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Beyond the Comfort Zone. A Review of the Chinese Documentary Searching for Crafts

Published: 12.01.2020
Felicia Li Felicia Li
Author:
Felicia Li
Edited by:
Klimt02
Edited at:
Barcelona
Edited on:
2020
Felicia Li at her studio Vonmo..
Felicia Li at her studio Vonmo.

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.

Intro
The world is changing at a fast pace, and no rules will last forever in this world. What could be left in life except for the instant? No one has any obligation to stay the same as the self a year ago, a day ago, or even 15 minutes ago. People always pursue creation, seek unification in the creation and tear down obstacles by creation. The world moves on forever, so is the thought. I started to sort out the growth and thinking of Vonmo and ourselves, recorded the present as the reference in the future about us today.

中文版 - Chinese version      View / hide description

Why did I start watching this documentary recently? Although a lot of public WeChat accounts have recommended it, I did not pay much attention to it before. Then a student of mine, Tingting, who knew that I have a similar interest in the documentary just like her, recommended it to me in particular. So the two of us, one in Beijing and one in Shenzhen, being separated thousands of miles away, began to watch it and made playful comments on the netizens in the screen-popup. I think the greatest value of Searching for Craft is that it shows the most sincere parts of the director's heart, which also reaches out to the hearts of most netizens.


The post of the documentary " Searching for Crafts". Image from Google.


As an Apprentice who is also searching for craft, I once lived with my masters in master Shuwen Wang's studio, went to the remote places between mountains and forests of Guizhou Province to study Shui Nationality's filigree, and went back to my hometown to visit the old shadow puppet and Shaanxi opera artists. So I have similar feelings with the director, and my experience could even be more deep-going.


On the value of traditional craft


Kaiwen, oil-paper umbrella maker. Screenshot from the documentary Searching for Craft by Felica Li.

Detail of oil-paper umbrella making process. Screenshot from the documentary Searching for Craft by Felica Li.


In Searching for Craft, all the craftsmen, such as the old man, Kanwen, who is making oil-paper umbrella in Yunnan, Tursunjan, Zunon, who is making Xinjiang pottery, the artist Hudabaid who is making and playing Balaman flutes and so on, have spent decades on a single traditional craft and even devoted their whole life to it.

Sometimes they can even do it without watching because the whole process is so familiar to them that it has already become a kind of muscle memory. Thinking from another aspect, the value of traditional craft should include the value of time as well as the cultural value recognized by the public. Every master, including myself, has spent the whole lifetime practicing, devoting a lot of time to practice and experiment in private regardless of the cost of material and energy. So for every master who studies crafts, the value created by time can not be simply measured by money.

Sometimes, people would easily offer a price they think is reasonable for the works of craftsmen, they would say something like: I think this one should be worth that much money or something cheaper can be found on some online stores. However, what is not priced by its creator is not reasonable: I believe that the value of any handicraft should be defined by the creator himself. As for the creator, the time and mind spent, the story or original emotion is given to the work (this may be more important), are the reasons why it is always difficult for a craftsman to price his work. They are created by the coordination of our hands, hearts and brains, working together to make unique works with the temperature of hands, the sensibility of heart and the wisdom of brain (under different cultural backgrounds and by different people). As for many of my own works, the reason why I am not willing to sell them is not only that they are handmade by me, but also that they contain my certain spirit, my understanding of a certain culture, or a certain concept.

The price marked by the craftsman on his work should be respected. You can choose to buy or not, that depends on whether you think it is worthy because there is never a unified measurement for the craft. For example, in the UK, a young designer receives a task of jewelry customization. It may take him a week or even half a month to finish the product, and the labor cost in the UK is very expensive on an hourly or daily basis, which will bring him a very considerable income. For skilled masters in China, the task can be finished efficiently and with high quality in a day or two or even one or two hours, which may cost the customer less than one-tenth of that of the foreign designer (despite different national situations, this is only for discussing the big difference in the value of handicrafts between the East and the West). I've also thought about whether the value of craft can be calculated by day, but it's not realistic. Some people are very skilful and some are less skilled; some people make little progress in designing works while some make great ones, but all these could not be told apart by non-professionals. Naturally, they would not figure out why crafts that look so similar in China are priced so differently. There is no measurement for them but to let the creator decide the prices for their works as long as they are doing this with a clear conscience. The buyers can choose to buy or not according to their own judges. But in reality, most people just cannot get this simple fact.

