Most celebrated for his jewellery, Wallace Chan is also one of this century’s most important sculptors and artists. His exhibition, Titans: A Dialogue between Materials, Space and Time, curated by James Putnam, is his first large-scale titanium sculpture exhibition, showcasing only sculptures over three metres tall and no jewellery. We catch up with Chan before the show opened to talk about his life’s work and how his latest exhibition in Venice will focus attention on his lesser-known sculptural masterpieces and is the fruition of a 30-year-old dream.
It would be too simple to call Wallace Chan a jeweller, celebrated and revered though he is in that field. Chan is also an artist, a sculptor, an engineer, a philosopher and an innovator. With his inquisitive mind and a dedicated passion for his craft, his creations do more than just look beautiful – they’re also provocative.
Harnessing his own experiences, from an impoverished childhood to living in a monastery, Chan has for decades created masterpieces that have become museum treasures and are virtually irreplicable, though there are many who try. He was born in 1956 in Fuzhou and, at the age of five, moved to Hong Kong, where his family barely scraped by – Chan tells me that it wasn’t until he was 11 that they were able to send him to school. He dropped out only two years later in order to work and support his family. The teenager took on odd jobs until he became an apprentice carver at 16 when he began learning traditional sculpting methods and carving mythical creatures of Chinese legend, finding his true calling in gems and precious stones.
At his gallery in Central, Chan points out a pair of giant copper sculptures of books, one tightly bound in string and the other open, with titanium figurines of children, their heads set with coloured stones, climbing over both. In the sculpture of the bound book, the children are tugging on the strings to keep it firmly closed; in contrast, the children in the other are working together to turn the pages. “It’s a metaphor,” Chan tells me in Cantonese. “It’s ironic that children who are privileged to study don’t want to, while those who can’t afford to do so will do anything to learn.”
A lack of a school education didn’t stop Chan from learning whenever the opportunity presented itself. He became fascinated with the works of Michelangelo, which he discovered in a library book, but as he couldn’t find anyone to teach him the sculpting techniques he began studying Western carvings of angels and saints in old Catholic cemeteries. And when he’d learned all he could from books and people, he set about improving himself on his own. His list of accolades runs long – he invented the famous “Wallace cut” in 1987, a three-dimensional engraving technique that gives the illusion of five faces appearing in the gemstone when only one central face is carved.
He also mastered the complexity of titanium, bending it to his will to create a dazzling collection of flowers, butterflies and cicadas. And fuelled by a childhood memory of breaking his grandmother’s porcelain spoon, a traumatic experience that makes him recall times of hunger and desperation, he’s reinvented a kind of porcelain that’s five times stronger than steel.
Chan has found solace in art, successfully giving a second life to things that broke – and broke him in the past – and turning them into things of beauty. Chan shows me another jewellery piece he created, which at first glance looks like a half dome made of clay, covered in an intricate lattice of gemstones.
“I’ve been a collector of many things, and one of the things I collected were teapots,” he says. “I bought my first purple clay teapot and though it cost me three months’ salary at that time, I wanted to study it. But I didn’t know how to use it properly and it immediately cracked the first time I tried to use it. All that was left was the lid. And so I turned the lid into a ring.”
Throughout his career, Chan has worked with some of the most precious materials on Earth, even creating what was claimed to be the most expensive diamond necklace ever, using the Cullinan diamond. But riches don’t matter to him. After creating the Great Stupa for the Fo Guang Shan monastery in Taiwan, he was so inspired he gave up all his possessions to become a monk for six months. When he returned, reborn, to city life he began creating sculptures using materials he could afford – concrete, copper and stainless steel. In another instance, a long-time collector reunited Chan with a cameo carving he’d done in his youth. Extremely touched, Chan offered to buy the piece back from him at triple the cost for which the collector had acquired it.
“I’m aware that this isn’t the way to make money,” Chan reflects, “but I don’t create art to become wealthy. I only live this life once and I’m happiest when I’m creating.”
Although he’s long been viewed as one of the world’s most celebrated jewellery artists, it’s been a 30-year-long dream of Chan’s to be recognised for his sculpture, the art form through which he started his journey. And so, his upcoming exhibition in Venice is set to become his most important to date. “I’ll be reborn again after this exhibition,” he says. “It’ll be a new beginning.”
Titans: A Dialogue between Materials, Space and Time, his first major exhibition of sculpture, takes place at Venice’s Fondaco Marcello from May 14 until the end of October. It features a series of large-scale titanium and iron sculptures and an immersive installation composed of titanium and mirrored stainless steel.
There’ll be no jewellery, though the installation is inspired by the Wallace Cut. Chan uses light and reflection to produce a unique spatial effect in the work and incorporates mirrored stainless steel as a nod to Venice’s history. Viewers are invited to interact with and become part of the exhibits.
An unprecedented survey of Chan’s works as a sculptor, the exhibition offers an opportunity for the world to acquaint itself with Chan in his entirety – as the artist, sculptor, jeweller, philosopher and innovator that he is.