Judging from the excitement of the audience in the jam-packed auditorium of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Wallace Chan’s illustrious career has moved from being a celebrated contemporary artist and master craftsman to full-fledged celebrity. He said the following day during an interview it’s a status he’s not entirely comfortable with.
“I’m happy being an artist,” the Chinese native and Hong Kong resident said through an interpreter. “There are many celebrities in the world from different sectors. But I’m just an artist trying to create. If I think of myself as a celebrity I’ll probably fall into the trap of that label and be confined by that title. I just want to be myself and to be free.”
Chan opened the “Talk” speaker series at the venerable museum in London where he discussed his goal of creating works of art that will live for “infinity.” At the age of 67, he celebrated his 50th year as a creator with the largest exhibition of his works at Christie’s London headquarters, which ended September 10. It is the first time in the 257-year history of Christie’s that its original headquarters in the tony Mayfair neighborhood has house held an exhibition of this size, a Christie’s spokesperson told me. The three rooms dedicated for the exhibition on the second floor are usually used for auctions. Chan not only created the artworks and sculptures, but created the various display cases and designed the overall appearance of the rooms.
During the two days I attended the exhibition, any sighting of Chan drew crowds of people, wanting to take selfies with him or just be in his presence.
His September 7 presentation at the V&A was one of the events surrounding the weeklong Christie’s exhibition. He spoke for about 30 minutes in English. It was followed by a question-and-answer session led by Emefa Cole, V&A curator of jewelry (diaspora) and an accomplished jewelry creator in her own. But even the professional paused a couple of times awed by Chan’s presence and by some of his long, complex and compelling answers. For this portion he spoke in Mandarin that was translated.
The theme of his talk was based on a traditional Chinese expression, “Everything, big or small, is infinite.”
“It suggests that regardless of size or scale, there is infinity within all things,” Chan told the audience. “It means that even the smallest or seemingly insignificant elements have the potential for greatness and limitless depth. It encourages us to recognize that the grandeur of the universe and existence can be found within the tiniest details, and that there is a continuous interconnectedness between the microcosm and the macrocosm.”
He said this expression serves as a foundation for all of his work. That whether working with minute gems and diamonds or using these materials as building blocks for his large and complex jewels, this idea of big and small being interconnected is a constant.
One of the new pieces Chan unveiled at the exhibition was the “Legend of the Color Black,” centered with a black diamond weighing 312.24 carats, making it one of the largest cut black diamonds in the world. He told the audience that he was inspired to use this gem to create a shoulder brooch combining his fascination of the human DNA and neurons as the building block of life combined with the mysterious nature of a black diamond.
The brooch, as seen in the exhibition, is an extremely large and colorful piece that balances on one’s shoulder using mechanical and design techniques. The black diamond sits like a throne encased in colorful titanium and Wallace Chan’s proprietary unbreakable porcelain, along with sapphires and diamonds. Below the diamond is an equally large, faceted crystal that serves as a visual counterpoint to the black diamond.
“You try to look into it, but it is just all black. There is no light. Yet it comes with so much depth, as if it contained nothing and everything,” he said. “I am not a scientist. So, I fill the gaps of knowledge with artistic liberty and cultural interpretations. The black diamond is the center stone. With incredible magnitude, it rests like a king upon a throne. Its weight anchors the brooch, being in constant negotiation with gravity. Under the stone is a crystal structure, which is the yang to its yin.”
He continued, “Every work of mine is either a self-portrait or a metaphor of the creative process. An artist sculpts not only with intention but with purpose, like how nature sculpts neurons through synaptic pruning. The delicate balance of creation and deconstruction mirrors the artistic process itself. Every stroke finds its place and every unnecessary element is delicately pruned away. The brooch’s structure, a painstaking result of both artistry and engineering, finds its roots in sculpted titanium, a reflection of the axons that stretch like branches of thought, seeking connection, communicating across the neural landscapes.”
Chan’s numerous oversized and detailed bejeweled butterfly creations over the years has earned him the nickname “butterfly man.”
He says he isn’t trying to accurately depict the insect but instead he uses the creative process to tell its story.
“The vastness of our world, filled with infinite wonders, is often taken for granted. On the wings of my butterflies, I seek to remind people of the grandeur and mystery of the world. Every ripple, every flutter, every twist in the wind can be seen as an event of immense significance, if only we take a moment to truly see,” he told the audience. “It is transcendence. It is also an escape. A dreamscape for me is where boundaries blur and anything, everything is possible.”
His ability for turning insects into oversized bejeweled sculptures, doesn’t end with butterflies. For example, he famously sculpted a cicada using jade, titanium and a mix of colorful gems into a shoulder brooch, he named “Stilled Life.” He then created a stand for the insect, having it rest on bright green bejeweled leaves supported by titanium made to appear like bamboo, turning the jewel into an art object. Still not satisfied, he built a “house” for the piece, actually a three-dimensional frame.
“The marvels of nature need no replication, and the past is in the past,” he told the audience. “As an artist my vision was to create a jade cicada that both honors deep-rooted traditions and captures the contemporary spirit. In future centuries, at least a few hundred years from my life, my cicada will stand as an embodiment of our times.”
One thing that seems to weigh heavily on Chan is his mortality. He says he will spend the rest of his days working and creating things that will continue to live on well after his death.
“Whether on a grand scale or in minute details, my pursuit is always infinity. If I am very fortunate, I will live to the grand old age of 120, giving me 50 more years to live. But when I work, I am working on a timeline much, much longer than what this body of flesh and blood promises. When I am no longer here on this earth, my works will continue to exist. My work transcends not only my reality, but also my life and my time.”