Do as My Will But Never Deviate from Scope of Traditional Cultural Frame. Interview with Felicia Li by Ray Zheng

Published: 24.02.2021
Felicia Li Felicia Li
Ray Zheng
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Felicia Li. Set: My Chinese Jewelry - Step 1, 2020. Silver, enamel, pearls, Kallaite.. Photo by: Xiaowen Liu. Felicia Li
Set: My Chinese Jewelry - Step 1, 2020
Silver, enamel, pearls, Kallaite.
Photo by: Xiaowen Liu
© By the author. Read Copyright.

This interview was conveyed within the frame of research of Chinese contemporary jewelry. As a curator and artist, Felicia Li reviewed the methods and achievements of the Chinese Mythology exhibition as a representation of the current Chinese contemporary jewelry environment. Experienced her own practices, she also talked about the path of domestic exhibitions performed in 5 the past years, critiques and outlooks, thinking and making.

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With the establishment of departments in the Chinese academic field and the rising artists’ participation, the number of contemporary jewelry works after 2015 emerged dramatically. As an artist and a curator, are there any domestic artists or workpieces that have attracted your attention in the past five years (including innovations in topics selecting, craftsmanship, and materials using)?
The development of domestic contemporary jewelry is too short to be considered as having a history, and it is still in the infancy phase. I was more impressed by the fact that when I was in the second year of my MA, that is in 2015, the first time I witnessed a lot of relatively high-quality student works in the spontaneous exhibition held by BA graduates of BIFT and BJUT. The graduate exhibitions after might not impress me that much. It might because some of them were working for a diploma or some prepared to study abroad (this might be too subjective or I raised my standard of works, so I regard their works as something like plot drives, the agencies are more likely “routine training” batches of students, I wouldn’t comment too much about this since I’m not that familiar with this field).

To be honest, the development of contemporary jewelry in China in the past five years is slightly deformed. Otherwise, I would not stand out to be a curator. I mentioned this in my own article and also the opening ceremony of Chinese Mythology. It is more like “splicing” or “collaging”  exhibitions here, and it only emerges in colleges and universities. It is disconnected from the development of Chinese culture and modern society. There are very good folk artists in China, real masters that are worth learning from. That is why I would not call myself an artist or to flaunt, but simply a creator and experimenter. It needs an accumulation of time to explore a suitable direction so that I can make something meaningful and valuable. For instance, a contemporary artist I really like, Zhao Zhao. Although he is not a jewelry maker, he accurately expresses the culture and temperament of the domestic spirit. Like a farmer, he spent years growing gourds and constructed his own works. I regard thinking, making, and experiencing as very important elements. But there are too few domestic artists, like Kim Buck, in the field of jewelry. Outstanding craftsmanship and design concepts are usually separated. Of course, it takes time plus practice. We are still young, only have been trying for five years mimicking the shadow of foreign artists, erratically. It is just my personal view. It might be too pessimistic or cool-headed, but we still can see the good sides - that is, establishing a major in universities is promising.

Set: My Chinese Jewelry - Step 1 by Felicia Li, 2020. Silver, enamel, pearls, Kallaite. Photographer: Xiaowen Liu.

What role do you think the exhibition Chinese Mythology plays as a platform in the domestic contemporary jewelry exhibition environment? Is there anything particular?
Regarding Chinese Mythology in China, I think it should be a change or, a relatively fair platform. This is also the first exhibition of my studio—Vonmo studio. Excluding the immature places, I hope that Vonmo’s exhibition can resemble high-quality Chinese Contemporary Jewellery exhibitions like Schmuck and other top jewelry exhibitions around the world. Vonmo as s a curator to scheme nongovernmental exhibition aims to avoid the constraints of universities, institutions, and governments so that artists can have a relatively easier atmosphere and create purely for the theme. Each exhibition has a very clear theme (not an ambiguous theme decided after “collaging” the exhibition) and related to Chinese culture or the present condition of society (the exhibition plan for the next five years has been done, and each opening ceremony will be held in different cities in China also), which allows creators and viewers to remember or rethink soberly and deeply about our culture that has been neglected by rapid-paced modern life. It is a fact that Chinese contemporary art should derive from our culture and experiences.

