Finding Harmony and Happiness with Dennis Chan

MAY 07, 2019

Just in time for his HAHA PANDA exhibition at LANDMARK (indicate first time in HK at LANDMARK) , contemporary artist and Qeelin founder Dennis Chan talks Chinese culture, societal shifts and the driving force behind his career.

Dennis Chan is a modern-day renaissance man. He’s a designer, the founder and creative director of Qeelin jewellery, a musician (he knows more about hip hop than most people half his age) and a visual artist. Ask him to pick a favourite medium, and he’ll be hard-pressed to give you an answer.

“They are all equally important,” he tells us when we meet at the Qeelin boutique in LANDMARK. “Sculpture is perhaps what speaks to me the most, but I love art in all of its expressions. Creativity has no boundaries for me.”

At the roots of his extensive artistic endeavours is one desire: the wish to bring Chinese cultural heritage into the 21st century. He aspires to reinvent historic traditions, reflect on modern values, and challenge people to think outside the box when it comes to the meaning of luxury.

That drive, he says, has fueled him since his days as a student at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design and, later, a young designer working in London. He later returned to Hong Kong where he founded his own design company called Longford in 1989. “China has such an ancient legacy of arts and crafts, yet most of it was forgotten over the last century due to wars, political shifts, and the complex events of modern history. The idea of reviving that legacy in a contemporary way has underpinned my creative process from the very beginning of my career,” Chan says.

It was also what eventually led him to establish Qeelin in 2004. “The inspiration for it came when I visited the Mogao Caves in the Gobi Desert in 1997,” he recalls. “I was struck by the beauty of their frescos and statues, and decided I wanted to create something that would reflect and be inspired by Chinese culture, yet feel anchored in the present day. I wanted to give China a modern heritage brand.”

The jewellery line, launched in 2004 and now part of the Kering Group, is just that. In his designs, Chan plays with classic emblems in Chinese tradition such as the panda and the wulu (gourd) but presents them as modern objets d’art informed by a Western aesthetic, Qeelin sits at the intersection of East and West, and has become an iconic name for Chinese design on the international stage.

“The brand is all about harmony and balance,” Chan says. “Embracing the old and the new, the meaningful and the exuberant. It’s a reflection of the changes in Chinese society: we’re still connected to our past but we have a global outlook. We look back and we travel the world. To me it’s important to capture all that.”

  A collection of 12 crystal-covered sculptures, Chan’s HAHA PANDA exhibition explores the concepts of money and harmony, happiness and disruption.

Chan’s non-commercial work shares that same cross-cultural philosophy, and nowhere is it more evident than in his itinerant exhibition HAHA PANDA. First presented four years ago at ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, the installation features a series of 12 sculptures – all in the shape of pandas. Some of pieces from this HAHA PANDA collection were display at WFJ in Feb 2019. Why pandas? Chan says he chose these beloved mammal because it represents Chinese ideals like peacefulness and mellowness.

The designer has been developing these crystal-studded art pieces independently from Qeelin since 2015. Previously shown in mainland China and Japan, the collection is making its Hong Kong debut this month, with a temporary display of 12 pieces at LANDMARK ATRIUM and LANDMARK PRINCE’s through 24th May.

The sculptures all feature different materials and poses but share a central theme: “Harmony in Play.” Through this common thread, Chan explores three main ideas of Money vs. Happiness, Me vs. the World, and Harmony vs. Disruption. A Money vs Happiness panda balancing itself over a logoed trunk, for instance, hints at our relationship with luxury, and an obsession for all things branded. Another panda, its stocky body half-stuck in a wooden box, is a depiction of Me vs the World, and how we can feel suppressed by external pressures.

“Each piece offers a contemporary twist on classic Chinese symbolism,” Chan explains. “‘HAHA’ refers to laughter, but also to harmony and happiness – two important values for Chinese people. Placed in a modern context and featuring modern art formats, they invite the audience to reflect on those values and, in turn, themselves. Each sculpture is a cultural and social statement.”

“There are too many conflicting forces driving us individually and collectively – foreign trends and local aspirations, money and self-contentment, appearances and substance,” says Chan. “Only when they are balanced it’s possible to reach harmony, and then happiness. With HAHA PANDA, I want to address all those issues.” he says.

For the first time in Hong Kong, Dennis Chan’s HAHA PANDA installation will be on display at LANDMARK. Experience it in person from 10th to 24th May at LANDMARK ATRIUM and LANDMARK PRINCE’S.