At its core, art is the process of making the invisible visible. Even to render a physical object – a body, a landscape- is not a true recreation but an interpretation of what the artist sees, swayed by the bias of their perception. The process of making art take an idea from inside a person’s mind and gives it substance – a film, a painting, a sculpture. “Trying to visualize things that aren’t easy to visualize,” sums up Vancouver artist Khan Lee.
His most recent project does just that. Red, Green and Blue is the latest edition of Off Site, a satellite outdoor space of the Vancouver Art Gallery located near the Shangri-la Hotel downtown. Khan set out to make a piece that responds to its environment. “I wanted to create a vessel that’s really sensitive to subtle movements of the wind,” he explains. The finished piece comprises dozens of tube-like plastic shapes illuminated from below in the three titular colours. As the objects lean and sway in the wind, their colourful shadows trace sweeping paths across the wall behind them, amplifying the movement of the breeze.
Copy Editor Tina Shabani
Intangible as the wind may be, it’s not the most abstract concept Khan has attempted to give shape. That honour goes to something much grander: time. For that experiment he translated video footage into a tactile object. He filmed a short clip, just a few seconds, of two judo combatants, one flipping the other over his shoulder. Next he etched the silhouettes of the two men from each frame out of day-glo plastic and arranged them sequentially. In effect, the passage of time is laid out before the viewer in one piece. By tracing it with their eyes they enact the progression of time. They can move forward or backward or jump to any point along the timeline merely by directing their gaze.
Projects like this combine lofty conceptual thinking with very practical concerns of design, material, and engineering. Naturally, themes of number and quantity recur in Khan’s work. He’s long been fascinated by the difference between how we quantify something – how we can mentally grasp a certain number of a certain object while being unable to visualize it. We all understand what $10,000 is – I mean, I don’t, but maybe you do- but what does that actually look like as a stack of bills or a pile of coins? How much space does it take up? What does it weigh? “It’s transformational,” Khan says. “The translation between quantity and volume is something that’s not easily visible. So sometimes you wonder…” He laughs. “I wonder about those kinds of things.”
He’s long prodded this relationship, the notion of quantity and its manifestation in the real world. One Million, for instance, asks how large a sphere you could make using that many pennies to form the shell? (A pretty big one, it turns out). With playful exercises like this Khan takes data and turns it into art. In other pieces he’s incorporated discarded CDs and used gelato spoons.
Anything can be a material for art, and after speaking with Khan you begin to see this everywhere. Especially in a city growing as rapidly as Vancouver, where seemingly every block is stacked with pallets of wood, bags of concrete, and tangles of rebar. “We’re living in an age where there’s so much excess of everything, an abundance of everything,” Khan says. “The city is going through all these developments, and every little corner of the city has these little stacks of materials. All this quantification, and the presence of this mass taking space, already feels really sculptural.”
It seems sometimes Khan is as much engineer or scientist as artist. He compares his creative process to the procedure of scientific investigation. At their most simplified, the concept goes as such:
One – identify your variables (in Khan’s case, his materials).
Two – design your experiment to test the variables (how big a sphere do a million pennies make?).
Three – Do the experiment and observe (build yourself a penny sphere).
Four – Based on the results, form your conclusion (a pretty big penny sphere).
The main difference, Khan says, between science and art lies in the question you’re asking. Unlike a scientist, the artist isn’t particularly concerned with arriving at a concrete answer. “As an artist, we accept the unknown as some kind of element. Instead of trying to dissect it to define what it is, we take it on as something that we don’t know,” Khan says. “We have that kind of freedom.” And so in the end, as always, it’s up to the viewer to reach their own conclusion.