Simon Kaan describes his work as ‘biological landscapes’, animated vistas that piece together a sense of belonging and explore a multi-dimensional sense of self. The images he creates, like the work of the late Ralph Hotere, can be viewed through an allegorical window.
Born in Sawyers Bay in Dunedin in 1971, Kaan has been working for two decades now, since graduating from the Otago Polytechnic School of Art in 1993. At art school Kaan specialised in printmaking, a practice he was taught by Maori educationalist and printmaker Marilynn Webb and Barry Cleavin, a maker of etchings.
As well as having a dedicated printmaking practice Kaan also paints. His painting he says extends from his printmaking base, including notions of reduction. Like Chinese ink and wash works, Kaan’s paintings and prints are not just straightforward reproductions; his work is more of an attempt to capture the intangible or the spirit of a subject. Using a restrained colour palette, often monochromatic or sometimes monochromatic with a single burst of colour, Kaan’s landscapes are uncluttered, contemplative and leave space, as writer Claire Finlayson proposed, for a viewer to ‘breathe’.
They feature signature motifs including striations across the painting or print surface, reminiscent of lines seen in Ngai Tahu rock drawings, horizon lines between sky and sea or simply divisions referencing different realms of spiritual space. Other repeated motifs include a solitary waka, which Kaan has said is a representation of himself. Mokihi-like, the waka is symbolic of a Ngai Tahu form, a vessel that connects people, land, water and resources. Read another way, the waka relates to ideas of movement and migration; a symbol of Kaan’s Chinese heritage and his position as a member of a diasporic cultural community.
Born in Dunedin to a Ngai Tahu mother, it is not surprising Kaan says his whakapapa and strong sense of his Ngai Tahu heritage, has grounded him in the cultural and physical local landscape, the subject of many of his paintings. His Chinese heritage, which comes through his late father and his migrant Chinese grandparents, has had equal influence and is as interwoven within his work as it is within him as an individual.
Kaan’s most recent paintings feature muted colour, hints of aqua green amongst the nuanced tonality of brown, black and white, and contain misty, floating landscapes; images of unyielding landmasses within waterscapes. The striations in past works are gone, the format of the compositions more vertical. His new images are less empty, are structured more formally and highlight the fluidity and shimmering effect of water.
He has recently also added performance, artist constructed social experiences or ‘relational aesthetics’ to his repertoire. In The Asian, a project first shown in Dunedin, then in Auckland, Kaan invited visitors to the gallery to have lunch with him via Skype. The eating and sharing of food is important culturally to both Chinese and Maori culture. Using food as a binder, Kaan created a ritualised, communal and culturally engaged experience via technology.
Essay by Megan Tamati Quennell
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