The world in between

Artist Lucie Chan examines her fraught relationships with strangers in between, and in tears. Sean Flinn reports.

Tearing up Lucie Chan’s latest exhibition opens at the AGNS this week.

Lucie Chan sits in the courtyard in front of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the stones drying in the sun after days of rain. Inside, the artist's latest exhibition, between, and in tears, is almost fully installed.

The AGNS makes a third point in a triangle of locales for Chan, who regularly shuttles between her studio and apartment. "I don't really go out that much. I'm kind of a workaholic," she admits with a smile.

That's probably a good thing considering the work inside. The installation is visually and emotionally intense. "I was thinking about all these terrible times that I had, this period of my life when I was breaking down all the time," Chan explains. "So I wanted to see if I could pull off an installation that was just filled with tears, flooding a room with tears."

For the project, Chan pulled together many elements such as a rushing current that draws the viewer into and then through the whole. Charcoal portraits of faces half-submerged, as if drowning, line one wall. Video monitors peek out from the layered works on paper and screen animations that Chan created from her drawings. Large sculptured teardrops comprised of layered drawings hang from the ceiling.

Looking from the entrance to the opposite end, deep blues and greens emerge as if underwater or in a dark, humid forest.

Going back to her original motivation, Chan recalls that a tangle of emotions moved her. "The things making me cry were culturally related things, incidents that were happening in public with strangers—just the way they treated me or reacted to me."

In Halifax, she says, "black people will look at me and then look the other way, not acknowledging I have a connection to them. Everywhere else, people just really stare."

Born in Guyana, Chan grew up in Alberta, studying at the Alberta College of Art before coming to Halifax for an MFA at NSCAD. She's lived here for seven years. On other occasions, she says, "I was being followed in stores all the time, like I was shoplifting all the time. Or people come up to me and touch my hair or start a conversation like that."

Chan used her art to explore why this happens. She says the "between" part refers to how she "wanted to interact with total strangers, turn the interrogation around, and start discussing cultural experiences."

To involve the participants, Chan had to confront the exchange head on. "I had to almost spy on people for a little while," she says. "I had to know I'd be connected with them, so I'd seek people out who looked like they had mixed backgrounds. And I'd just decide to ask them. It was really nerve-racking because I felt like I was doing what I hated people doing to me."

The animations are based on meetings with three subjects. One was an artist whose self-portrait Chan redrew and animated. They talked and made drawings together. The sessions were long—up to eight hours. Afterwards, the artist went home to write and edit a record of the experience. "I work very poetically and look for things that were metaphors for other things." The writings helped guide the art-making.

In the end, Chan sees between, and in tears not as "cultural commentary"—a polemic—but as a series of "portraits of the people." Those portraits carry the political and personal—and much more—in them.

This is an elemental show. You respond to it physically as well as mentally. The AGNS has successfully exhibited installations that provoke strong physical feelings before, from the work of Gary Hill to, more recently, Graham Patterson's Woodrow. Or, recall Ed Pien's drawing-based installations at Saint Mary's Art Gallery a couple of years ago.

Looking back, Chan recognizes that she has moved past an obstacle. "It's kind of scary meeting all these people I don't know." Perhaps that's too analytical, but it's fair to say we're all changed for the better having experienced Lucie Chan's work.

Lucie Chan, between, and in tears June 29 to August 12 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis, 424-7542.

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