigment inks. Credit: Courtesy Suki Chan.

Traveling to Israel for the second time made quite an impression on artist Suki Chan, a 34-year-old Hong Kong native who was raised in London and now lives there.

This time around, Chan—who combines film, video and photography to create mixed-media installations—visited for the launch of her exhibitions in Tel Aviv. She also started work on a new project about religion and architecture, or as she said, how different peoples relate to a place as their home, how these neighbors relate to each other, and the nuances of conflict over space.

“It’s quite an intense little trip,” Chan said of her 10 days here, speaking with JointMedia News Service at the Christ Hostel café in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. “This is a place of extremes… It’s very complex. The more time I spend here the more complex it is.”

What’s particularly intriguing to Chan is that Israel is home to some of the most fiercely fought over real estate on the planet.

“I suppose I’m interested in space and the way a space becomes a place, and how we relate to that place,” she said.

Currently on display is Chan’s video installation “Tomorrow is Our Permanent Address,” in a group show titled English Education, which opened Sept. 8 at the Dan Gallery in Tel Aviv and runs until Oct. 28. Curator Ravit Harari also included works by Eyal Sasson, Guy Shoham and Peter Jacob Maltz in the exhibition. During the opening, Chan showed her short animation “Breathing Silence” (2004) outside the gallery on Gordon Street as part of a one-night show called Art Lovers.

The continuously looping film—one cycle is 16 seconds long—explores Victorian architecture in England. The fleeting moments of the animation show small details like butterflies on the cracks of the mosaic, and traces of former inhabitants as their lives appear and disappear.

“It’s about the movements of the butterfly that are here and then they’re not,” Chan said.

Chan took her inspiration from ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsi, who wrote: “Once, I, Chuang Tsi, dreamt I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tsi. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tsi. I do not know whether it was Tsi dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tsi. Between Tsi and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.”

Chan’s work largely deals with the transience of space and the impermanence of structure. In “Tomorrow is our Permanent Address,” Chan constructed a city of drinking glasses. The light of the glass captures the viewer’s attention, but she said she knew during filming she had to destroy the city because we’re guests in this world and nothing is permanent. How does the destruction happen?

“I don’t normally tell,” she said evasively. “There [are] clues.” Chan plays around with scale and oscillation, creating a dreamlike aesthetic in the video.

The piece came out of Chan’s master’s degree, which she completed at the Chelsea School of Art in London in 2008. She chose to use glass material out of her concern that cities around the world are building structures that disregard their location’s specific environmental needs. When cities today build skyscrapers out of steel and glass in the desert, for instance, Chan said that isn’t sustainable.

“I wanted to create something that would convey that precariousness and fragility,” she said.  

In “A Place on Earth” (2008), Chan photographed Thames Town—a suburb of Shanghai which she said is built like an English village. People assume from the pictures that it’s a place in Europe, and they are surprised to learn that it’s actually Shanghai, whose architectural style was imported from Europe. “It feels like a misfit,” Chan said.

The way cities are developing, Chan said, every city is starting to resemble every other one, as one style is grafted from area to area. Cities are losing their uniqueness, their native materials and design aesthetic as they strive to blend in with what is considered high architecture, she said.

“I think there’s this feeling that your own architecture is not good enough,” Chan said. “It’s a crazy feeling of ‘we will do this because we can.’”

Israel’s architecture styles, Chan said, reflect a mix of peoples. She said the Bauhaus buildings of Tel Aviv and the Islamic aesthetic in Jerusalem are “very exciting,” and “really shows the melting pot of cultures as well as similarities between architecture.”

Chan said her reaction to the Western Wall was unlike her reaction to other sacred spaces that she has seen around the world. Regarding mosques and churches, Chan said she has felt small and overwhelmed by an all-encompassing awe. But, “When I look at the Western Wall I see al-Aksa, the Dome of the Rock … the layering of one religion after another.”

Chan arrived in Israel smack in the middle of an architectural revolution of sorts: the tent city protests. She observed the tents lining main boulevards in Tel Aviv, where the movement demanding social justice was born. “The whole thing is like an art installation,” she said, “like a living sculpture” expressing a different way for people to relate to each other. It wasn’t all about consumption, Western capitalism and shopping, she said.

The tents, brightly colored and grungy, are good to see in public life, Chan said, describing them as “seeing something that isn’t pristine in public space” for a change. Chan suggested that when the tents are all packed up—fragile as they are—an element of them remains to serve as a space for alternative voices. In this case that’s a reversal of Chan’s message, as the temporary can become the permanent.

Chan’s work was displayed in a group exhibition last year titled “The Shape of Things” at the Ferrate Gallery in Tel Aviv. She has also exhibited at solo and group exhibitions in the UK, Singapore, Japan, Ireland, Spain, Canada and the U.S.

Posted on November 21, 2011 and filed under Arts.