Interview by Crystal Cheng
Taiwanese jewellery artist Yu Chun Chen pursued her passion in goldsmithing after graduating in foreign languages. After her rich cultivations in Italy and the Netherlands, she carried a rich mix of cultural influences back to Taiwan and established her studio in 2012. As a practiced artist and a co-founder and curator of MANO, she has helped foster the contemporary jewellery culture in Taiwan.
Yu Chun Chen combines Eastern and Western elements. Her work is humbly balanced in between discussions of aesthetic and theory as well as the tangibles and intangibles, embodying an inclusive artistic expression that is beyond contradicting cultures and conventions.
How did your background influence you into becoming a goldsmith/jeweller?
My father was a business man. My mom has always been interested in handicraft, which influenced me hugely as a kid. I still recall whenever I got bored from studying, practicing handicraft was like my greatest escape. In my first year of college, a backpacking trip to Europe inspired me a simple dream – to travel around the world someday and make a living with my crafts. Later throughout my college years, I studied language and continued practicing my craft, occasionally selling my jewelleries on the street. After graduation, I went through a perplexing period of job searching. My parents expected me to continue my studies in business, but I was strongly against the idea. Rather, I asked for their permission to give me two years to explore Italy (a fondness of an Italian film and my instinct made me believe that I would somehow figure out my life direction if I took this trip).
In the beginning in Italy, I enrolled in a local language school to catch up on Italian. Meanwhile, I also got my hands-on training in different goldsmith workshops and art studios, mainly discovered intuitively during my city strolls. After traveling around a few cities in Italy, I chose to settle in Florence – the enchanted city of rich art culture and craftsmanships. One day, I found an ad about a newly established jewellery school in a local magazine. My friend and I went immediately to find out. When we arrived, the school was completely empty with only two staff members working on painting the walls, which we later found out to be the founders of the school. It only took them a brief introduction and we decided to enroll in this brand new facility. We became the first and second student of this jewelry school, which is now Alchimia: Contemporary School of Jewellery and Design. My journey of contemporary jewellery began right from there.
Can you share with us your study abroad experience in Italy and the Netherlands? How did it influence your work?
When I first started my studies in Alchimia, the idea of contemporary jewellery was still very foreign to me. In our two-year course of study, we focused on the fundamental technical training in the first year, and in the second year, we jump straight into building our thesis collection. It was quite a pressure to build up my knowledge about jewellery and adapt the concept of contemporary jewellery in such a short period of time. Fortunately, the school invited Giampaolo Babetto, the great Italian goldsmith, to guide us through the progress of thesis preparation. He taught us how to own our material, to transform the material from our abstract thoughts eventually into tangible art works. Under his guidance I successfully completed my graduation collection. On the day of graduation, the school offered me a job as an assistant instructor. I was absolutely thrilled about the offer. I could now support myself financially and continue with my passion for jewellery making. It also meant so much because I could finally prove to my parents after two years that I was actually pursuing something substantial. From then on, I worked in Alchimia, assisting different instructors while also enhancing my craft and technique. I also got a chance to study in Rhode Island School of Design through an exchange program recommended by the school.
I spent six years in Florence, lived comfortably in my jewellery world, and was surrounded by all the beautiful things the city had to offer. I greatly appreciated that period of my life. Yet, I still felt the urge of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I decided to apply for my masters in the creative city Amsterdam. Compared to other European countries, the contemporary jewellery scene in the Netherlands tends to be more conceptual and forward-thinking. If I say Italy gave me more in the aesthetic training, the Netherlands taught me innovative concepts and expressions. The outlook of an object is relatively less important in the Netherlands; it is often considered too “decorative” when the aesthetic is being focused on too much. There is more emphasis on the precise and well thought-out viewpoint — delivering ground-breaking creative expressions and using unexpected materials for jewellery. It was whole new level of experiment in senses that I wanted to explore.
