The Tempestuous Life of a gallery (Lee Ka-Sing Gallery 2000-2005)

 


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JUNGLE LINE

The Tempestuous Life of a gallery
written by Holly Lee

 


A photograph of the Candy Factory Lofts taken in 2021, looking across from the north side of Queen Street West. From the main entrance and after climbing a flight of stairs, the previous LEE KA-SING gallery was situated at the first unit on the right.



Sweet Halloween to Sweet Home (Lee Ka-Sing Gallery 2000-2005)

I first saw the name Candy Factory Lofts in the real estate page, from either the Globe & Mail or the Toronto Star. It was a big advertisement, selling the candy factory as a converted loft, a six-storeys post and beam condo that would generate 121 spectacular suites. Located downtown on Queen Street West, though still close to the centre, it was quite a few blocks west of Bathurst street - an area considered at that time shady, and a bit off the grid. When I mentioned this location to my friend, who’d lived in Toronto for almost ten years, he advised me to stay away. In fact my friend lived in Markham, a city of the Greater Toronto Area, where we also set foot after arriving in 1997. We always thought we lived in Toronto - yes, but in the GTA, and under the recommendation of our friend, in Markham. In the past we knew nothing about Toronto, except it was considered the largest, busiest and most populous in Canada. Out of ignorance we hardly knew Ontario. I came from a small city of six millions and my brain is always capsulized by the concept of small territory, compact, accessibility and high density. Ontario is huge, but downtown Toronto had only a million people, even if you add up the population from the Greater Toronto area, when we settled down in Markham in 1997, the number was still less than five million.

My curiosity of the lofts urged me take a slow trip by subway and then streetcar to Queen Street West. Not that bad really, by New York standard, we’d seen worse. Candy Factory Lofts was located just west of Trinity Bellwood Parks, a pretty calm area, I found not only the name sweet, the price of the converted lofts was also attractive. From our experience it’s not unusual for people to live in lofts in New York, in fact a few of our artist friends did, but we also knew the idea of “real” loft living was very new in Canada at that time, and this might be the beginning of such a trend that people would find exciting. And we certainly thought that, not just any people would love to live in lofts, but those who made an effort down to the open house that weekend, in late 1998, would be the kind with unrestrained character and venturous spirit, perhaps a bit like us?


LEE KA-SING gallery in 2000, looking out to Queen Street West.



After we acquired a small unit (the closest to the public stair exit), and hindered by several delays, we finally moved into the Candy Lofts. We used it as a photo gallery. It was just the millennium, but within a short few years we saw big changes. First the opening of the cool Drake Hotel on Valentine’s Day in 2004, followed by the art-teeming Gladstone Hotel. MOCCA, the former Art Gallery of North York relocated also to “Queen West” in 2005 and instantly became an art magnate. Suddenly the area where we moved into turned hustling and bustling, full of people visiting, eager to emerge and share a contemporary life of art and culture, with good wine and dine. The stretch from where we anchored kept shifting west, and came to be known as West Queen West - the fashion and art district in downtown Toronto, flourished with galleries, boutiques, Café, bars, designer stores. People came here to entertain, to gallery opening parties, to drink to socialize and to have fun. In fact, a decade-and-a-half ago Queen Street West was named by Vogue as one of the coolest streets in the world, and we were in the middle of it.

The transformation of Queen Street West, in retrospect, was the beginning of Toronto’s downtown housing market boom. Looking from another angle, it was also the gradual degradation of a once vibrant, multifaceted, invigorating neighbourhood to a maze of multi-storied, formulaic and disengaged condos. All it took was twenty years, we witnessed the so called gentrification as more developers scurried in to share the pie - and took away the buoyancy, the aesthetically stimulating character of the street.  

