Wallace Chan: TOTEM
TLmag spoke to artist and jewellery designer, Wallace Chan, ahead of his new exhibition, TOTEM, which opened in Venice on April 20th.
Whether it is an intricate piece of unique jewellery or life-sized sculptures, multi-talented artist and designer, Wallace Chan, is a master of materials and technique. His exquisite gem-studded jewellery and impactful artwork are made with thoughtful intention and precision, grounded in his practice as a Buddhist and an experienced craftsman.
TLmag: Tell us how the exhibition “TOTEM” came about? The sculptures are part of an earlier work but reassembled specifically for this exhibition space?
Wallace Chan: The work on exhibit is indeed my 10-metre sculpture, which I showed in Shanghai last year, now unassembled in Fondaco Marcello. It is part of my ‘A Dialogue between Materials and Time’ series, “TITANS XIV”. Curator James Putnam and I were originally looking for a space to show the complete sculpture, however, as we continued to work on the exhibition, we felt that we should just leave it unassembled, so as to address the idea of fragmented reality and uncertainty, which has been a big theme in our lives, at least in the past two years. In a way, we have also “opened up” the sculpture, so the viewers become part of it when they walk into the exhibition. I am all about travelling freely between art forms and having a sculpture on exhibit unassembled is my attempt to defy the definition of sculpture as an art form.
TLmag: Is this your first time exhibiting in Venice? What is the exhibition space like?
W.C.: I exhibited in Venice for the first time last year My exhibition was titled “TITANS: A Dialogue Between Materials, Space and Time”, which travelled on to Canary Wharf [in London] earlier this year, as part of the district’s public art programme. TOTEM is my second exhibition in Venice, and I continue to exhibit at Fondaco Marcello, a 15th century architectural warehouse located right by the Grand Canal. For some unknown reasons, the space reminds me of The Listening Room, a painting by René Magritte. What I adore about the space is that, sometimes, with the right sunlight, the water reflections appear like waves on the walls. I feel that it carries a sense of poetic beauty.
TLmag: The title of the exhibition, “TOTEM”, has a spiritual meaning and connects to your practice as a Buddhist. Could you talk about this?
W.C.: I spent six months as a monk in 2001. During my meditations, I saw versions of myself in different sizes – like the faces in TOTEM – appearing, disappearing and reappearing. I tried to assemble these different versions of myself into one. Totem, which refers to an esteemed ancestral spirit, represents ancestral spirits or guardians. They represent the belief that everything has a soul. This is why it is my goal to create lasting pieces of art – because they are not lifeless objects, but my connection to the universe.
TLmag: You have worked with titanium for a while now, particularly with your jewellery collection on which you created the Wallace Cut. What is it about this material that attracts you?
W.C.: I read about titanium in a newspaper article back in the early 2000s. It was an article about the pacemaker, a medical device for the heart. I was immediately intrigued. At that time, I was looking for a metal that could realise my visions in jewellery, a metal that could be turned into light but also be a strong structure for my stones. When I saw that titanium was not only light and strong but also biofriendly and colourful, I decided to give it a go. It took me eight years to “tame” titanium because it is stubborn and rigid. It comes with a melting point of 1700 degrees Celsius and strong memory. One can imagine how difficult it is to find a material that can withstand the heat and become its mould, let alone carving on it and inspiring natural colour gradient on it. The complex, difficult, and time-consuming process explains why titanium is rarely used in art. It is a popular metal for the science, aerospace, and medical sectors, but its potential has yet to be fully explored. Every artist has their own ideal for art. My whole life, I have only ever wanted to create things that are meant to last–to stand the test of time. This idea is reflected by the materials I use. Titanium, to me, is a natural choice. I don’t follow specific rules when it comes to the creative process. If I have to hammer or carve on a piece of titanium to get the lines, forms, and shapes in my mind, I’ll just do it. If I have to assemble a large-scale titanium sculpture like setting a piece of jewellery, so be it. As mentioned, titanium is rigid. Even at its melting point, it is reluctant to move. But with my sculptures, I strive to convey a sense of fluidity and rhythm with titanium, creating the illusion that shaping the metal is as easy as twisting a towel. Only people who know the metal will know the truth.
TLmag: You move between jewellery and sculpture in a very fluid way. Does one practice influence the other? Do you often get ideas from designing jewellery and think, this might work on a large scale or vice versa?
W.C.: My creative process is not a linear process. It is full of surprises and chaos and I always work on many, many projects at the same time. I find it rather stimulating. It is as if the projects were able to exchange information and inspiration among themselves, and such exchange often led to unexpected outcome. I think it is important to be able to transcend – isn’t that what art is supposed to do? It makes transcendence possible for us. With art, I travel between the big and the small, the past and the future, the East and the West.
TOTEM is on view from April 20 – October 23, 2022.