A Cross-section of Contemporary Chinese Metal Art. B.R. Gallery at Collect 2023

Published: 07.12.2022
Chong Shi
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Nationally BR Gallery will exhibit at the 2023 COLLECT in London and introduce excellent contemporary artists from China to the International fair of contemporary craft and design.

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A landmark exhibition.

Spanning handcraft, industrial techniques, and more recently a digital revolution, we are witnessing the transformation of metal art from focusing on the beauty of materiality and craftsmanship to stepping on an independent aesthetic path aimed at reflecting the subjective consciousness of the creator. The contemporary Chinese metal art field has witnessed the emergence of a unique set of contexts, amidst which B.R. Gallery is considering three quite distinct phenomena.

Firstly, we have good artworks. Many contemporary metalworks not only focus on the reflection of the complex social and cultural information but also reflect on the ontological properties of the medium's language to better explore commonality and identity in the macro contexts of visual art.

Secondly, we have good academic grounds. In recent years academic institutions in China have undergone a dramatic evolution, both through their international reach and ability to skillfully combine Western creative and teaching methods with their traditional heritage of craftsmanship, to create an independent and distinctive educational environment that continues to foster emerging talent.

Thirdly, is a recognition that although contemporary metalwork and jewellery art is flourishing in China, where the creative practice is underpinned by academic skills and theory, its commercial potential is still in an embryonic state. In comparison, the West has a mature art operation and established collection system, where contemporary crafts fairs such as SOFA (founded in Chicago, 1994) and COLLECT (London, since 2003) have played a significant role in shaping the international scene.

In response to the above phenomena, BR Gallery has devised a development strategy that aims to stimulate the international development of domestic contemporary metal art by introducing excellent contemporary artists from China to major international craft fairs, and in turn, drawing up on the international market system to positively influence the domestic collecting environment. Nationally BR Gallery is a leader in the field of contemporary metal-based art and will be the first space in this field in China to exhibit at the 2023 COLLECT International Fair of Contemporary Craft and Design in London.

To quote Sally Li (Founder and Director of BR Gallery): The artists represented at COLLECT Art Fair have been carefully selected by BR Gallery and vetted by the COLLECT Organizing Committee, to present an exciting cross-section of contemporary Chinese metal art. Our exhibition seeks on the one hand to showcase the long tradition of metalworking in China, while embracing more contemporary interpretations, be they conceptual, a re-interpretation of traditional craft culture or keenly mapping materiality’s agency and relations in today’s rapidly changing society. Above all, we aim to show the unique appeal of metal (based) art, elevate this discipline within contemporary visual culture, and bring the commonality and identity of this Chinese art form into a global perspective.

A cross-section of contemporary Chinese metal art, artistic concepts, unique appeal, commonalities and characteristics

Sally introduced us to four key terms, namely a cross-section of Chinese contemporary metal art, conceptual, unique appeal and commonality and characteristics, which are worth exploring in more depth, as Sally explained; that when linked together, these four key words offer more insight into the meaning of the exhibition. Let’s consider three of these key terms in this chapter, and return to the fourth… the subject of the cross-section at the end of this text.

Firstly, what do we mean when we talk about the conceptual nature of contemporary metal art? In this instance, the term conceptual is akin to its use in conceptual art. Ann Coxon is of the view that Conceptual art is primarily concerned with ideas and meaning, with its representation being of secondary importance. If indeed conceptual art puts ideas before form, then an artist’s practice is more about choosing the best form of expression for an idea. However, the craft is different because apart from the meaning, it has left with, in essence, the medium itself. Due to the specific properties of the medium, the contemporary craft is confronted by a bias that is not applied to the field of fine arts.

Scepticism still abounds, can we not all agree that craft-based arts can embody an expression of ideas and meaning, the critic Jorunn Veiteberg highlights one of the controversies between craft and fine art: functional objects must be subject to function, so this means that it will never be able to sublimate itself into the free form of intellectual productions that fine art boasts. And questioned from the inside out, for example, by Professor Zhang Suojia, curator of contemporary Chinese glass when interviewed on how he sees the future of glass artworks, answered: why single out glass artwork? Why not talk about artworks made of glass as a material and medium? Why don’t see such labels applied elsewhere, to a bronze sculptor, stainless steel sculptor or resin sculptor?

