A dialogue on spirituality in art and the importance of listening, from nature to… titanium.
On the occasion of his exhibition TOTEM at Fondaco Marcello in Venice, which opened on April 19, 2022, I interviewed British curator James Putnam and Chinese artist and sculptor Wallace Chan, a multifaceted personality who manages to look at the world through the lens of spirituality, which is strongly present as much in his personal life as in his art. Speaking with Chan, it feels as if time dilates and stabilizes us in an eternal and soothing state of calmness, almost as the impressive sculptures that lie in the space of the Fondaco Marcello seem to suggest.
I would like to start with the choice of the title of this exhibition, TOTEM. Can you explain more about the relationship with Totemism?
W.C.: To me, in very simple terms, one can find Totems in different cultures and different countries. It’s a way to connect people with the universe, gods or whatever they want to believe in or get in touch with – or also nature. I feel that the Totem conveys a sense of power and a hope that is always there for people to connect with.
My earliest memory about a Totem is in a Chinese temple: I was inside the temple and I saw the container used for burning incense. I saw the Totems of lions, dragons, rabbits, and all of these were man’s way of trying to connect with gods through the images of these different animals. These Chinese memories are really strong for me because that’s how I understood Totems. So, I was talking about the exhibition with James Putnam, the curator, and he came up with the title TOTEM, and I immediately felt a strong connection to it.
So, your spiritual and religious path also has a great influence on your artistic choices?
W.C.: Yes, absolutely, the artistic process is like a spiritual practice to me. When you practice spiritually you also try to transcend your physical body, you transcend the material world and you’re trying to get to the spiritual world in order to achieve a high level of wisdom. I feel that my artistic practice is quite similar because I need to empty myself and try to communicate with the immaterial, to minimize my own existence and really go into the world of the immaterial to explore the unknown.
How does the decision to break down the work and expand it on the floor relate the exhibition to the space of Fondaco Marcello?
J.P.: We wanted to show the sculpture in pieces as a kind of reflection of the uncertainty of the time. We thought that by displaying it in pieces was a kind of metaphor for the confusion that reigns over the world. The sculpture itself is symbolic of mother nature, and so the whole exhibition was designed to relate humanity with nature, the microcosm to the macrocosm, but it also fits with the general theme of the Biennale which is all about how man has interfered with nature. You can also notice the sound, the music is based on the frequency of the Earth turning around the Sun and we have 5 speakers in the space, so when you walk through the exhibition you can hear different sounds, and this is supposed to be a healing sound.
The diagram on the wall represents the fully assembled sculpture, and it’s kind of alluding to the idea that the human race has to put the sculpture together, almost as a way of repairing nature, and that’s why we thought it was important and more powerful to show it disassembled. It also appears rather like an archeological site of a civilization that has come to an end but which can still be rebuilt: that’s the idea behind having the diagram right there, with the sculpture assembled.
Can you also tell me a little bit more about the choice of materials?
W.C.: I’m trying to look for materials that will embody my own existence and also last for many more years, even after I’m gone; so, titanium to me is a material that is close to eternity because it will stay at least for a few hundred years or even longer.
People think that it is very difficult to work with titanium and it’s not worth the time, but I’m looking at a timeline of a hundred years, and it became a very worthwhile material for me, I spent 8 years experimenting with it and finally I began making sculptures.
In addition, every material has a character, a personality and when I work with a material it speaks to me; for example, titanium is very stubborn and it doesn’t like to rest but it is also very passionate and it will last.
Why do you want artworks to survive humanity?
W.C.: Because it’s all about passing on, what you get from the past, what you build in the present and then what you leave to the future. It’s important for me that even one day, when I’m no longer here, people could see my works, and they will serve as some sort of evidence of the time that I lived here. It is like being grateful to the past but also trying to bring it to the future.
You are also known for your magnificent jewelry, how did this shift to creating impressive sculptures come about? And in relation to this, how does your approach to the artistic process change?
W.C: I’ve never stopped making sculptures or crafting, jewels and sculptures have never been two separate things but always one. Also, the creating process is the same, the difference is only the scale. My experience with jewelry art has given me a very strong foundation for my sculptures because it is more complicated making a piece of jewelry, you need to think about how it is worn, if it’s comfortable for the wearer and there are different gemstones, different shades of colours and materials – the hardness, the softness. So, thanks to my jewelry art I really started experimenting with materials and I created a very close relationship to them. Making sculptures is no less complicated of course, and I always try to apply my form of thinking with respect to jewelry to the scale of sculpture, so that the process is always essentially one and the same.
Venice, Fondaco Marcello, until 23 October, 2022