In 2000 we launched our gallery on Queen Street West. It was one of the earliest, if not the earliest to operate in that area. Once a candy factory (Ce De Candy Factory 1963-1988) churning out the quintessential Halloween candy known as “Rockets”, the converted lofts now looked large and spectacular, with a soaring ceiling height from 12 to 14 feet, sand blasted exposed brick, plank hardwood floor, beams and columns and sleek finishes. Since the suites were designed like open studios, before we moved in we were allowed to make basic changes in the floor plan. I remember talking to the sales executive, someone who called Ann on the loft site. Laying down our floor plan on the marble-top kitchen island we penciled to reposition light tracks according to the need of our gallery. Apart from that we didn’t change much. Our loft was on the first floor, the smallest unit in the building occupying a little under 900 square feet. The day we moved in we were totally awestruck by the beautiful finishing, the exposed original brick wall, the polished hard wood floor, and the most impressive feature of the studio - the huge arch window opening to the Queen Street. Even though it was a double pane window, we could still hear the squealing cable cars running up and down the street.


When we moved into the loft we adhered a big vinyl lettering of OP fotogallery on the large window, but the building management forbade us doing it. By making use the family name, we decided to change the gallery name to LEE fotogallery. Ka-Sing hand-crafted a wooden sculpture of "L E E" and sat it on the window ledge. The sculpture, which could be read from both inside and outside, could then serve as a signage. In 2001, we decided to revise the name straightly to "LEE, KA-SING gallery", the "L E E" was still serving as a logo.



While running our gallery in the Candy Lofts we saw an influx of galleries along the West Queen West strip. From across our window operated Angell, Spin and New Gallery. To the west of Shaw Street was an important line up of Clint Roenisch, MOCCA, Edward Day, Stephen Bulgar and Paul Petro. Further west followed by KM Contemporary Art Projects (Katherine Mulherin first opened BUSgallery in Parkdale, later adding venues such as 1080BUS, BOARD OF DIRECTORS and some more others on Queen Street West). The long stretch of QSW carried on with more galleries, a mixed bag of commercial and artist-runs like Deleon White, Luft, Propeller, Zsa Zsa, InterAccess, 1313, Circa…and some others that I’d forgotten. And oh, I was just reminded that of a gargantuan 3,000-square-foot gallery/studio called the Thrush Holmes Empire at Queen and Dovercourt. Its splashy, red carpet style inaugural opening in 2007 created quite a stir.

We were in fact existing in the heyday of West Queen West, sharing part of its illustrious, over decade-long art activities and history.

 

For the first two years, we placed advertisements in PHOTOGRAPHY IN NEW YORK. PNY was a bimonthly guide publication for gallery goers and collectors, in which every issue covered a comprehensive listing of photography exhibitions in New York, as well as over a hundred photo exhibition ads. Every time when we visited New York it was our habit to grab a copy of PNY and used it like a bible to navigate the great number of photography exhibitions in the city.


A narrow window onto Asian photography

We opened City Detour, our inaugural exhibition in the Candy loft in February 2000. Connecting and acknowledging our roots from Hong Kong and Asia, we also aimed to bridge up activities from the Hong Kong gallery (OP fotogallery, partially supported by art funding) to the Toronto gallery - although totally self-financed, we still named it as OP fotogallery, Toronto. From the existing work of five photographers, we curated a show exploring the universal theme of city. How to define a city in visual terms, especially your city, in the context of being there, seeing and peeling the many layers off its core, tasting, nibbling different textures and in doing so, retelling the experiences through photography? In the exhibition there were four Hong Kong photographers: Patrick Lee, Malaysian Chinese, a medical practitioner who uses photography as his spiritual therapy; Ringo Tang, a talented commercial photographer showing strong tendency in pursuing fine art; Leung Chi-Wo, an active visual artist who had represented Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001; Lee Ka-Sing, photographer and artist and one of the founders of DISLOCATION magazine in Hong Kong. The fifth photographer was Yao Jui-Chung, a Taiwanese artist who also represented Taiwan at the Venice Biennale in 1997. The scale of the exhibition was not large, but it had introduced to Toronto audience some of the movers and shakers in contemporary Hong Kong and Taiwanese art. From here, we were able to open up a small window to include distinguished Asian, especially Japanese, Chinese and Korean artists, such as Araki Nobuyoshi, Hideo Suzuki, Xing DanWen, Tseng Kwong-Chi and Park Hong-Chun. We felt glad that Asian contemporary photography, hot and much sought after in the established art world but largely unfamiliar to the Canadians, had finally made its presence in this multicultural city, little realizing that its voice had a hard time to be heard, and a market that was almost nonexistent.

