Attai Chen in conversation with Doris Maninger
DM: Why jewellery?
AC: Difficult question, I cannot give a clear answer for the reason that I chose this field. As many things in life it just happened. I come from a family that is deeply involved with the arts, so in a way it was always obvious to me that I would engage in the arts, and consequently apply to the Bezalel Academy, at that time the only art academy in Israel.
I did not want to study at the Fine Arts Department. At the time it was too conceptual for me and too distant from the actual work with materials. I believed that the real excitement was taking place at the crafts departments. I knew I was attracted to something that had to do with technical and material understanding. So I applied to the Ceramics and Jewellery Departments (then combined jewellery and clothing). During the exams I decided for jewellery, maybe because of the diverse variety of different materials that where available for practice at the department. At the beginning I thought that jewellery was a kind of miniature sculpture, and only during my studies with Vered Kaminsky as my mentor I really engaged with the deeper meaning of jewellery, with what it represents and with what makes jewellery different from object making.
DM: You studied at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Tel Aviv and the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Can you walk me through the difference between these two BFA and MFA studies?
AC: After my BFA at Bezalel I decided to continue my studies at the Munich Academy because of my interest in Otto Kuenzli and his work. It was quite a shock at the beginning. I was used to a system (Bezalel) where you have different subjects, different teachers, assignments, exams and such. You are on a constant stress level of short term deadlines. However, in Munich the system was based on Master classes ( the old 19th century academy discipline) with one professor, no exams, no classes, absolute freedom, you could practically do whatever you wanted, set your own schedule (or almost never show up), the only rule was to be present on Wednesday mornings class-meetings where one of the students had to present something. It could range from introducing the project that one was currently working on, to a film, a lecture or anything that the student would want to show. I myself had maybe 5 such meetings during my 4 years of study. You were not obliged to have many interviews with the professor either. The idea was to keep you quite alone with your art. No one gets involved or asks regarding your work if you are not asking for it. Of course you can always ask the fellow students for their opinion. I guess that was professor Kuenzli’s policy. However, it doesn’t mean that you were not under constant pressure. The pressure was different this time, it came from inside, from yourself, from seeing the achievements of your fellow students, or from knowing about the brilliant students of the past. The presence or the charisma of Otto was always there even when he was not physically around, showing us a perfectionistic and highly demanding way of doing things.
I guess that part of the success of the class was in the amazing ability of Otto to attract and choose interesting, talented and hardworking people for the group, and to construct a challenging environment with them.
DM: Do you think you became an artist there, in Munich?
AC: I don’t really know what it means to be an artist or not. As I said before, growing up in an artistic family there was almost no doubt what I would become or be occupied with. When we travelled while I was a kid, there was never a normal hotel, or seaside vacation, rather there were exhibitions, old churches, second-hand antique shops and such, most of the together activities were dealing with art in one way or the other. But when I think of it now, I don’t know the answer, am I an artist? It sounds so stigmatic and “framing” to use a defined title for what I do, maybe I am an artist because this is the language that I was raised in, I am not sure, in the end the best way to describe myself would be a maker, as right now I am working with my hands physical materials, but this can also be subject to change one day.
DM: What did the encounter with Otto Kunzli and the Munich class change in your perception of jewellery and your role as an artist?
AC: I think that there, also because of how much jewellery we were exposed to, I have matured the confidence to work with what I choose and how I choose. It took a great deal of effort to understand that anything can be jewellery if it is made in a good and convincing way, and if it communicates with the field.
DM: In an interview once, you mentioned how you create in dialogue with materials: can you explain this dialogue more in detail?
AC: I can explain this using as an example my graduation work in Bezalel. This work originated as an investigatory research into what the place of materials and craftsmanship is in today’s world, one that is increasingly becoming digital, virtual and without substance. I started the project with one ounce of gold which I transformed and worked with for about 3 months.The idea was that I would create one object, then I would melt it and from the same material I would create the next object while digitally documenting the process. This allowed me to work again and again with the same amount of material, to enjoy the experience of investing into this material potentially almost endlessly.
This process started with an idea, a concept, then the material itself and the encounter with it showed me the way and led me through the project. So in this case the head started the process, while after the hands and the experience with the actual material took over.
Another example is my series of forgotten things. In this series I have first created my “raw material”: I tried to find my own way to work with a sheet of silver. I have defused few thin sheets of silver together, and then I have put it through the ruling mill. It resulted with a thin cracked sheet of silver. From these fragments I started to build shapes, by assembling and defusing them together.
In a sense I quite often work with this method; first creating my own “raw material” then cutting it and creating with it structures. Working first without a clear and defined idea of how it should be shaped or into what it should evolve. The pieces grow from the actual active dialogue that develops while working, I bring ideas, fillings, references and the material brings its unique characteristics.
