detail of Carla Chan exhibition 'Ashes of Snow' at Den Frie

Carla Chan and ‘The Ashes of Snow’

The Berlin-based artist talks about her relocation from Hong Kong and her shift from digital medias to analog objects.

Published: June 5, 2017Words: J.Scott StrattonLinks: Carla Chan

In just little over two decades, our global society has made massive leaps forward in technology, but we have waded so far out into the digital ether, that there now movements to cast out lifelines and reconnect us with the tangible and analog.

While for many years, anything that used digital mediums in a creative way became hot shit, but we are now looking at a world where so much digital media has been reworked, rethought and repurposed that nothing is sacred anymore. Basically, trying to be a digital artist in today’s current climate is tantamount to trying to sell sausages in a hot dog convention-what you sell better be good, or it’s just white noise.

This is what peaked my interest in Berlin-based artist Carla Chan–who became known for her work with digital media but has since begun to evolve her processes to focus on more analog and tangible works.

In lieu of her newest collection of work, The Ashes of Snow, at Den Frie, I wanted to find out a little more about Chan’s origin story, why she has begun to make analog works more prominent in her collections and exhibitions, and how it has affected her process of working.

What prompted you to make the transition from half way across the world to make your home in Berlin?

It has been a struggle to find the ideal space for creation. I am from Hong Kong, where space is very limited both mentally and physically. When the opportunity to apply for an art residency in Berlin became a reality that was when I decided to stay in Berlin and pursue my artistic creation.

Was is difficult re-establishing yourself in a new city and new culture?

Indeed, in the beginning, it was quite a difficult time for me. I didn’t know anybody in Berlin and I do not speak German. I often found German culture very direct compared to Hong Kong culture. Berlin is also a city full of artists and is highly competitive. It has many distractions and I had to learn how to stay focused and fast.

The great thing is that here in Berlin, I met many people who are very open-minded, accepting and helpful. That made all the struggle pass very quickly.

You have described your work as, “toying with the blurred boundaries between reality and illusion, figure and abstraction.” Can you elaborate on this?
I am very sensitive to certain micro-actions around me. I like to observe small movements and details and then enlarge them with my own imagination. Which means most of my inspiration comes from real actions and situations. I am not interested in transforming them directly, but at the same time, I don’t like to make work that is too abstract, in order for my work to be cohesive and easily understood so that I can trace back what inspired me at first.

I like to play with the in-between situation. People can often guess what I am showcasing but at the same time they are not sure about it. Which allows more space for people to think and ask questions. This moment of ambiguity is what I find most interesting!

In your recent works, you have begun working with tangible physical objects (more specifically with your most recent exhibition at Sexauer in Berlin) and pairing them with the more immaterial audio/visual work that you are known for. Can you tell me about this?

Working in digital media is a very dry process. You have to master the new medium together with a technological learning process – knowing the software and acquiring general computer skills – before you can even think about a creative process. It is not a spontaneous act.

Unlike drawing and painting, there is often a lack of real emotion linking me to the outcome. That’s why I have been missing certain spontaneous actions and real emotions in my recent work. And working with digital formats you hardly create unique work. When work is being digitized into 1’s and 0’s, it can always be copied.

Those are the two main reasons, why I decided to jump back to work on a physical medium. At the same time, there are many digital components and computational thinking involved.

How was the process for developing this work, was it different than your previous works?

Totally. What I’m trying to do is actually finding a fusion point between the analog and the digital, a physical touch that involves a computational understanding and process.

Will working with juxtaposing material and immaterial objects continue in your future works?

One of my big interests is the combination of different mediums. Going back to where I started from a painting background and combining it with the digital art study.

Recently, I have been interested in time-based work, and I definitely want to continue in this direction. Working with video and combining it with physical, kinetic devices to achieve a certain time experience within my work. I start working with an idea and then with a medium—the point which inspires me and which I then develop with mediums that can deliver my thoughts and emotions best.

On that note, can you tell me about your work ‘The Ashes of Snow’, at Den Frie in Copenhagen?

The Ashes of Snow is a large real-time snowing installation. It’s a work tied to a personal encounter with a strong image that I saw. A snowy mountain that was covered with layers of black carbon particles which fly from a polluted factory.

At first, I found the image hearteningly beautiful but after a closer look, sadness overcame me which was related to the solution and human intervention in nature. The installation itself contains many snow particles which are dyed with thermochromic ink. The particles are falling as white snow and slowly change to black, like ashes.

The snow turns into a symbolic meaning, giving the audience space to think deeply about this twisted situation, beauty, and pollution, creating a stage for destruction within the context of an inevitable situation.

How did you come about your research and concept development for this piece?

After seeing this very memorable picture, I have been researching the topic of human intervention in nature and more polluted situations all over the world. I was shocked by the beauty of contaminated nature—especially with many pictures of dyeing factories. The large amounts of chemical waste flushed into the rivers and have created a landscape of toxic beauty. I am working on an idea that can trigger this bitter feeling. And at the same time to drop a hint of the feeling of this dilemma of the human position as a catalyst to a polluted nature.

artist Carla Chan at her exhibition 'Ashes of Snow' at Den Frie