CITY DETOUR, our inaugural exhibition in 2000. Work by Patrick Lee, Ringo Tang, Leung Chi-Wo, Lee Ka-Sing, Yao Jui-Chung.


Yao Jui-Chung (on left) in front of his photographs. Yao Jui-Chung's photo exhibition Savage Paradise was held in 2000, while we were still living in Markham. The night after the installation, we all went for dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Markham, where I parked my car right outside. After dinner getting back to our car we were alarmed that the car's window at the passenger's seat was broken, Yao's new cameras and my video camera were stolen at the same time. It was our carelessness despite warnings from our friends about keeping things that looked valuable out of sight when we left the car. To compensate Yao's loss, we proposed to purchase two of his large photographs, one of which featured a Sauroposeidon strolling in a deserted amusement park. 



From Erotos to Obscenities

Ka-Sing has long been familiar with the work of Nobuyoshi Araki through publications. Araki’s books and monographs, from the Xerox Photo Album in the early 70s to the collaboration with Juergen Teller in the publication Life and Death in 2020, has reached well over 500. Ka-Sing came to know Araki personally in 1997, when he was invited to be one of the judges along with Araki, Iizawa Kohtaro (one of the top photo critics in Japan) and Fumio Nanjo (renown Biennale curator) for the annual competition of the Tokyo-based Cosmo Photography. After our gallery opened officially in Toronto, we began planning to bring Araki’s work as our presentation during CONTACT, the Toronto annual photography festival in May. We were able to show Erotos - a suite of over forty-eight black and white 20 x 24 inch silver prints, which was shown earlier in the 1998 São Paulo Biennial and kept in the Luring Augustine Gallery in New York. We were so thrilled and filled with excitement to be able to show work of this influential Japanese photographer in Toronto. What we did not expect was the lack of response. Despite the fame and stardom he received in Asia and Europe, it seemed that not a lot of people knew about his work here in Canada. In contrast, during the festival two individuals came up to us at different times, with the expression of shock and awe, unable to believe that they were able to find Araki’s work in town. Of course, after careful inspection, they wasted no time to collect some work.

Erotos, an exhibition by Araki Nobuyoshi


Tseng Kwong-Chi 曾廣智 (1950-90) was active in the New York art scene in the 1980s, his circle of friends included Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman. The exhibition Citizen of The World was selected from his famous self-portrait series East meets West.


Apart from selling art, I guess our true nature is clinging closer to exploring and making inquiries into visual art, especially photography, its expression and development. One of the guide lines we took in the gallery was never shy away from showing works that were notably controversial and challenging. After Araki, we were able to work with Canadian photographers Diana Thorneycroft, P.E. Sharpe and Simon Glass. We’d also introduced Xing DanWen, her China Avant-Garde series, Hong Kong’s Almond Chu and Evangelo Costadimas - the latter EC is Canadian, moved to Hong Kong and produced evocative work. He is deeply inspired by Araki’s way to working.


Still-life: stilled lives, an exhibition by Diana Thorneycroft.


Quebec connection and International touch

When still in Hong Kong running NuNaHeDuo (DISLOCATION) and the OP Print Program, we came across many photographers from abroad, Serge Clément was one of them. A Canadian born in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, less than an hour’s drive to Montréal, he was our connection to other Montréal photographers such as Michel Campeau, Normand Rajotte and Bertrand Carrière. From the mid-nineties Serge Clément traveled to Hong Kong many times to explore and photograph the city, he was not an unfamiliar figure and had been considered one of the many local active photographers around that time. We featured his work in DISLOCATION and invited him into the OP Print Program. From photographs taken in Hong Kong and Shanghai between 1995 and 2002, he produced the book Parfum de Lumière / Fragrant Light in 2000, and a nine-minute animated version for the National Film Board of Canada (2002). When we set up the gallery in Toronto we wanted very much to exhibit his work, but he had already been represented by another gallery so it would be a conflict of interest. The 8 x 10 photographs in the OP Print Program were exempt from this rule as they were made outside of Canada. So fittingly we exhibited his work in the 810@LEE series, along with other artists who had committed to the OP Print Program.

