Wallace Chan: Totem
20 April - 23 October 2022
Fondaco Marcello, Venice
By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, May 2022
Wallace Chan’s Totem, a sprawling exhibition of metalwork currently exhibiting in Venice (in tandem with the Biennale) is one of those rare works that says something about the imbricated relationship between design innovations and despair. As a display taking up the greater part of the exhibition space at the Fondaco Marcello, Totem foregrounds the shattering of our world—doing so in a way which is far more contemplative than might sound at first.
Spatially conveying insights and intuitions generally reserved for philosophy, Chan's Totem thematizes the encroaching threat of climate change. Or rather, Chan's deconstructed, garden-like arrangement of wrought iron and titanium pieces, where a deconstructed Buddha becomes a recurring motif, representes, in the words of the press release: "the interconnection of the Earth’s separate parts that enables it to regulate its own environment and to be habitable and capable of sustaining human life." Chan's Totem treats ecology not as a science, so much as as a datum of consciousness: a reliquary of complex emotions which are equally personal to the artist, and reflective of impersonal natural forces.
For Chan, the relationship between our private consciousness, our felt sense of individuality, and the mysterious pervasiveness of natural law, has roots not only in the spiritual traditions of his native China, but in his work as a jewelry artist. Jewels, like certain species of flowers, communicate with an esoteric directness which is hard to overlook—even if their symbolism is not fully grasped. Diamonds carry this sort of power; and their authentic value lies as much in their lapidary polish as in their market price.
Chan's Totem speaks with a similar directness. The layout of his display—composed of parts of a massive sculpture, which, when assembled, reaches upwards of 32 feet high—has a crafted quality about it, like the shapeliness one draws out from a precious stone. The materials Chan uses are also highly significant. Each part of Totem is made either of titanium or of iron. While the iron will oxidize over time, the titanium will remain largely unchanged. The value of the titanium, the way it becomes an expressive gesture in Chan's hand, lies in its general unwieldiness. Even in its melted state, titanium is difficult to mold into a desired shape. The fact that Chan has opted to work with this difficult material speaks to the intractability of the symbol he has recreated—the Buddha—and how it relates to the ongoing climate crisis we're confronting.
While Chan does use the visage of the Buddha in his piece, one can't quite say that he uses this image prominently. True to the theme of the work as a whole, the Buddha's physical presence is scattered throughout the space of the exhibition. In this way, the serene presence of the Buddha as a symbol takes on an apophatic character. However pervasive the Buddha is for Totem, its presence is everywhere and nowhere. In a state of analytic fragmentation, the figure of the Buddha remains something that can always be sought. The pieces are present; but the question regarding how to reconstruct them is not answered directly, but only hinted at.
Expertly curated by James Putnam, the companion piece to Chan's Totem, a video work of the same title by Javier Ideami, illustrates what can only be described as the molecular conditions that make a work like Totem, as a diasporic statement, possible in the first place. Focusing on the facture of Chan's design—a work that involves hours of studio time, the involvement of numerous studio assistants, and an elaborate casting process—Ideami portrays Totem not as a process so much as a natural phenomenon whose elements are infinitely replicated throughout the whole work. It's in Ideami's video that the weighted difference between iron and titanium—two metals with differing densities and relationships to the earth's atmosphere—is really zeroed in on. If a viewer were to see the Ideami's video and Chan's fractured Totem without any preliminary explanation, the temporal magnitude implied by the physics of Chan's materials would still be duly highlighted. That a sculpture should be made that resists the perspectival limits of a single human life brings Chan's statements on ecology into clearer focus.
Commenting on the ineluctably dissolving influence of time, Chan's installation, especially in its use of titanium, becomes a contemplative vehicle for reflecting on time's sheer magnitude. Even as the global world seems poised on the brink of irreversible climate change, one must believe that humans will find a way to adapt. If the titanium materials Chan has put to use will outlast the lifespan of generations to come, this is because generations will still be present. Even a closed future is still a future. In this, there's a note of optimism to Chan's Totem. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist & writer currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, American Art Catalogues, Hyperallergic, Heavy Feather Review, Arcade Project, Folder, Drag City Books, and other venues. Their poetry pamphlet, Aphid Poems, will be published later this year by The Creative Writing Department. Some recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth (NY), Sun Oil for Open White Gallery (Berlin), and FEELINGS for synthesis gallery (Berlin).view all articles from this author