Do you have a certain method or classification idea when curating? For example, what kind of works to select, how to present items, etc. When I was collecting information on the entries, I tried to classify them in different ways according to the features of artworks, listing the contexts. I found it hard to reflect the directions in a timeline but only the diversity. Do you have any suggestions for it?
The works are selected by the judges who cooperated with us (I only give the requirements for the judges to score. I do not participate in the scoring. The works are presented by ranking which is relatively fair and feasible). And my requirements are not complicated: innovative works that accord with the theme, something that must be considered and in-depth... So maybe I have never thought about classifying, if the only classification I did might be that jewelry accounted for a larger proportion, and objects were about ten percent.

In the exhibition, I communicated with the participating artists one by one and presented their concepts as much as possible. I also appreciate it if the works can be interactive with the audience. Facts have been proved that interactive works are also most accepted by viewers. Most of the participants are foreign artists who are relatively mature, while domestic ones are mostly students, so it is indeed not easy to classify as you said, or more diverse. However, a student in my studio was also selected. She (Yi Wang) is a cross-industry creator who has been an architect for almost 20 years. This might be common overseas, but I do admire her as a domestic one as she knows what she wants to say and how to express herself.

So in domestic terms, it is too difficult to classify and find context when it is still immature.

About personal practices:
Do you think global art trends and social-themed creations(minimalism, political pop, feminism, etc.) have any impact on your practices? Do you think these trends have a certain impact on Chinese artists as well? Like Jing He focuses on the commercialization of art, Mian Wu’s work about narratives, and so on.
What makes me ashamed is that I rarely pay attention to global art trends. Although I can often see some online, my own creations have never been based on trends. I have a plan for my own development path: for example, started from studying traditional crafts, then experimented on materials, shapes, and narratives, to be more concise in conceptual practicing in the future... Capriciously speaking, do as my will but never deviate from the scope of the traditional cultural frame.

Global art trends are definitely influential for Chinese artists, especially for jewelry artists who have returned from studying abroad. You can see from the conceptual works. But this is also a question I want to ask you. Will these concepts fail to resonate in China, or that there is very little empathy? From the perspective of commoditization or the market, the current domestic trend is that there will be more people playing with traditional art. I’ve seen data that nearly 290 million people play Han costume or influenced by other subcultures in China. I also do traditional crafts, so I understand that the amount of people is very large and young (mostly after 95s). Although it is a different category from jewelry, the cultural confidence supports and motivates me and my studio to stick to this direction. Contemporary jewelry is originally a concept that appeared in the West under their movements. It is not Chinese. Therefore, it is difficult to direct Chinese people to be willing to wear contemporary jewelry. I think it is also a common problem for many artists who have returned from studying abroad to develop in China.

How do you integrate another form of jewelry techniques with contemporary jewelry? In your learning of traditional jewelry crafts and transforming them into contemporary artistic expressions, is there any domestic artists that influenced your career?
The artist who has a greater influence on me should be my graduate tutor, Yi Zhao. She was the first teacher who led me to this field. Though I had no experience at that time since I came across major, fortunately, I learned filigree quickly and had loads of time practicing and experimenting with materials after I gained the handcrafting ability. I didn’t visit too many contemporary jewelry artists during my study, instead, I traveled to many places across the country to learn craftsmanship by folk artists, so that I would not be restricted when I create in the future. I may still believe that the old education method in China: only learn how to fly after learning how to walk.

About the Interviewee

Felicia Li is a contemporary art jewelry designer and curator. She is the committee member of Gems and Jewelry Trade Association of China. In 2016, she formally established the Vonmo studio and keeps exploring the innovation direction to integrate contemporary art jewelry design and traditional Chinese crafts.

About the author

Ray Zheng:
Jewelry designer and researcher. Born in 1997 in Urumqi, China. Completed BA at Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology of Jewelry Design and came to Goldsmiths, University of London in 2019. She understands jewelry as a comprehensive formulation of body/individual expression that questions value, needs, obsessions and survival. She gets gravitated by design methods like sensing, storytelling, use of actions, materials, moving towards something bigger as social-politics, traditions and also looking for more possibilities of jewelry through observing and making.