EI – Entity Identity

Exhibition  /  16 Dec 2007  -  02 Mar 2008
Published: 25.12.2007
SM'S - Stedelijk Museum 's-Hertogenbosch

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EI — Entity Identity is an exhibition showing the products of cooperation between Belgian and Dutch artists/designers and Chinese artisans and traditional workshops.
The EI – Entity Identity project was devised by the Belgian trend spotter and curator Veerle Wenes. It involved eleven Belgian and Dutch designers and artists having their ideas and designs produced in traditional materials by Chinese artisans.

Each of the participants spent a month in Beijing, where they worked with Chinese craftspeople and with one or more traditional workshops in and around the metropolis.

One of China’s best-known artists, Ai Weiwei, who makes use of traditional materials and crafts as well as contemporary materials and techniques in his own works, interviewed the European participants. The interviews form an integral part of the EI project.

The products of EI - Entity Identity will be presented in an exhibition of the same name, which will be premiered in the SM’s – Stedelijk Museum ’s-Hertogenbosch. Later, it will travel to Beijing, where it will be on show during the Olympic Games. The project will conclude with a presentation in Belgium.

EI – Entity Identity alludes playfully to the Chinese export porcelain of the 17th century, i.e. porcelain ordered through trading companies and made in Chinese workshops to the exact specifications of wealthy Westerners. The age-old crafts, skills, techniques and materials have been preserved to this day, though they now threaten to disappear as China modernises at lightning speed. Besides porcelain, these traditional workshops produce such items as painted glass, lacquer work (Urushi), kites, woodcarvings, hand woven carpets and bronze work.

The project was not just about artists and designers bringing their own experience and professional enthusiasm to China. They were also very much open to the impressions they received in Beijing. They were prompted by the experience and by their interaction with Chinese artisans to re-evaluate their design philosophy. The aim of the project was very much to establish a cross-fertilisation between contemporary Western notions and traditional Chinese know-how. 

A few examples:
In her work as a jewellery designer, Gésine Hackenberg focuses on the transition from the mundane to the special, from a commonplace object to a cherished ornament. She photographed scenes from Beijing daily life which were then copied onto glass. The glass painters were employed by a traditional workshop that now makes a living producing glass Christmas tree ornaments for the American market. Once the photographic images had been painted onto three-dimensional glass objects, she turned these into jewellery.
Wieki Somers’s designs feature a subtle interplay between function, substance and the poetic use of materials. Her aim is to get people to see a story in objects and to become attached to them. In all kinds of places in Beijing she found customised seats used by people such as security guards, street vendors and rickshaw drivers. These ancient chairs were often barely recognisable, having undergone so many improvised repairs and modifications. Somers was struck by the traces left by the makers and the details which linked the diverse materials and parts in all kinds of ways. In short, these were chairs with a story to tell and as such an ideal design. She decided to purchase a number of these pieces of furniture. She then had them cast in aluminium to preserve them from the ravages of time and pay homage to their makers.

At one point she spotted an enormous kite in the misty Beijing sky. This intriguing sight led her to the site of a former kite factory where, in its heyday, 300 workers used to produce imperial kites. It is now a golf course but the manager and his wife still maintain the ancient art of kite-making purely as a hobby. They undertook to produce a giant yellow Chinese lantern made of bamboo and silk, based on a sketch by Somers.

The two members of the Koehorst in ’t Veld graphic design studio noted that Beijing is trying hard to present itself as a "green city" in the run-up to the Olympic Games. To this end, it is not just creating more green spaces but also using giant billboards. Gigantic photo prints of idyllic landscapes and pristine blue skies are to appear all over the city, reinforcing the idea of a fresh and healthy metropolis. This image-building exercise inspired the Studio designers to give the EI presentation a Beijing-style green setting. Their photographs of the Chinese billboards, carefully shot so as to take in their surroundings - ranging from public gardens to railings and stretches of pavement – and turned into ‘billboards of billboards’ will be used to create a setting for the exhibition.

The mirroring facades of gigantic office blocks in the new Beijing inspired the members of Studio Chris Kabel to design a Black Lacquer Mirror. In the greatest possible contrast with modernity, they commissioned a mirror of traditional lacquer work. It took months of applying and polishing thin layers of black Chinese lacquer to create a surface so shiny and reflective that you can see your own face in it. This technique, which dates back thousands of years, was formerly used to give a lasting finish to wooden utensils. In a traditional touch, a moth darting around a lamp is engraved in the lacquered surface of the mirror. 

Gésine Hackenberg. Object: Beijing Bubbles, 2007. Glass. Gésine Hackenberg
Object: Beijing Bubbles, 2007
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Gésine Hackenberg. Necklace: Bubble necklace, 2007. Glass, textile. Gésine Hackenberg
Necklace: Bubble necklace, 2007
Glass, textile
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Gésine Hackenberg. Object: Paper cuts, 2007. Glass. Gésine Hackenberg
Object: Paper cuts, 2007
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