Khan Lee's Hearts and Arrows ponders the nature of perfection

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      At Centre A until July 27

      Centre A—which is the short name for the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art—has moved. Having vacated its previous, oversize location in a historic building in the Downtown Eastside, opposite Pigeon Park, it has established itself among a bustling row of shops in Chinatown, at 229 East Georgia Street. The new exhibition space is much smaller than the old, but feels friendlier, less intimidating. The historical, architectural, and social conditions have certainly shifted, presenting an entirely different context for the artists showing there.

      Launching this new incarnation of Centre A is Hearts and Arrows, a durational (actual-time) video with accompanying drawings by Vancouver artist Khan Lee. His concept-driven art practice ranges across performance, installation, video, and sculpture. He has made architectonic arrangements of everyday objects such as pencils and dinner plates, and he has also laid out extremely abstract symbols of complex geometric forms, at the furthest remove from the familiar. Khan often manifests an interest in other contradictions: the material and the conceptual, the formalist and the social, the enduring and the ephemeral. These last two qualities especially apply to Hearts and Arrows, which seems to pose the advertising line “A diamond is forever” against the ultimate melting away of an ice sculpture Lee makes in the form of a large diamond.

      “Hearts and arrows” is the name of an extremely demanding, precision cut of diamond, reserved for only the purest grade of that stone. The term therefore connotes perfection of both craft and nature, an ideal that Lee addresses in his performance-based video and, at the same time, seems resigned to not realizing. Having spent a year teaching himself how to sculpt ice and also how to make a large cube of clear ice without any bubbles (ice that equates with a flawless diamond), he sets himself up outdoors in front of a fixed camera, just before dawn breaks over Vancouver, and gets to work carving.

      In this unnamed location (it might be between Brockton Point and the Nine O’Clock Gun in Stanley Park), Lee’s camera looks southeast across Burrard Inlet and Vancouver’s industrial waterfront. Initially, electric lights wink and glimmer in the background darkness and we can make out the shadowy form of a block of ice mounted on a stool in the foreground, somewhat left of the centre of the picture. Very gradually, the sky begins to colour, rusty red on the horizon bleeding upward into mossy green and deep, velvety blue. The artist steps up to the ice and starts sawing. His body is silhouetted against the water and the gradually emerging skyline, with its dinosaurlike cranes, stacked shipping containers, and low port buildings.

      Behind the sawing, chiselling, and planing sounds of Lee’s labour, the astounding soundtrack records the subliminal hum of the city as it awakens. As the sky becomes lighter, washing into pale hues of pink, yellow, and blue, we hear the growing roar of cars and trucks unseen somewhere behind us, and, louder still, helicopters and seaplanes taking off in front of us. Joggers, cyclists, and pedestrians pass by in a choreographed way on the seawall, and geese, crows, and seagulls fly or paddle past, too, calling in their unlovely voices. Mount Baker materializes, blue-grey on the smoggy horizon.

      Seemingly oblivious to all these sights and sounds, Lee works steadily on. He’s timed his project so that he completes the ice sculpture as the sun rises above the horizon. He then steps away from his work and as the sun continues to climb in the sky, its light becomes brighter and brighter, flooding the lens. First it appears to dissolve the ice sculpture, and eventually it washes out almost the entire scene. We realize we have been immersed in both Lee’s process and its setting, in an almost meditative state, for over an hour. The flooding of the screen—and our vision—with white light might symbolize evanescence or transcendence. Or perhaps death.

      Like the show Materially Speaking at the Richmond Art Gallery, Lee’s video prompts us to think about the ways in which we assign value to certain objects, materials, and skills. Hearts and Arrows also reminds us of the passing of time and the making of place. While notions of perfection haunt this work, it also speaks of the ways humankind has transformed the natural world: a chunk of raw mineral into a multifaceted gem, a stretch of pristine coastline into a noisy, hectic city with staggeringly high real-estate prices. A city where crows caw, engines roar, and symbols of eternity dissolve before our eyes.