This leads to the question of how can the concept and the medium of craft come to complement one another in the creative process of contemporary metal art, rather than merely providing constraints to each other. If we can resolve this, and find an approach to the creative process, then a unique opportunity exists to unlock the creation of contemporary metal art.

This approach rejects the wishful translation and transformation of the artist’s territory of interest and the metal medium but emphasizes the bothway extension of the two through observation, research, development, and experimentation, where the extension of the metal medium includes material aspects such as the physical, chemical, functional, etc., and the immaterial, including craftsmanship, personal, cultural, historical, social, metaphorical, symbolic, personal experience, etc. The artist’s work is then one or more points of intersection between the two extremes (the artist’s territory of interest and the metal medium). This is the unique appeal of metal art that BR Gallery seeks to present.

Under this approach, the connection between the territory of interest and the metal medium is driven in both directions, reflecting the commonalities and characteristics of contemporary Chinese metal art from a global perspective. Through the works in the exhibition, we can categorize the artists’ creative methods as three Chinese old terms: Technology contains Dao, Making use of the ancient for today and Observing the times and judging the occasion, which will compose the cross-section of the contemporary Chinese metal art. Of course, the three are not distinct from each other, nor can the territory of interest and the medium be divided in isolation, but the author intends to explore the main characteristics of each in these works to facilitate the reader's understanding of the meaning of the works and the exhibition.

Technology contains Dao

Prof. Jian HANG points out that technology contains objective laws meaning that technology contains Dao, which is to say the way and the tool are combined, linking concrete manufacturing, such as technical labour, with abstract theory. In the creative process of contemporary objects, we can recognize that technology also contains Dao or to put it another way... technology extends from the metal medium as a thread that spans the past and the present, drawing out the spiritual exchange between tradition and the present.

Fan ZHANG's work Derivative is based on the fine gold craftsmanship commonly used in ancient jewellery, copied and reproduced by a long inheriting method, while she creatively challenges that traditional form of fine gold. Her innovative process of adapting the original courtly technique of weaving, pinching and soldering of fine gold, into a more malleable worked structure, ethereal and simple. Zhang also draws upon the ancient Chinese tie-dye process of gilding, by gradually creating a delicate gold and silver filigree, that comes to resemble the gradual light and shade of an ink painting. The pearls twinkle like animated stars in the Milky Way. This body of work reveals the formal aesthetics of modernist art.

Zhang Fan, Yan Yi, 2021, Necklace, Pearls, silver-plated red copper and gold-plated, 25 x 25 x 8 cm.

Through an innovative process of research and experimentation, Zhang's practice encompasses the fine gold craftsmanship of traditional jewellery alongside the aesthetic ideas of the Wei and Jin dynasties, which combine to emphasize imagery, style and rhythm. The effect on the wearer is to experience a sense of human transcendence in the rhythm of the jewellery, as well as revealing the artist's unique artistic language.

Xiaoxin Wang's series of Everything Comes to Life employs three traditional Chinese classical vessel motifs in its form. Rendered in crackle enamel on copper, Wang’s vases are filled with a sky-blue enamel glaze, which evokes the melting of the snow and ice, the revival of all things, and ultimately signifies hope. The copper enamel is in its effect reminiscent of the open flakes seen in the celadon technique of the Gao kilns.

Widely recognized as one of the five great porcelain kilns from the Song dynasty, the porcelain fired at the Ke kiln has been much sought after by subsequent generations, with its distinctive irregularly crackled surface. This Ke kiln porcelain inspired the ice-cracking glaze in Wang's work. Originally these patterns were not interpreted as divinely inspired, they were simply the result of a problem in the early process of firing porcelain, and the cracks in the glaze were a consequence. It was later during the Song dynasty, that people began to appreciate this patterning, likened it to the cracking of ice, and recognized its unique vibrant beauty. Wang Xiaoxin speaks to this aesthetic sensibility in terms of 'gentle mistakes' and 'friendly flaws'.

