I hesitate to call myself an artist. In Conversation with Kim Buck

Interview  /  BehindTheScenes   Artists   CriticalThinking   Market
Published: 31.10.2023
Cécile Maes, Klimt02
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Friday, September 29th. I met with Kim Buck at Hannah Gallery. The artist is presenting his series titled 'No Title,' exhibited offsite during the Contemporania Fair. Regarded as a leading figure in contemporary jewellery, Mr Buck, whose name sounds like a mystery novel character, generously spared some time to discuss his journey, work, and perspective as a Goldsmith
A reflection on a generous moment of transparency, where vocabulary is a source of inspiration and the starting point for conversations.
While reviewing the various information about your journey and work, I noticed that you are often referred to differently. Sometimes as a designer, sometimes as a goldsmith, artist, or jeweller, and sometimes as a curator or gallery owner. So, Kim Buck, aside from being someone who greatly piques my interest, how would you describe yourself?

I'm a goldsmith. That’s what I call myself in Denmark. A goldsmith is a person who makes jewellery. A fundamental part of my work is the actual, physical making. It’s important for me to have my hands involved in every part of that process. Most of the time, we (my wife, Hongxia Wang, and I) make everything in our studio: Wang & Buck.

Of course, I don’t have anything against people who call themselves whatever they want. I also realise that part of what I do is art. But to be honest, I don’t know very much about art. I hesitate to call myself an artist, and it’s not important to me to be able to identify as such. I mostly make jewellery which has a meaning or reflects my opinions. Sometimes, they serve as comments on what’s happening around me.

My training and education was always in traditional goldsmithing. I feel that if I were to call myself an artist, I would enter a different area of semantics, a field I’m not comfortable speaking from. I sometimes hear people call it, for instance, ‘wearable sculpture.’ And I hate that, to be honest. I don’t understand why the word ‘jewellery’ has to be omitted. The term can and should be expanded, because we are questioning and challenging what jewellery can do and how it should look and be produced. Calling the work ‘wearable sculpture’ does a disservice to ‘jewellery’. It makes ‘jewellery’ smaller.

Did you have this approach since you started?

When I finished my design education in 1985, this movement of material experimentation existed. At that time, I made a lot of jewellery using aluminium and steel, not with silver and gold, because I wanted my work's value to define the piece's value, not the materials. Two current issues in my work are, firstly, the value of the craftsmanship, the idea, and secondly, the beauty of traditional materials. I think traditional jewellery tends to rely on the innate beauty and appeal of precious stones and metals, and I don’t want my own work to fall into the same trap.

Having graduated in design with a contemporary jewellery option, I still grapple with the eternal question of achieving meaningful financial independence with my practice. First, could you share if you earned an income today through your artistic work? And how did you do it? And did it influence your professional journey?

I’ve been very lucky my whole career to finance my work. And it’s also because I’ve always had a shop. When I started in ’85, I rented a space in the studio of my teacher, Allan Scharff. Then I moved to my own place. I still have a shop in Copenhagen where people come and request commissions. In this context, I see the value of my craftsmanship and experience directly the relationship between the maker and the wearer. I’ve learned a lot about jewellery that way, by talking to people coming through the shop.

I also repaired complicated watch straps for a shop in the centre of Copenhagen. I made and still make commercial designs for other companies, Georg Jensen and others. I work for several Chinese and Danish companies, so I get royalties. I also teach occasionally. And since 2008, I have a lifelong artist grant. Two hundred seventy-five artists in Denmark receive this grant, but it’s income-regulated. So if I earn a lot, I get less.
These different streams of income is how I finance the work I show here in Barcelona, for instance.

The language I have been developing in my practice started slowly. It emerged first when I had an exhibition in the Design Museum of Copenhagen in ’97 called ‘Figures 1000 Necklaces’.
Essentially, the pieces consisted of boxes with five elements in each that you could pair and put a string through and make different combinations as pendants. This allowed for more than a thousand different pendant combinations. I hadn’t even seen all of the possible combinations myself and I loved this idea of the wearer being a co-creater or co-designer of the jewellery. When people show me jewels that I made ten years ago, I realise they’re not mine anymore. They become enriched with stories, with time. In the following years after that specific exhibition, my work was about jewellery, how we use it and what it means.

As you mentioned, you create jewellery that speaks about jewellery, demonstrating a rich ambiguity. You play with words, signs, and symbols and use archetypes that echo common references. You often create small, wearable pieces made of precious materials, the literal definition of jewellery.
How did you enter the sphere called ‘contemporary jewellery’?

In the beginning of my career, the ‘contemporary jewellery’ sphere was much less defined than it is now. I was surprised to be approached by different people; it felt as though I was just sitting in my studio in Copenhagen and suddenly people knew what I was making.
At that time it wasn’t so easy to get in contact or to know what’s going on internationally. The catalogue worked as a good tool. in 1987, I had an exhibition in Gallery Metal in Copenhagen, one of the first contemporary jewellery galleries. I made a catalogue, a very simple one. I brought it with me and handed it out when I was travelling. One day I was contacted from Portugal, although I had never been there. But apparently my catalogue had continued travelling without me.
I was really surprised. Everything just sort of flowed from there, but I didn’t know much about design or art history, the gallery scene. I had only had technical courses. I knew how to control the material, but everything else I learned along the way. It was a long and experimental road.

So, what’s your way of creating things? Does it come with a precise idea or by the making?

