Wallace Chan in Venice Interview – James Payne

Wallace Chan, Venice Biennale 2024

In a city that is so busy, not just during the Biennale but all year round, seeing Wallace Chan’s new exhibition in a Venetian chapel is a nice way to escape the hordes of tourists and experience some zen-like calm.

Chan is a world-renowned jeweller, inventor and sculptor. He works in titanium, the strongest, most durable, and lightweight metal known to man, mainly used in the aerospace industry. He is also a former Buddhist monk, and those principles and philosophies permeate his work.

“Transcendence” is his third show in Venice during the Biennale, and Chan is showing fewer works than usual (four 10-meter titanium sculptures suspended from the chapel’s ceiling). However, his ideas and concepts (and sculptures) are still huge.

Chan’s interests lie not in physical space itself but in transcending the limits or boundaries of space and time and creating opportunities for growth and enlightenment.

As before, the exhibition is curated by his long-term collaborator, James Putnam, who is known for blending contemporary art with classic museum collections. Once again, Chan’s use of a space-age futuristic material, titanium, is juxtaposed nicely with a historic building, in this case, an 18th-century chapel, where Antonio Vivaldi used to hold concerts.

I sat down with Mr Chan to ask him about his latest exhibition. Like his works, his answers are sometimes curious and enigmatic but always reflect Chan’s insatiable curiosity and generosity of spirit.

Wallace Chan, Venice Biennale 2024
Wallace Chan photo by James Payne

If you could start out by reminding us of your artistic journey. I know you started as a gemstone carving apprentice in 1973, when you were 16 years old, and I know you were poor and uneducated.

As you say, I had no formal education, but even early on, I had an interest in all kinds of things, perhaps the origin of my cross-disciplinary practice.

As a young man I had a kind of identity crisis, because of my lack of formal education or qualifications. I didn’t go to any art school or have a master to follow, but despite this I always had a thirst for knowledge, I still do. As a boy, I would walk past book shops in China and see people inside, and I wanted to be like them.

But the fact was, I was poor, and I also had very low self-esteem, so I would only go to the second hand book shops to browse, and I didn’t have the money to buy even second hand books.

And because I never bought anything, I would often get asked to leave, and so I went to another book shop, and then another. And that is something that has stayed with me, that idea that, you need to go wherever you can to acquire knowledge, and you must retain that curiosity.

Curiosity is the key to my work, and research is what drives it.

And do you see yourself more as a jewellery designer or a sculptor? 

I don’t really say I am a “jewellery artist” when I’m creating jewellery or I’m a “sculptor” when I’m creating sculpture. I don’t want to define myself or categorise myself. I see myself as just a person who loves creating, and I will create whatever comes to my mind. Cross-disciplinary practice is very freeing and working/thinking/creating in one field can be beneficial to the other field, so all of these materials, ideas, and technologies expand my practise.

Today my artistic identity is very ambiguous some people think that I’m an artist, while others think I’m a jewellery designer or an inventor. But really, I am nothing and I am also everything. I am simply creating something that I hope adds to the history of the medium.

In the end, creation is an accumulation of past experience knowledge and culture, as well as techniques.

And a love of material? 

My creations in both jewellery and sculpture are about love – a love for living, and a love for the universe. When people see and touch my creations, both large and small, I want them to feel love.

Do you sometimes work on jewellery and think, “this is a good idea for sculptures” or vice versa?  

I am always travelling between both worlds so to talk about sculpture and jewellery is simply like moving from the micro world to the macro world. There is a Chinese saying: “Everything, big or small, is infinite”, and whether I am working on a grand scale or in minute detail, through discovery or exploration, I am always looking to attain, “infinity”.

Can you talk about your current show in Venice? 

This is a site-specific installation. The curator, James Putnam, and I specifically selected the chapel because it is a sacred place for prayers and contemplation. But then the interesting thing is hanging sculptures which are made of Titanium, a space age metal. By placing a futuristic material within a historic, spiritual space, I want to encourage viewers to reach a stage of spirituality through a different way, and to go beyond the physical boundaries.

The idea is that the viewer goes from conflict at the very beginning until reaching tranquilly towards the end, and hopefully have an elevation of wisdom by exploring a higher form of art.

Can you tell me about the soundscape “Dormienti”, by Brian Eno?

The curator, James, presented me with a few choices of music to be played during the show. But as soon as I heard this music by Eno, I knew it was what I wanted.  Several years before this, I was in Tibet practising Buddhism and one day I had a strong headache and heard music that only I could hear – nobody else could hear it – and that music has stayed in my memory ever since. When I heard this Brian Eno music that James presented to me, I felt the same as I did in Tibet, that this music is from ancient times and is also from afar. It immediately spoke to me.

The soundscape is designed to interact with the sculptures in a way that makes it easier for the viewers to reach a stage of spirituality. Because I see the sculptures as a mixture of Yin and Yang in for example the two twisted heads that are concave – they are designed so that viewers can place their heads inside, and when the sound wave hits the hollow sides of the sculpture, it bounces around the curved surfaces creating a true soundscape.  I compare it to creating another universe, one which is actually quite magical

This is your third time at the Biennale but in a different space. This is a long, thin chapel, so the route is more linear, leading you forward. 

Materials and space are important, as materials without space is meaningless and space without materials are meaningless. I see this exhibition as an extension of the two exhibitions in previous Venice Biennales. the first one, “Titles” talked about the dialogue between material space and time, and then the second one, “Totem”, invited the viewer to be part of the exhibition, and featured a 10-metre sculpture which had been split into different pieces. This new exhibition is an extension of the previous two, and so it’s like a trilogy, a further exploration of space.

At the previous two biennales, it was more like a gallery, but this chapel was chosen for its historic and religious setting, and it is a more light, tranquil place that gently encourages the viewer to journey on a humble quest for spirituality

Can you explain the thinking behind the Jesus and Buddha statues on the altar of the church?

What I have done is switch the bodies around of Jesus and Buddha. I see all religions as philosophies or spiritual pursuits, with all religions interconnected. There’s no beginning there’s no end. It’s a cycle that goes round and round.

They are all about love of yourself, your friends, and the family around you, and then it extends to the greater love for humanity, history, culture – and religions. This exhibition weaves together the past and the present and the future, and all these ideas and thinking are behind the creation of these two sculptures of Jesus and Buddha.

The flower, I guess, is an art historical reference of the flower representing transcience.

The flower for me also symbolises the cycle of life and renewal and it is also an expression of love. But it has a personal meaning. Around 1985 I bought a Tulip from Holland because I was interested in capturing the fleeting beauty of the flower, and keen to study it and connect with it. It was very expensive to import it from Holland at the time, around $80.00 Hong Kong dollars. So, I studied it intensely but of course, everything dies. I tried my best to extend its life, by freezing it to make it last a little longer, but still, after a few hours it died. If you look at the petals of the tulip sculpture, they are dancing, or shivering, as if trying to stay alive, and then if you look closely at the stem, there are in fact faces embedded in it, and these represent the emotions I felt at the time trying to keep this flower alive.

I also see it as when you throw a stone into water, and the ripples extend outward to humanity. The word “ripple” in Chinese is directly translated as water-flowers so there is that reference too.

There are many ways of reading this work. The reason it is placed towards the end of the exhibition is a spiritual meaning, because there is another Chinese saying that literally translates as “Buddha holding a flower and smiling”, which means that we understand each other without words. Just by looking at each other.

And on that note, Mr Chan and I wordlessly exchange our farewells. 

Photos by James Payne ©Artlyst 2024

Wallace Chan’s “Transcendence” is on display in the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà until September 30.