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The Turtle and the Sea Horse. Interview with Kezhen Wang by Anja Eichler

Interview  /  Artists
Published: 28.07.2022
Kezhen Wang Kezhen Wang
Author:
Anja Eichler
Edited by:
Klimt02
Edited at:
Barcelona
Edited on:
2022
Kezhen Wang. Vessel: Bone Vessel, 2015. Silver.. 8 x 7.7 x 10.8 cm; 8.4 x 7.3 x 12.6 cm. Kezhen Wang
Vessel: Bone Vessel, 2015
Silver.
8 x 7.7 x 10.8 cm; 8.4 x 7.3 x 12.6 cm
© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.

Intro
During my time in the UK, I thought that everything about Western culture was great and superior to what we had in China. However, once I was back, I gradually discovered the wealth of our own culture, of what we have traditionally in China. When I grew up after the Cultural Revolution, all this had been destroyed or hidden, there was nothing to look at. It is only now that these things start to come back. / Kezhen Wang
A portrait of the Chinese artist Kezhen Wang
Metalwork in China’s culture dates back about five thousand years when elaborate metal vessels and the first jewelry were produced. Since then – due to the turmoil of Chinese history - many of these treasures have been destroyed and the knowledge of how to make them had been forgotten.
Now, however, that China regains economic power and with it, a new self-confidence, very innovative art and craft scene is rising in the country. In this scene, influences from outside merge with China’s rediscovered ancient heritage.

Part of this change has been initiated by Chinese who went abroad to study and then came back to their home country. These people are called ‘haigui’, which sounds the same as the Chinese term for sea turtle. Since sea turtles also travel vast distances overseas, the metaphor started to be used for oversea students coming back to China.
Kezhen Wang who describes himself as an artist, teacher, and curator is a typical ‘sea turtle’. He graduated from the Nanjing University of Arts with a BA in decorative arts and got a MA in jewelry and silversmithing from the Birmingham School of Jewelry, UK. He used to study Ph.D. program at Lincoln University, UK, and is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at China Academy of Art, China.

Describing his experience crossing the border between East and West, Kezhen Wang says: “During my time in the UK, I thought that everything about Western culture was great and superior to what we had in China. However, once I was back, I gradually discovered the wealth of our own culture, of what we have traditionally in China. When I grew up after the Cultural Revolution, all this had been destroyed or hidden, there was nothing to look at. It is only now that these things start to come back.”
It is his aim to merge the two worlds and cultures, to plant the ideas and the knowledge he brought from the West in China, and adapt them. As co-head of the Jewelry and Silversmithing department at the Nanjing University of Arts he transmits his experience and thoughts to his students.


A Tank of Tropical Fish
About ten years ago, the idea of contemporary metalsmith crafts and jewelry came to China from the West brought by "sea turtles". China is a country that is open-minded towards new things so meanwhile, the new concepts got a hold in university programs and the emerging art and craft scene. Nevertheless, the question of how to implement it into the Chinese environment is rather tricky.

Kezhen Wang compares the situation of the Western concept of contemporary metalsmith crafts at China’s universities with that of a fish tank full of tropical fish. Inside the tank temperature and water quality are kept exactly like in the West. Outside the tank, however, the environment is totally different.
Kezhen Wang observes “If the students can’t be teachers after graduating, they will change back to other majors or do commercial jewelry. Most of those who cannot stay in the university environment lose the power and energy to keep what they learned.
While this happens also in the West, it is even more of an issue in China, a country where an artist can neither rely on social welfare nor on grants.


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


Silversmithing and the Sea Horse
Kezhen Wang sees himself foremost as a silversmith since this is what he trained for. In his work, he likes to refer to Chinese traditions and motifs. A bowl has been constructed with thousands of silver rice. The Mokume vessels refer to the water aspects in Chinese traditional painting.  A tube that represents the function of vessels in modern society is rather a communication tool than a container. An example of this is a series of cups, each forged out of a sheet of silver into the shape of bamboo segments. The cups can be stapled on top of each other and will form a bamboo cane segment per segment. Thus, the series represents a set of useful cups as well as a sculpture. The artist uses this principle also in other works like the one called ‘Bones’. The bones with their adjusted joints can either be used as cups or put together as a joint to be a hollow sculpture. They might look cast because of the thickness of the material, but actually, they are forged. As a silversmith Kezhen Wang takes pride in forging his work in contrast to casting it.
He says: “I like jewelry because it seems to me more creative and free than silversmithing where I can only use metal. My aim is to make jewelry that does not look like jewelry. I don’t want to just reduce the size of my silversmith work so that it can be worn on the body. I want to play by totally different rules. I don’t care whether my work is understood or what people think of it.


Sea Turtles between East and West
The work of Kezhen Wang can be seen as representative of the current trend in the Chinese art and craft scene. One can look at it and appreciate the beauty of the form, the mastery of the craft or the innovative material use. Or one can use it as a starting point to discover aspects of the Chinese culture that are unfamiliar to most of the Western audience and that certainly go beyond the obvious what we know – or believe to know – about Chinese traditions. Playing with Western and Chinese cultural heritage, with values and perceptions of an audience from different backgrounds is a unique form of expression developed by Chinese ‘sea turtles’ and is certainly a fascinating addition to the overall contemporary metal art scene. It also allows us in the West to understand some of the complexity of a very dynamic and fast-moving society that makes an important part of the current Chinese identity.

In 2016, Kezhen co-curated an exhibition called “The Other Mountain” with Norman Cherry. This exhibition has been set up in the National Center of Craft and Design in the UK. Norman and Kezhen convened 16 of the most pioneer Chinese jewellery artist including himself travelled a long way to UK with a series of fabulous works. The exhibition was the first time, a group exhibition for Chinese contemporary jewellery artists showed their work overseas. These particular Chinese artists have the same experience that they have all studied abroad, they continued their art when they come back to China. Their experiences of being exposed to new cultures, different ways of thinking, very different traditions, and other creative methodologies, have contributed to their current status as refined, internationally aware, and influential jewellers.

 

About the Interviewee

Kezhen Wang, Director of MA jewelry and metalsmith, head of Craft department of Nanjing University of the Arts (NUA). Master degree in jewellery, silversmith, and related products in School of Jewelry, Birmingham City University, 2004. Kezhen started his teaching career at NUA in 2005. As an artist, Kezhen has been active in China and the international jewelry and metal art field. Kezhen also plays a role as the curator of contemporary crafts in China and other countries. He curated: “Non-craftsman” -- China contemporary crafts exhibition, Nanjing, China; “The Other Mountain – China contemporary jewelery exhibition, National Center of Crafts and Design, UK; “New Chinese contemporary jewelry”, Melbourne Au.
 
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