It often comes from a relationship between language and images. Sometimes my titles are very connected with Danish idioms and culture. I collect words and phrases and I collect and develop techniques, ways of manipulating material. Sometimes the words trigger the material expression, or vice versa. But often there is a strong relationship between the two.
For instance, in my work Kammertonen. ‘Kammertonen’ means concert pitch (440 Hz) in Danish, and we use this term as an idiom to plead for respectful conversation when people argue and throw shit at each other. We ask for ‘kammertonen.’ The double-meaning of this word intrigued me for a long time, and I knew I would make a project about it. Although I thought it would be a piece of jewellery, I ended up making 6 tone generators that you can engage with to produce 440 Hz—concert pitch, or ‘kammertonen.’ I built them as different organ pipes with different qualities of sound. It is not jewellery but is still part of a jewellery project, since they gave the title for my recent jewellery exhibition about how we interact socially and use jewellery.


Kim Buck: Can I just say one thing? Because we’ve been using this term, ‘contemporary jewellery,’ since the beginning of this interview. It’s a term which implies the jewellery is made now, but it’s also essential for me that it’s made here. We position ourselves as makers not only temporally but also in space, in our geography and background.

Leo Caballero: The term contemporary jewellery is important because everybody knows what we're discussing. Even though it doesn't make sense, it's okay to make a border between classical jewellery. It's like art jewellery; sometimes, we use the word art to give it more sense. This is the same as when they do paint. It proposes a sense of reading the world.

But paint main function is to be read. The jewellery is worn and often related to its value.

Kim: I talked with Marc Monzo about the balance between making pieces for different contexts. Commercial pieces need to be much more durable and wearable, but the jewellery we make for the sphere of ‘contemporary jewellery,’ have a different set of criteria. For me, in every case, the fundamental aim is to maintain the message and idea and how that emerges in the material. But it’s very challenging. Through the Goldsmith Guild I am mentoring a young jeweller who recently graduated. One of her concerns was how to turn your ideas into commercial jewellery. Unfortunately, there is no formula for this; it just takes practice and feeling.

Leo: I always really believe that if someone proposes you a project and it's interesting, it's good to say yes. If it's money, why not? Everything that sounds commercial has this negative connotation like it stinks. It’s a mistake. We have to do experiences, and later with hindsight, we can tell whether or not they were shitty. But we all need somewhere to live and something to eat.

Kim: It’s about finding several ways to communicate on different levels and continue to tell a story. It is for more than a commercial purpose, but I often work with series. The different pieces communicate with each other to tell a story. Sometimes, if you take one piece of of the series, then the story is gone.

Like in the No Title series?

Kim: That’s a bit of a different case. Every piece communicates an instruction for making a paper plane. The pendants could be scattered around the world to spread the message of making paper planes. It’s about spending time on something fun and playful in a time when everything is so polarising.

Leo: Well, the thing is if people read the text, they immediately understand the concept, then these pieces have sense because each of them is a message. It's an instruction part of an instruction. But it means something so they can have individual lives, and you have the whole series that makes sense without knowing about the concept.

Kim Buck. Pendant: 'No Title' paperplane 3, 2023

You had a gallery before, right?

Kim: Yes, The Most Secret Gallery. The gallery did not represent other artists, but showed exhibitions. I had the idea of inviting two designers from other countries whose work I liked to come present their pieces together with myself. In this way we ended up having annual exhibitions in that gallery, amongst other group shows that I hosted. In the end we had to move because the landlord didn’t want us there. My partner and I created Wang & Buck, a boutique that has exhibitions from time to time. The last one, called 101 Charms, invited 53 Danish jewellers from all over the country to show a variety of interpretations of charms.

How do you deal with having a gallery that exhibits your artistic work while also being represented as an artist by other galleries known as 'contemporary jewellery galleries’?

Kim: In my experience, there’s a bit of a complicated relationship between the artists and the galleries, which I’m still learning to navigate. It’s new for me to be represented by a gallery. I have been showing in galleries before of cause, but my first formal agreement with a gallery, Hannah Gallery, was three years ago. There are a lot of questions about pricing and the function of the gallery in my working process that are clearing up.
I earn less when I sell through galleries, but it’s valuable for me to be able to show my work in different parts of the world, not just in my own shop in Copenhagen. It is through the international network of galleries that I’ve reached this point in my career.

Leo: Making communication, setting up the exhibition, organising events and welcoming the public. That's why a gallery has a commission in general. For that, it is important to be transparent and create a trusted exchange with artists. We’re open to discuss about prices to find the most ‘fair’ price, which will build a fair transaction with the artist, the gallery and the future owner.

Kim: Also, a gallery guarantees the piece’s quality to their clients. The stamp of approval from a gallery serves as a sort of third-party assurance. Because who cares what I think? Generally, a gallery is trusted more than the maker themself; of course, I will try to sell my own pieces.

Leo: Well, when we sell a piece, we send the client a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist and the gallery.
We realise that for the client, the most important thing is trust. By confirming the quality of a product, a price is established, which the artist is also in agreement with. Thanks to this process of accurate pricing, customers are confident in buying the product.

Amador: But the trust needs to be with other galleries as well. We need to work in the same way, in the same ecosystem. Otherwise, the potential buyer gets lost, and the trust disappears.
Be professionals, make good selections, curate relevant exhibitions and share the different concepts and reflections as much as possible to establish a profitable market for everyone.

Kim: This exhibition in Hannah has been a great experience for me. Meeting so many people around the opening, both the clients, but also the artists connected to the gallery is a big part of doing these events. The conversations, the sharing of experiences, the sharing of technical solutions etc. Meeting old friends and form future connections. This is for me also an important aspect of doing exhibitions and an important aspect for a gallery. So thank you for inviting me.

Kim Buck with Leo Caballero and Amador Bertomeu at Hannah Gallery