(I hope my personal opinions above could help to solve Tingting's confusion, maybe we can find a better answer in the future during our growth.)


On the craftsman spirit and ideal


Hudabaid plays Dutaer. Screenshot from the documentary Searching for Craft by Felica Li.

Hudabaid makes and plays Balaman flute. Screenshot from the documentary Searching for Craft by Felica Li.


When it comes to Craftsmanship, it's impossible to avoid mentioning the prevailed craftsmanship spirit, which has been overly exaggerated by people nowadays. As for the craftsman spirit, I agree with director Jing Zhang's saying that for craftsmen, they have no time to think about it. As creators, we choose our own career direction, and we were different from other industries or fields, from the moment we picked up the tool. Craftsman spirit is often defined by some theoretical speeches, government officials, or bystanders who are not involved in the matter. They make this definition in a too rigid way. I believe that every industry and every field has its own spirit, regardless of high or low, which are our professional ethics.


Felicia Li at her studio.


Every craftsman holds different life pursuit. For example, master Tursunjan · Zunon knows that he is the only one left in this area who is still making hand-made pottery, so he hopes to make more for the world. Tudan in Tibet could have earned a lot by making figures of Buddha, but he chose to return all the money to his religion because that was where his spirit rested. Folk craftsmen are doing crafts with pure thoughts and may not even have the consciousness of craftsman spirit till their death. In the documentary, the director who sold his house in Beijing to film Searching for Craft confessed that he first thought he was doing this for an ideal but then realized he was making a bigger bet for more money. And for me, I often ask myself why I want to learn those traditional crafts and why I wish to promote and spread them. Is there really no selfishness lies in it?

Many people might ask me, what do you do? Traditional craft? Contemporary jewelry? Or training? Sometimes I'm ashamed to answer them. I'm not as specific as the masters. I do traditional crafts such as enamel and filigree, try high-end jewelry and art jewelry and even help others to do graduation projects (which is the most shameful work for me but gives me the most considerable income ) and so on. What's more ridiculous is that after graduated with master's degree in 2016 and started to establish my studio in Beijing with bare hands, it almost cost me a house with three bedrooms and two halls in my hometown of Xi'an till now. It's an indisputable fact like a giant mountain standing there, especially for people like me struggling in Beijing without background. People might not understand this, they even admire us for starting our own businesses. Students come to me for encouragement to open their own studios, but I just could not give them confident suggestions because I don’t think I am qualified to talk to them about ideals in a practical level. But our studio is still ongoing, perhaps touched by our so-called ideal, I still consider setting up a contemporary art jewelry gallery or making an art jewelry learning and exchange platform in the future, which will integrate the traditional Chinese culture and crafts with the contemporary art and together achieve good development.

As a young person, I never define myself for I want to try out where my limit is. In this way, I can restrict it later. Maybe that will be the moment I could be free to do what I really want to do without restriction. Besides, the material basis determines the superstructure and the growth of the studio needs material basis, which comes from the works include work collection training, wedding ring customization, broken bracelet repair, etc. I used to laugh at the fact that the senior schoolmates were still selling goods while working, but now I am no better than that because I take almost every task of any kind. I envy a lot of artists in colleges and universities. They have abundant material and good artistic environment, which allow them to focus on creation without any distractions while I still need to support my studio set up on a poor foundation. After going through so many twists and turns, I gradually settled down my ultimate ideal. I think my biggest selfishness is: in the future, my persistence will allow Vonmo to create a simple, pure and real atmosphere for myself and those who like art jewelry. Not much else


A part of broken jade bracelet mended with 22K gold and enamel.


Safety measures are mentioned countless times in the screen-popup of Searching for Craft: why not wear masks, goggles and gloves? Why there is no protective measure? I think I can offer some analysis here. I have worked with some masters and provided them with some protective measures, which, however, were rejected or just left forgotten. First of all, these masters are basically over 50 years old and have a deep-rooted concept of their own and they don't feel necessary to use protective measures because they have done it all their lives. Secondly, it's inconvenient to wear those things. Glasses, masks and gloves could slow down their works. (When masters of filigree work, they throw the feurig metal directly into the dilute sulfuric acid, and the pungent smoke rises in an instant, which is extremely harmful to the respiratory tract. However, they will tell you that their masters do the same, and only by doing so can the oxygenated substances of the metal be clean removed). It is very common to find that many masters in this field get agelong stains over their bodies and faces that cannot be removed and there are wounds covering their skins. Sometimes even their life span will be affected. Moreover, they earn the money to support their families, and there is no access for them to external information. The blocked information, the inconvenient traffic and the fact that they do not understand online shopping and so on will prevent them to improve their working condition. Finally, the market environment is not that optimistic. There are many fine crafts in Xinjiang that are inlaid with plastic sheets (the ground is covered with polished plastic dust). Many people will suggest replacing the plastic sheets with agate, ox horn or gem. But who can they sell the products to in that remote little place? It's just a closed loop.