In the early years of gallery practice, we were also keen to exhibit international photography. Our good fortune of meeting Laura Barrón led us to a stellar cast of other Mexican photographers, and as a result we were able to organize a show dedicated to Mexican Contemporary Photography in 2002. Later we also met and arranged shows for Sadegh Tirafkan (1965-2013), an Iranian well-known photographer who had produced profoundly beautiful work tightly-knit to Iran’s history, culture and politics. Our curiosity ushered us to explore further, to another unfamiliar territory like Poland, where we befriended the editor Ireneusz Zjezdzalka (1972-2008) of the Polish photo magazine Fotografia, and showed his black and white work in our gallery. With his help, we came to know a few more photographers; Patrycja Orzechowska, Pawel Zak, Wojciech Wilczyk and Jerzy Wierzbicki, all of whom I briefly wrote about in the October 2003 issue of FOTOPOST. Two years later, after the gallery had moved to Gladstone Avenue we were able to show a substantial body of Patrycja Orzechowska’s innovative and beautiful work during the photo month of CONTACT in 2007.


Seven Visions: Mexican Contemporary Photography (2002). Left: work by Hildegart Oloarte. Right: on brick wall were photographs by Laura Barrón.


New Voices from Toronto

We have always loved the energy and new perspectives a younger generation of photographers could bring. We explored the city through photography exhibitions in commercial galleries and artist-run centres and encountered a wide range of works. We met Jennifer Long, a young visual artist who obtained her BAA (Photographic Arts) at Ryerson University, and worked at Gallery 44 at that time. It was probably through Jennifer that we succeeded in organizing PUNCH in the Winter of 2002 - an exhibition of seven budding photographers, all of whom studied in the Ryerson University. The participates were Chris Curreri, John Fiorucci, Jennifer Long, Hugh Martin, Lindsay Page, Tim Saltarelli and Balint Zsako. We became so infatuated with the freshness of the work that we decided to produce PUNCH II in 2004, and subsequently, merely a few months after we’d relocated to 50 Gladstone, we put up the phenomenal PUNCH III in 2006 - filling all two floors with remarkable photographs by ten promising photographers. It was also after the first PUNCH exhibition that we approached Balint Zsako to represent his work, and organized the show Zsako vs Photography in the Fall of 2003.    


PUNCH 2002. A postcard we produced to announce the exhibition.


PUNCH II (2004) A postcard we produced for the exhibition. At the back we announced the project of an E-Zine we were to publish for the photographers involved in the PUNCH exhibition.


Reaching out

Our gallery started to build bridges in as early as 2000. We reached out to the Japan Foundation Toronto (JFT) and co-presented with their gallery, which was then at Bloor Street West, to host the Japanese photographer Hideo Suzuki’s work. JFT had a huge gallery space and it could be partitioned into individual rooms for exhibitions, projections, seminars or other functions. Suzuki’s exhibition Family of Fantasy (May, 2000) comprised several bodies of work and in the end we had to take up most of the space. Advancing to 2002, Juno Youn, an artist and also a committee member of Gendai Gallery in Don Mills contacted us for organizing an exhibition of Araki’s work from our inventory. We had collaborated with them to present Erotos in their gallery.


Exhibition Invitation card by Gendai Gallery for Araki's show Erotos in 2002.