Thus, the most dramatic quality of the work of Wang Xiaoxin s work is his creative use of ancient metalwork to deliberately interpret the natural and spontaneous aspects of ceramic artefacts. Such contemporary interpretations of ancient artefacts inherit the elegant oriental aesthetic of the Song dynasty, while acknowledging the Chinese culture of ice cracking and that everything is growing, in expressing respect and reverence for the nature of heaven and earth.

Xiaoxin Wang, Everything Comes to Life, 2019, Silver, enamel and gold, 15 x 15 x 35 cm.

Chao Wang's work Woven Words uses pure silver wire as his material and weaving as his preferred technique, incorporates two types of silver wire to produce a uniquely textured plate through a process of warp and weft interweaving, this is followed by a stamping process to achieve the desired form of a dish-shaped vessel.

For the artist, Woven Words embodies a particularly personal interpretation of the metalworking process and its resulting visual language. The particular type of ancient Chinese metalwork referred to as weaving, according to Wang Chao offers quite a rustic material discourse to the work. The simple language of the object’s form and the texture of the silver, combine to emphasize thepure beauty of the craft.

Chao Wang, Woven Words, 2020, Silver, 17 x 10 x 2 cm.

Make use of the ancient for today

This term makes use of the ancient for today has significance, as it speaks of a miraculous materialization; not only of skilful tradition and deft reimagining of techniques but of work that effectively establishes a dynamic link between traditional cultural values and contemporary contexts.

In Mian Wus discussion on what is jewellery, Wu cites several aspects of jewellery, including that jewellery, can embody a community, relates to status, and relates to identity. It shows that one of the functions of jewellery is to reflect the cultural identity of the wearer. The work of Zhenghong Wang, Xiaoli Ning and Qian Li are all excellent exponents of this philosophy.

Zhenghong Wang's Landscape Series features two small pavilions enclosing a square space, wherein the floor is inscribed in seal script, which acts as a metaphor for the interplay between the brushwork of humanity and the divine work of nature representing the symbolism of pavilions in the heritage of Chinese culture. Two lakes, composed of mirrors, are depicted outside the pavilions, together they map the firmament of the sky and the human heart.

Wang expresses: Ancient Chinese practitioners often carried a mirror with them when they stepped into the high mountains, as through it one can see deep inside of oneself and can better reflect on one's words and actions. The mirror in 'One of the Landscape Series' is intended to reflect the inner thoughts of the wearer, and reflect the unity between man and the object in the sky.

As we can see, the Landscape Series is a miniature item of jewellery which the author has carefully imbued with a spiritual understanding and linguistic approach to ink and sculpture. The artist has compressed the power of two relatively large media into this item of jewellery, and despite its quiet appearance, the work manages to express a powerful tension.

Zhenghong Wang, Landscape, 2015, Necklace, Specialized paper, mirror, cotton thread, 925 silver, 70 x 3 cm.

Zhenghong Wang, Landscape series, 2019, Silver and ready-made objects.

Xiaoli Ning's work With - Shadow is another artist who draws inspiration from the art of Chinese literature. She believes that the wisdom and philosophy of the ancient Chinese thinkers can be found in a poem or a painting, and a leaf, a fading flower is capable of capturing an ethereal and profound beauty. In her creative approach, Ning tends to engage in an egalitarian dialogue with her material, by exploring its characteristics, while managing to present the naturalistic view of traditional literary thought.

Ning often enjoys working with highly unstable materials, ceramics being a good case in point, as she would work at the limits of this medium; if using mud as a clay base, testing the variations in the humidity of clay, to exploring its different mineral ratios and malleability. Or using her hands to draw out different textures in the clay, feeling its coarseness or delicacy, while working with or against the characteristics of the materiality, and with each step in her uncertain process, is the potential for a beginning of the author's next period of reflection.

Xiaoli Ning, With - Shadow, 2018, High-temperature ceramics, S925 silver, 22k gold.

Qian Li's works Bow and Heart feature a set of block-structured bows and heart-shaped pieces rendered in three dimensions, using a deceptively simple three-dimensional soldering process to assemble 925 silver plates.