I was admitted into the applied arts masters program in the Sandberg Institute successfully. My classmates were all from different creative backgrounds and I found them so knowledgable and confident in their own fields. My insecurity hit immediately. In my first year, I couldn’t make anything that I liked out of fear of being not “innovative” enough. Whenever we held class discussions, my ideas were many times opposed by the rest of the class. I tried so hard to come up with the so-called “conceptual work”, but in the end, it confused my own expression and capability. The struggle didn’t go away until the second year, when a friend reminded me that “All the tryouts on your desk are already impressive. Do not look elsewhere and forget about what you already own”. I then realized that I had been too eagerly absorbing every single foreign experience in my study abroad. The difference in culture was alluring yet it also got me stuck in my self-doubts. At last, in my final thesis, I decided to look into my own identity and pay tribute to my own culture. The collection drew elements from paper-cutting, a Chinese folk art that I had long been familiar with. Because of that familiarity, I could express and experiment my creativity freely and weave my Eastern point of view with the Western way of thinking together. My experience in Florence and Amsterdam converged with my Taiwanese background allowed me to rediscover my own identity with fresh eyes. It broke my boundaries and made my creative work more balanced and free. My final jewellery presentation was well-received and later published in local media.
Can you share with us your personal style? Is there any specific material or technique you favor the most?
I work a lot with intuition hoping to create poetic space and some surprising elements. I love to play with improvisation and random experiments. Sometimes it is the material that gives me inspirations, and sometimes I choose specific material to match my vision of work. It varies in different situations and I would say my works are like “the carrier of the moment”. Therefore, I do not want to enforce a certain “style” in them. They tend to look quite random and diverse, sometimes nostalgic and sometimes minimal. There isn’t a specific pattern I follow, which could maybe be seen as a style as well.
What is a typical work day like in your studio?
My mornings are slow. I take my time dealing with trivial tasks and start diving into work after noon. When I begin working, I easily lose track of time. I used to love working in the night, but it is impossible now with all the family errands and schedules. I love to sit by the big table in studio where I could have an overview of my process. Then I slowly transform these sketches in all the different materials into my works.
Are there any messages or metaphors that you try to deliver through your work?
I often mention Lao Zi in my artist statement. The “nothingness” in Lao Zi’s teachings fascinates me. It is seemingly nothing yet generates all things. The 11th chapter of Tao Te Ching says my favorite interpretation:
“Thirty spokes unite in a nave, but the nothingness in the hub
Gives to the wheel its usefulness, for thereupon it goes round;
The potter kneads the clay as he works, with many a twist and rub,
But in the nothingness within, the vessel’s use is found;
Doors and windows cut in the walls thereby a room will make,
But in its nothingness is found the room’ s utility;
So the profit of existences is only for the sake
Of non-existences, where all the use is found to be.”
We work with beings, but non-beings are what we use. We create visible objects to deliver upmost intentions that are non-visible. It is what I love to portray through my work: to use visible things to create a profound emotion, sensibility, and value.
Out of all your work, is there a piece that is most symbolic?
There are two that are especially significant to me. One of them is my graduate collection in Alchimia, completed under the guidance of Giampaolo Babetto. That collection was built with rusted scrap irons as my fundamental material, then gold and silver foils were added on top. In the process of fusing different metals into one, I have learned to repurpose material and give it new dimensions. The reason why it is significant is because I learned to transform a typical material into my own language for the first time, and make it into tangible art works. (See Link)
Another work is a brooch from my first solo exhibition work at Galarie Marzee. I was pregnant during the preparation period, so for my first collection piece, I was inspired to make an egg-shaped brooch for the belly. On top of the brooch is an incrusted bow composed of numerous tiny corals. Every single coral is meticulously set with silver threads which is very time-consuming handiwork, as if I was savouring the joy little by little in that process. This piece later inspired me the title of the exhibition – Ventriloquy (the title is also inspired by poetry from my favorite Taiwanese poet, Hsia Yu). When I first presented the brooch to Galarie Marzee, they were in doubt due to the decorative symbol of the bow, which resulted in some uncertainty about my exhibition collection. For a short period of time, I was stuck in insecurity again. After re-examining my own work, I began to realize how my works never followed a fixed pattern and were more a reflection of the flow in mind. Realizing that actually liberated me from my insecurity and I continued with the collection as I took a stand for my style to be multidimensional and multifaceted. In the end, I completed the entire collection the way I wanted to and the exhibition had become the milestone of my oeuvre. (See Link)
Share with us your exhibition experiences. How do you normally plan things out and how do you deal with the difficulties?
In the beginning, I tried to take on all kinds of opportunities to join group shows, competitions, fairs, and collaborations. I started to get more chances after some time as people get to know my work better. But nowadays, I tend to be quite casual about it. I don’t really plan things strategically but rather go with the flow. I remember a teacher once shared this with me: A matured artist creates work continuously to build a prolific portfolio instead of always running after particular deadlines and sometimes presenting the work which is probably not well-thought-out. I think this is the most difficult part for me but also my goal: to be an artist who works persistently and is always ready to show work.