Amidst larger exhibitions we ran a smaller project called 810, showing photographs only in the size of 8 x 10 inch. We had a whole collection of OP Prints in this format and were still working with photographers to produce prints fit into this project. In our gallery, we used the rear portion, a little corner space to feature these works. We called it 810@LEE. Similarly, we exposed these works outside the gallery, in a furniture and interior design retail store called Fluid Living on Queen and Bathurst, and we called it 810@FluidLiving. Life was complicated knittings of big and small things. The next big thing we attempted was participating the Toronto Art Fair (2002). Exposure is the key to open more doors, more possibilities - but that does not necessary guarantee success.

 


Toronto Art Fair 2002 catalogue. LEE Ka-Sing Gallery featured two images inside the brochure - left: Diana Thorneycroft; right: Araki Nobuyoshi.

Smaller art fairs in alternative venues, such as hotels were all the rage in that era, and that spread over to Toronto in 2004, when the TAAFI Collective (Toronto alternative Art Fair International Collective ) kickstarted in October that year, almost around the time of the Toronto Art Fair. It used two hotels, The Drake and Gladstone and twenty two rooms to present art. Some rooms were rented as ‘booths’ to galleries while others were sponsored to show artists works. We participated this little event and transformed room 202 of the Drake Hotel into a makeshift gallery, displaying art in the sitting room, bathroom and on bed. The opening was jam-packed with people, the fair became the talk of the town, it went on for four days. We were excited and exhausted all the same, meeting and talking to fairly large number of people, and during the confusion, we became distracted and less watchful, as a result we turned out to be victim of the event - some of Simon Glass and Diana Thorneycroft’s 8 x10 inch prints were stolen in the opening night without knowing until the next day. Though very upset we considered that a good lesson learnt, hoping our ill fortune would stop there, it did not.


TAFFI 2004 at the Drake Hotel. We paid for a corner suite which had a sitting area, a bedroom and a shower room. Virtually every space was utilized to display artwork from the roster of artists we brought in. I remember P. Elaine Sharpe even attached a short fiction on the shower room's glass door.


It's time now to talk about another art fair, which took place south of the border. At the end of Summer in 2005, we laboured over two months to prepare for the Affordable Art Fair in New York. We paid for the fair and shipped all the artworks, even booked the hotel the fair organizer recommended. But the day we departed for New York we were stopped at the border, immigration won’t let us through because we were attending the art fair, which meant we were doing business in the United States. We didn’t know that we have to have a business partner in the US in order to participate the art fair, so we were sent back. It was a big blow, we felt demoralized for the rest of the month. The first opportunity to work internationally had vanished along with a big chunk of money. Was it human error or fate?

Perhaps it was both. But what we didn’t know was we were about to change, it was the harbinger of a brave new beginning, an audacious transformation, a herculean step away from our safe and comfort zone.

At one point, the failure to attend the art fair in New York had hastened us to hammer our decision of a significant move. We needed a place with greater visibility and more open access. It ended up in the Spring of 2006, despite all the obstacles, we managed to relocate our gallery a few more blocks west just before Dufferin street, to 50 Gladstone Avenue, where we continued to operate actively for the next twelve years.

 

At below: a seletion of posters we produced for publicity of our events. These posters were 12 by 18 inch, printed on photographic paper. Normally only one copy for each event was made.

 

 

An incomplete list of exhibitions from 2000 to 2005

Feb 1-Mar 4, 2000
City Detour (Inaugural Exhibition): Patrick Lee, Ringo Tang, Leung Chi-Wo, Lee Ka-Sing, Yao Jui-Chung

Mar 8-Apr 8, 2000
Hideo Suzuki: pater noster

Apr 12-May 6, 2000
Wong Hung-Fei: Mammals

May 10-Jun 17, 2000
Nobuyoshi Araki: Erotos

May 12-Jun 3, 2000
Hideo Suzuki: Family of Fantasy

Jun 21-Jul 15, 2000
Ngan Chun-Tung: Vintage Photographs 1950-70

Aug -Sep 2, 2000
Yao Jui-Chung: Savage Paradise

Sep 6-Oct 28, 2000
Amond Chu: Life Still

Nov 4-Dec 23, 2000
Bodywork: Mamoru Horiguchi, Nobuyoshi Araki, Almond Chu, Evangelo Costadimas and Paul Sabol