The bow and heart are amongst the simplest forms to render, while the inner texture of these pieces shows a continuation of the artist’s practice of improvisation with architectural structures, once again we see her using the language of abstract composition to follow the spontaneous deformation of metal and framed in a relatively balanced and self-contained state. Even though Li's work has a paired-down modern aesthetic, this is a little deceptive as there is a richness of detail … which embodies the traditional Chinese wisdom of creation, to examine the surface and follow its path. As Li Qian puts it, this approach to creation reflects a Chinese approach to everything.

Qian Li, Bow Tie, Necklace, 2022, Silver, 18 x 18 x 2 cm.

Yu Zhang's Night Feast was inspired by the aesthetics of the local Dai people in the Dehong region, of Yunnan province. The artist appropriates traditional ornamentation and architectural structures, to create a visual language that informs his series of contemporary pieces. Zhang’s work not only acknowledges the spiritual world of the Dai people,
but the artist is creatively using his guile to covertly introduce Dai culture into our everyday contemporary culture.

Zhang employs advanced CNC processes to carve and form his/ raw material, as he believes this is the only means of creating a detailed and perfect interpretation of their vision out of metal. Of course, this exquisite process of technologically advanced engraving when it is applied to traditional imagery, creates a clear correlation between traditional culture and the contemporary context.

Yu Zhang, Night Feast, 2019, Aluminum, tin, polycarbonate, 7.3 x 23.5 x 30 cm.

Qiushuang Sun’s research considers different methods of exploring the cultural connotations of traditional Chinese metal art, while at the same time striving to achieve a harmonious symbiosis between the 'ancient' and contemporary practices. Titled Breed, this piece symbolizes the soul breaking free from the body, captured in the final stage of life, and pursuing its source of life to pursue immortality. This object is more intimate to behold and to touch, the latter is due to it being made through a combination of fine hammered and traditional silver finishes, which invites handling, as it is immune to the oxidation effect caused by contact with the skin.

The image of life is a constant within traditional Chinese objects, no matter what form that life takes… be it human, animal or plant. Using an abstract language, Sun manages to achieve an alchemic fusion of metaphorically immortalizing ancient culture, while reinforcing the vitality of his objects in the present.

Qiushuang Sun, reproduction Ⅱ, 2018, Silver, gold, and ebony, 15 x 15 x 25 cm.

Kezhen Wang's Rice Bowl is the result of an intensive labour process, as one by one the artist meticulously grinds and files pieces of silver into the form of a grain of rice, only to solder together the many grains he has crafted, to form a bowl. Indeed, by its nature, Wang’s labour is both laborious and repetitive, and it could be likened to the work of a peasantry

We have seen over time that the relationship between humans and things has been completely reversed, from the things serving humans the humans serving things since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, to this time of artificial intelligence. For Wang, handicraft offers a reverse deconstruction of this relationship, in pursuing a contemporary continuity of traditional Chinese handicraft principle of human-centred philosophy, offering a ray of light amidst a future full of pessimism and anxiety.

Rice Ware has work in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. As one of the first scholars of metal art from China to come to Europe, he would draw inspiration from both cultures. The cultural values that run through his practice have become a kind of bridge, inviting exchange and mutual understanding between Chinese and Western metal arts and culture.

Kezhen Wang, Rice Bowl, 2016, Silver, 8.5 x 7 x 10 cm.

Observe the times and judge the occasion

The expression, Observe the times and judge the occasion speaks about the creative possibilities for an artist in the context of globalization; there is scope to explore and creatively question new dynamics in society, humanity and the living environment. This shows a more diffuse relationship between the territory of interest and the medium of the maker.

Pengfei Zhu is fascinated by the abilities of mechanical structures, particularly in their capacity to instigate interactions between objects and people, which led to the work One Bite to Swallow. He reflected on the level of control that humans possess, and focused on the appetite as a method to test and trigger it. Zhu then selected the crayfish, as a symbol of desire due to their exotic status, huge economic benefits and ability to reproduce, (to set up a dynamic to explore questions of how society face and control our desires.