Making creative works is about expressing one’s innermost feeling. It’s like conceiving a baby. Every presentation feels like exposing the most vulnerable and intimate side of oneself for people to examine. Inevitably, there will be self-doubt constantly but it’s very important to turn that energy around, think positively, and be firm about what you do.
After relocating back to Taiwan, you continued making your work as well as promoting contemporary jewellery locally. What was the key to uphold your career as a jewellery artist?
I still recall the feeling of misfit when I first moved back to Taiwan. I always felt the social pressure to explain my career and direction to every single person. However, my goal is simply advancing my craft, not fulfilling others’ expectations of a life goal. Since I came on this path taking the long detour, I appreciate it even more. Along the way there have been many times where I struggled in self-doubts, but I always turned out receiving great recognition from my surroundings. And whenever I feel like giving up, there is always someone providing an immediate encouragement that keeps me going forward. Therefore, positive thinking and good friends are really important.
Besides working as an artist, you were also a co-founder of MANO. How did you keep up the different positions of being an artist and a gallery operator?
It was never easy.
I was still in Europe when I first established MANO with a friend. We began the process through countless online communications. Our aspiration was simply to provide more opportunities and visibility for contemporary jewellery in Taiwan, to stimulate the field to grow as a whole and not individually, and to provide a platform for sharing. We started running MANO without prior experience, budget, or staff since 2010 and later on, opened our own gallery project space. It was originally because there are not many art galleries in Taiwan who invested in the contemporary jewellery field, so we stepped into the business and hoped to share what we have learned and seen overseas so as to motivate the development of the field.
Now that I think back, being an artist and the gallery owner at the same time surely drained the energy out of both positions. For me, it was better to focus on one particular aspect.To talk about the bittersweetness between the two roles, we might need another interview for it. Ideally it’s better that the gallery focuses on the works of artists and sells them, and the artists concentrate on making good works. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s development in this area is not yet mature enough, especially the acceptance on the market of such creations is limited. Nevertheless, there are still many people who are working hard together, and hoping to achieve this ideal balance one day. I feel very fortunate that I am still always doing the things that I am so passionate about.
If being an artist were a mathematical formula, what would it be?
I think the idea of making an artwork is like creating the ONE in a million. ( One in ten thousand in Chinese saying) Therefore, my formula would be 10,000 – 9999 = 1.
10,000 represents all the bits and pieces of inspiration, thoughts, and experiences in everyday life. When I get to work in my studio, it takes time to digest them and the 9,999 is the refining work where I condense all my creative thoughts eventually into 1. That 1 out of 10,000 would be the final ONE. To eliminate the 9999 and find the 1 takes tremendous effort and deep understanding. That’s also why I always find it most difficult to finalize a piece and decide that it’s “ready”. But this process of refining justifies the preciousness in the final piece itself.
How does the current contemporary jewellery scene differ from the time back in your school years? Is there any advice you’d like to share with young jewellery artists?
Stay curious. Your curiosity drives you to greater knowledge and valuable experiences. Understandably, it is much harder for the young generations to focus on doing “just one thing” because of the massive information that technology brings nowadays each day. It is inevitable that old crafts and techniques are slowly fading out under the current circumstances but I also see the revival coming.
When the contemporary jewellery began in Europe in the 1970s, it was an artist movement in reaction to the luxury culture and social climate at the time. Therefore, there were many pioneers with great energy tried to break through, to throw ideas around in order to initiate new ways of perceiving, and to turn jewellery into a vehicle of personal thinking. Carrying this strong force and intention, artists were striving to create changes through their artworks. The later generation carried on with the remaining spirit but lacked that revolutionary act; hence, the current contemporary jewellery scene seems relatively stagnant. Nonetheless, we must not stop creating and practicing our craft. There is always a way in each generation and I believe young artists can find their own solution out of conventions. Hold on to your passion and curiosity and make the best out of all your resources. Make it your stage to shine.
Can you share with us your next step?
I have taken my time out of MANO and am now trying to focus on building my personal work. As I mentioned earlier, I’m pushing myself to work persistantly and to build up prolific works. At the moment, I choose to be a freelancer and take the steady pace of working towards a good state of mind. On the other hand, I’d like to cooperate with different people for projects to ignite different sparks. In fact, what I want most is to live the life well and to be like a child full of curiosity. Keep “playing” in my life and live out the dreams.
For more information about collecting Yu Chun’s work please email : firstname.lastname@example.org