Of course, nowadays more and more people are paying attention to handicrafts, and people of the modern world are also forming the awareness of protecting their own culture. In the past two years, people all lamented that the support of China's intangible cultural heritage has somehow accelerated the decline of traditional crafts. But these crafts will not wither away and will rebound after reaching the bottom. People who really love crafts will survive this period. Maybe five or ten years later, there will be another blooming period of crafts. The last question: I always think that all traditions are reshaped and renewed after being overthrown constantly. So, is all innovation good? Not necessarily. Then what kind of innovation is good? I think everyone could reflect on this together.


What does it mean to set up a studio?


Felicia Li's studio.


Entrepreneurship needs courage and a sense of responsibility. A professor once questioned my studio to my face, if you don't make money out of the studio, then you should close it. Since the establishment of Vonmo studio, facing with all the doubts and misunderstanding, I still stubbornly believe that value is something that could not be measured financially. That kind of value is far greater than a stable job and a stable income, so I am willing to go ahead. And I also want to tell this to more people, after all, is said and done, the most important thing is whether you figure it out.


Felicia Li at her studio.


In terms of works, from the Heart Laurel and the Runaway Water Sprite, to the recently completed series of Haicuo Can, I stand on an objective point of view for description: the history of certain traditional cultures, their current situation, my thinking in the study process, and my feelings and emotions for these cultures. The work might seem to be very emotional, but in fact, my standpoint is rational. Now, I may be more willing to face my emotions, or my heart, rather than hide them inside and leave them to twist themselves into a knot or a scar. The new series of works may impress nobody, but I am extremely happy to be able to impress myself, which helps me gradually put down some heavy burdens of the past.

Special thanks to Miss. Liu of China Gems and Mrs. Yang of Beijing International Studies University for their interviews. During the interview, I found that I may really become a different person from myself a few years ago. My thoughts have been changing, becoming clearer and allowing me to better understand myself.

About the author

Felicia Li is a contemporary art jewelry designer, She has been exploring the innovation direction in which contemporary art jewelry design and the traditional Chinese crafts are integrated. She formally established the Vonmo personal studio in 2016.
Felicia Li. Object: Magnolia filiigree, 2017. Silver, enamel.. 13 x 13 x 7 cm. Photo by: Sunmo.  Incense box.. Felicia Li
Object: Magnolia filiigree, 2017
Silver, enamel.
13 x 13 x 7 cm
Photo by: Sunmo
 Incense box.

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Felicia Li. Object: Fruit is ripe and bird came, 2019. Silver, enamel, copper.. 9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm. Photo by: Sunmo. Felicia Li
Object: Fruit is ripe and bird came, 2019
Silver, enamel, copper.
9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm
Photo by: Sunmo
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Felicia Li. Object: Fruit is ripe and bird came, 2019. Silver, enamel, copper.. 9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm. Photo by: Sunmo. Alternative view.. Felicia Li
Object: Fruit is ripe and bird came, 2019
Silver, enamel, copper.
9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm
Photo by: Sunmo

Alternative view.

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Felicia Li. Object: Fruit is ripe and bird came, 2019. Silver, enamel, copper.. 9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm. Photo by: Sunmo. Detail view.. Felicia Li
Object: Fruit is ripe and bird came, 2019
Silver, enamel, copper.
9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm
Photo by: Sunmo

Detail view.

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Felicia Li. Object: Grapes and Bugs, 2019. Silver, enamel, copper.. 9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm. Photo by: Sunmo. Felicia Li
Object: Grapes and Bugs, 2019
Silver, enamel, copper.
9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm
Photo by: Sunmo
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
Felicia Li. Object: Grapes and Bugs, 2019. Silver, enamel, copper.. 9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm. Photo by: Sunmo. Alternative view.. Felicia Li
Object: Grapes and Bugs, 2019
Silver, enamel, copper.
9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm
Photo by: Sunmo

Alternative view.

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.
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