One Bite to Swallow has been designed to reflect our desire for fresh seafood and the eerie ritual of consuming crayfish. The user is invited to insert a fork into the body of the crayfish… which triggers a switch and sets its tail wagging. On removing the fork, the mechanism stops, and at this point, Zhu teases you with an impression of control over desire. Even the accompanying spice jar speaks of control, matching in style and tightly sealed. Zhu's work explores the balanced relationship between medium and subject,
as it orientates towards human-object interactions.

Pengfei Zhu, One Bite to Swallow, 2019, 925 Silver, electronic accessories, 12 x 6 x 4 cm.

YDMD's selected work Ruins stems from a generation's collective memory of urban development. Having grown up in the 1980s/90s, ruins were commonplace, they remain an indelible feature of the places we refer to as home.

The artist believes there are many reasons why cities never grow old, which can either be a blessing, or the reality that we become resigned to. By using everyday functional objects, the Ruins series invites the viewer to consider the metaphorical dimension of those objects, The artist is infiltrating the 'raw material' of home, by evoking the forces of destruction and regeneration, while framed in the domestic context, he quietly reveals the tension and rituals that abound between change and immutability in life.

YDMD, Ruins, 2018, Brick, brass with gold plated, 10 x 6 x 19 cm.

Mian Wu first saw the image of a fish holding a ring in its mouth depicted on a badge, when she was in Glasgow. The artist traced the origin of the image back to a popular Socratic story, in which a Queen confesses her sin to Saint Mungo and to spare her from punishment, she prays for the recovery of her lost wedding ring. That evening a fisherman offered Saint Mungo a huge salmon, and when served at dinner... the Queen's ring is discovered in the belly of the fish. Saint Mungo’s discovery is symbolic of an incredible repossession, in short, it is a miracle.

Wu's creations often employ the language of jewellery to speak about jewellery, knowingly self-referential, and it is evident that her work is the product of rich imagination and conceptual rigour. In The Fish That Never Swam, the artist has captured and embodied the essence of a fable (from Western culture), while creating a new human-object narrative relationship in contemporary jewellery. These relations, from the artist, the wearer and the viewer, are continually activated in the intertext of the fable The Ring in the Fish. As Wu explains A strange man catches a strange fish, and in the belly of the strange fish is a strange ring, which belongs to a strange man. Through it, we see a real encounter with this stranger who can never be verified.

Mian Wu, The fish that never swam, 2021, Necklace, Glass, gold. 6 x 3 x 3 cm.


Next to introducing the reader to the philosophy of BR Gallery, it is worth hearing from its director, Sally on her aims and expectations for the gallery. There are, in her words, four significant terms to consider: an exhibition of a cross-section of contemporary Chinese metal art, artistic concepts, unique charms, commonalities and characteristics.

It is clear to see that Sally is fascinated by innovation and bold experimentation that exists in artistic language and technical methods which originated from the Western. Furthermore, the director of BR gallery wants to reiterate the conceptual nature of the work by these Chinese artists in this COLLECT Art Fair.

Due to the intrinsic characteristics of metal art, the selected works present a uniquely creative approach to contemporary metal art, namely the bothway drive of the territory of interest and the metal medium. The exhibited works as visualization of this approach confirm Sally's sense of the unique appeal of metal art.

The three methods under the bothway drive approach we have just considered both reflect the characteristics of contemporary Chinese metal art while being able to project their identity and commonality within a global perspective. Of these methods, Technology contains Dao and Makes use of the ancient for today manage to establish a more active exchange between the contemporary context and traditional Chinese culture. Whereas Observing the times and judging the occasion is much more focused on exploring current propositions and global perspectives, and supports commonalities.

Let’s conclude by acknowledging that the significance of this exhibition lies in two aspects. In conclusion, of the more significant attributes of this exhibition deserve, two deserve recognition; first is an intention to invite a discussion on the creative approach and characteristics of the medium from the perspective of the metal-based arts, and second is our commitment to placing metal-based arts from China on the world stage and helping to get its voice heard. It is hoped that this text will aid the viewer and help them understand the exhibition.

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