Dec 27-Feb 15, 2001
Wong Hung-Fei: Fish, Dream, Mammal

Feb 22-Mar 24, 2001
Masahiko Yamashita: Labyrinth

Feb 28-Apr 21, 2001
PAELLLLA 1, 2: Paul Sabol, Lau Ching-Ping, Serge Clement, Yao Jui-Chung, Lee Ka-Sing, Evangelo Costadimas and others

May 2-Jun 9, 2001
Yau Leung: Photographs from the OP Collection

Jun 23-Jul 28, 2001
Ying-Kit Chan: Industrial Landscape

Aug 29-Oct 6, 2001
Mamoru Horiguchi: 1/8

Oct 13-Nov 24, 2001
Light Canvas: Christopher Doyle, Allan Edgar, Holly Lee, Bohdan Vandiak, Wong Shun-Kit, Yao Jui-Chung

Nov 24-Dec 15, 2001
Ringo Tang: Autonomous City

Dec 19-Jan 26, 2002
Punch: Chris Curreri, John Fiorucci, Jennifer Long, Hugh Martin, Lindsay Page, Tim Saltarelli, Balint Zsako



Thru Mar 9, 2002
Yao Jui-Chung: Libido of Death

Mar 13-Apr 20, 2002
Michel Campeau: Arborescences



Apr 25-May 18, 2002
Threats and Promises: Rineke Dijkstra, Toni Hafkensheid



May 22-Jun 15, 2002
Xing Danwen: China Avant-Garde (93-98)



Jun 29-Jul 27, 2002
Seven Visions: Mexican Contemporary Photography - Mauricio Alejo, Laura Barron, Ximena Berecochea, Mariana Gruener, Gerardo Montiel Klint, Enrique Mendez, Hildegart Oloarte



Sep 4-Oct 12, 2002
Diana Thorneycroft: Still-life: stilled lives


Sep 7, 2002
Simon Glass: Seventy-Two Names of God

Oct 26-Dec 7, 2002
Hideo Suzuki: The Sun of Eden Series



Dec 14-Jan 25, 2003
Stone and Water: Elaine Ling, Katherine Knight



Feb 1-Mar 29, 2003
Leung Chi-Wo: City Mapping: Rough Cuts



Apr 23-Jun 14, 2003
Tseng Kwong-Chi: Citizen of The World

Jun 18-Aug 2, 2003
Balint Zsako: Zsako vs Photography

Sep 10-Oct 25, 2003
A Souvenir of Place: Park Hong-Chun, P. Elaine Sharpe



Nov - Dec, 2003
So Hing Keung

Jan 16-Feb 29, 2004
Punch II: Chris Curreri, John Fiorucci, Jennifer Long, Lindsay Page, Tim Saltarelli, Balint Zsako

Mar 23-Apr 3, 2004
Virginia Mak: Oh, Ominous Sunshine

Apr 23-Jun 12, 2004
P.E. Sharpe: unanswered: witness

May 19-Jun 12, 2004
Sadegh Tirafkan: Iranian man (Part II), Secret of words

Jun 15-Jul 31, 2004
Hiromi Hoshino: Impressions of South China

Jun 15-Jul 31, 2004
Simon Glass: Tohu Vebohu

Sep 8-25, 2004
Dislocation Re-launch, 79 artists

Sep 8-Oct 23, 2004
anothermountainman: redwhiteblue



Mar 5-Apr 2, 2005
Bettina Hoffmann: sweets

Apr 9-30, 2005
(Sur)real - Ireneusz Zjezdzalka, Patrycja Orzechowska

May 3-28, 2005
Patrick Lee: Look!


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Holly and Ka-sing currently live in Toronto with their daughter Iris, and their cat Sukimoto. Contact with email at - mail@leekasing.com / holly@xpecial.com

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