DM: Crises and success. How do you cope with both and what do they mean in your life?
AC: Crises, if you survive it, is what brings you forward. It is a hard experience that I am confronted with again and again. It is quite painful, often it feels like there will be no way out, but then at one point there is. Something opens and a new path is revealed. When I arrived in Munich I was very much in a crises, in fact during my first two years I suffered from it. I did not understand why I was there, nothing was as what I have expected. I thought I would have a mentor, one that will show me a clear path to follow but there was none. One decision probably kept me on the correct path leading me out of the stagnation, I was going every day to the studio and I was trying to work. I have experimented with different things and materials until from an unexpected direction I found the path that intrigued me enough to continue to follow it.
Success, Otto Kuenzli once told me: success is like a knife on your throat. It is true, I experienced it when I got the Herbert Hoffmann prize, being still a student. Of course I was happy and proud, but at the same time came the unbearable pressure, first from myself and then from the outside,
from galleries, collectors, customers. The feeling that from now on I had to keep a serried level of work and keep on producing was stressful. What is expected of me? Do I need to continue working on the same theme? How can I afford to make a new body of work that might not be as good or as attractive as the previous one? I know a few artists who after a huge success could not work for years or others that changed their profession.
DM: Titles: I noted that some of your series just remain untitled, others have quite complex titles. What do the titles add to your work ? A tiny example: “Forgive me father for I have sinned” and “free radicals”. As an image, these pieces seem very similar in structure and material, only the colors differ substantially.
AC: Sometimes a piece needs to have a title, it creates a kind of reference to other things that may had something to do with the creation of the piece, a reference to an art piece, a song, a story and such. Sometimes a title is only a title to name a thing that gives another facet to its existence. Sometimes a title contains a secret that is known only to myself. Like in the title that you have quoted “Forgive me father for I have sinned”. For this one I was inspired by a triptych of Damien Hirst where 3 black canvases were created from a million of dead flies. I have made a couple of pieces out of paper with color and graphite. On the paper I have drawn and written things that I shredded and compiled together into a new composition. Maybe in this way I am exposing secrets that are no longer readable yet still are there. Like when you get a document from the bank with a new pin code that after memorizing you shred and dispose of, yet the pieces continue to exist.
DM: Choosing to be a jewellery artist by profession includes developing a vision for your professional life. Can you define this vision?
AC: I do not have a clear vision, at least not one that I consciously know of.
I didn’t choose to become a jewellery artist, I started to study jewellery out of curiosity, coincidences and the unique challenges that it presented me with. Since then I just went along with it, made some decisions on the way that pushed me further to deepen my involvement with jewellery making. Now I do it because it is still an interesting form of expression for me, I am still discovering new and different facets in the world of jewellery making that intrigue me and make me continue to engage with it. I think that for me jewellery represents a challenge that exists in a triangular relationship: investigation of the material and craftsmanship, artistic ideas & emotions and the human body.
DM: Could jewellery ever be more than a supplement?
I think that everything is a supplement, meaning: don’t all things exist for us only in relationship to us?
Jewellery is a form of communication, an object that relates in most of the cases to the human body. Some are wearable some are not, they all relate to the body by their definition. However, most of the time they are not worn, they do have an independent life. In some cases this means that the pieces can act as objects if they are being treated as such. The fascinating thing about jewellery is that some of the pieces do exist in this dual form, they appear in one form while shown independently and in another when they are worn.
About Attai Chen
Attai Chen (b. 1979 in Jerusalem, Israel) is a jewellery artist. Since 2007 he lives and works in Munich, Germany. In 2006 Chen received a BFA in jewellery and fashion from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
In 2012 he received an MFA in jewellery from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, tutored by professor Otto Künzli.
Since 2011, Chen has taught, given workshops and lectures in several Academies and Institutions; among them the Masters of Design program at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Ramat- Gan (IL), HDK-The School of Design and Crafts, Gothenburg (SW), the Dep. of Jewellery and Fasion at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Desigen, Jerusalem(IL).
In the last years Chen was awarded several grants and prizes, among them: the 2011 “Herbert Hofmann” prize (DE); 2012 Oberbayerischer prize for Applied Arts (DE); 2014“Andy” prize (IL).
His work is part of several collections, including: Arkansas Arts Center, Arkansas (US); the Coda Museum, Apeldoorn (NL); the Donna Schneier Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (US); the Rotasa Foundation, California, (US); the Helen Drutt Collection, Philadelphia; the International Design Museum Munich (DE); the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel-Aviv (IL); the Israeli Museum of Art, Jerusalem (IL)