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Frieze New York 2022

Carla Chan on ‘Finding the Poetic Part of the Machine'

The artist discusses responding to nature with technology in her La Prairie collaboration and upcoming exhibition at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

BY Carla Chan AND Matthew McLean in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 13 MAY 22

Matthew McLean Can you explain the evolution of your thinking from Space Between the Light Glows (2021), shown at the last Frieze New York, to Fading Space of Dawn (2022), which is premiering at this year’s fair?

Carla Chan I’m honored to be working for a second time with La Prairie: having a longer period with a project allows you to work and think more in-depth. For the first piece, I was obsessed with the changing light, the colors and hues of the “golden hour,” which I observed on a residency in the Swiss Alps. This time, I am continuing that journey, from the golden hour when the sun sets to the time before dusk, going into darkness.

MM You’ve described the work as a response to “the moment when nature disappears into the darkness and vanishes into the unseen.” What drew you to this phenomenon?

Carla Chan with an element of Fading Space of Dawn, 2022. Courtesy: Carla Chan and La Prairie

CC The first residency I did was up in the mountains at the Monte Rosa hut and this time I stayed beside Lac Léman, one of the largest lakes in western Europe. I was thinking of the journey of water, from the glaciers on the mountain to the waters of the lake. Its status changes, and visually something disappears. In this transition is something unseen. As a subject, it offers the chance not just to portray the beauty of nature but to go into a more reflective space.

MM La Prairie describe the light setting on Lac Léman and diffusing in the morning as an inspiration for their Pure Gold Radiance Nocturnal Balm. How did your experience of this phenomenon influence the development of Fading Space of Dawn?

CC During most of the residency, it was raining. The rain was very subtle: it was beautiful. I spent a lot of time looking at the raindrops hitting the surface of the lake, that microdrama. Weather patterns are a part of nature, too. I wanted to bring this into the installation, which I’m doing through Augmented Reality (AR).

Carla Chan during her artistic residency in Switzerland with La Prairie, 2022. Courtesy: Carla Chan and La Prairie

MM How will AR feature in the work and what led you to this technology?

CC This is my second time working with AR and I wanted to take the medium further than what we are now used to: I need to feel the immersion. What I am creating will be like a room of virtual rain, fading to black ashes of snow and the dark of the clouds: as you walk around the installation, you will see this whole weather scenario through your phone. It’s going to be quite a cinematic experience. We’ve mapped the space and created a specific design for the choreography of the AR weather, so the installation becomes site-specific to Frieze New York. AR is a new step because you can replace the physicality of the screen. You’re so familiar with your phone, it’s almost invisible. It almost disappears as a medium, which reflects the theme of Fading Space of Dawn itself.

MM By exploring the darkness between dusk and dawn are you connecting with themes of peril, or risk, in our relationship with nature?

CC I don’t want to tell people what to think. It’s not my goal or my way of making art. The beauty of art is a language that is unspoken. A void can be filled with imagination. But I do want to build a feeling of urgency around something that is fading. We can still see a glacier today — but will we be able to in 15 years? During my first La Prairie residency, I was introduced to the Glaciology Department at ETH Zurich. The work they do to raise awareness of glaciers and their fragility is very touching. Part of the proceeds of the NFT work I am making will go to support their research.

Carla Chan with an element of Fading Space of Dawn, 2022. Courtesy: Carla Chan and La Prairie

MM Tell us about the NFT: what form will that take and how does it stand in relation to the “physical” installation at the fair?

CC I’ve been approached about NFTs many times, but for me, to just create a GIF or a video and put it on the blockchain would be pointless. What I am really in awe of is blockchain technology and the way it can harness the power of the internet, which is a kind of people power. In my first residency, thinking about glaciers and how they change, I became excited about creating an artwork that is constantly shifting. These 366 NFTs are built with Smart Token Labs on the Ethereum blockchain: they will use real-time meteorological data, so the artworks are always changing. In this way, I am entrusting control to other parties: the NFTs will continue beyond me.

MM The fact that the NFTs will have a kind of “afterlife” is intriguing in relation to your thinking on the ephemerality of landscapes. How do you see the connection between nature and technology?

CC I am drawn to the contradiction of using technology to protect nature. In all my work, I try to mesh something hard with something soft; I love that challenge. It’s like finding the poetic part of the machine.

Carla Chan during her artistic residency in Switzerland with La Prairie, 2022. Courtesy: Carla Chan and La Prairie

MM Environmental considerations are questions of what trace we leave on the world. How do you think about your legacy as an artist?

CC The power of the internet is that any idea I put into the world can stay a long time: people can write about it, read about it, good or bad. In this way, I don’t really know what traces I will leave. But there are collective ideas or behaviors that we can encourage through art, which might leave a legacy. To be “sustainable” is to think about more than one period of time: the more you consider sustainability, the more likely you are to leave a legacy.

Carla Chan, Fading Space of Dawn, 2022, studio view. Courtesy: Carla Chan and La Prairie

MM Can you tell us about your other current and upcoming activities — for example, your exhibition at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong?

CC Hong Kong is my hometown, and Tai Kwun is one of the best venues for art and culture. It’s also the biggest space I’ve ever had a solo show in; I am creating a gigantic video installation on a screen that is five meters across and five meters tall, with an AR work that will be site-specific to Tai Kwun’s high ceilings. As a young artist, I have learned to “think big.” The most fantastic part of being an artist is when you’re full of ideas, when you really get inspired.

Carla Chen’s commission is on view in the La Prairie Lounge at Frieze New York throughout the fair. Discover more about the collaboration and Pure Gold Radiance Nocturnal Balm at laprairie.com.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2022 under the headline ‘Before Sunrise’.

Main image: Carla Chan during her artistic residency in Switzerland with La Prairie, 2022. Courtesy: Carla Chan and La Prairie

Carla Chan is an artist. She lives in Berlin, Germany.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.