Thursday, 21 April 2011


When studying for my HND at the Cass London Metropolitan University, students had the opportunity to choose between different optional modules in addition to the compulsory ones. One of those modules was called “Alternative Materials” (which in my opinion should have been called “Alternative Thinking” instead) and was taught by the designer/silversmith Wayne Meeten. His reputation was preceding him and some 2nd year students had warned me: he is really tough and makes students cry… As I was a “mature” student, I took this warning more as a challenge than a danger: me, crying? Never. I defiantly registered for this module.
The first two classes were awful: we had to show images that were inspiring us, and to present our sketchbooks. “Everything is too organised, too tight, too much in control. You have to free yourself. You will be one of my most difficult students”, he told me. Tears were very close but I managed to pull myself together and during the third class we had a little conversation where I told him: “I have spent 15 years working in finance, so Wayne, believe me, I am aware I have to venture into unknown ground. I just need time”… This was the beginning of two very fruitful and challenging years of learning. He was tough and demanding, but fair and passionate. His teaching style didn’t work with everybody, but it definitively did for me and I think it must have worked for my class mates as well because I saw their work transform into wonderful ideas throughout the year. This is why, 3 years later and after completing my MA, I wanted to interview him and understand where his passion came from.

We met in his studio in east London and the first thing that struck me was the cleanness of the space: carpet and rubber mats on the floor, white towels everywhere and perfectly aligned shiny tools. Every hammer, file or stake has been customized to fit Wayne’s hand. “I want my tools to be part of me, they will outlive me. I take care of them, I look after them... And if a piece drops on the floor, it won’t bend or dent because of the rubber mats. It is like a safety net”.  Why all those white towels? “Every time I heat the metal up, I put it into acid and then take it out into pristine water, then clean it with soap and white towels. The metal thinks I am really taking care of it and there is a dialogue between us: if it knows I am caring, it will want to become something beautiful”.

Wayne’s studio. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Customized and shiny tools. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Wayne thinks that somehow the metal is alive and has a “God”. This strong belief may arguably have a scientific background: metal is made of molecules, it expands when you heat the metal up, it shrinks and cracks when you harden it. But it mostly stems from a metaphysical and spiritual point of view: metal and humans are made of the same particles and we are all part of a whole, the “Tao”. You must therefore listen to the metal: there is a moment when it starts splitting and at that very moment, the metal is “crying” to ask you to stop. If “you carefully watch it, listen to it, then you can literally hear at the sound of the hammer when the metal is getting hard and you know when it is soft” says Wayne.

To understand this particular bond between the material and the maker, one needs to dig a bit deeper into Wayne’s life. After having being badly beaten up during a street aggression and almost died at the age of 29, Wayne was introduced to Tai Chi during his recovery. The first year was mostly about learning the movements but during a workshop in the countryside, his teacher brought him very near to a huge tree and asked him to look at the scarred, marked and damaged bark. Then both of them walked away 500 yards and his teacher asked him to look again at the tree. “That tree is you,” he told Wayne. After years of therapy and plastic surgery, years of being ashamed of his scars, somebody was comparing him to this tree of life, damaged on the outside but majestic on the inside. This was one of the defining moments of Wayne’s life. He suddenly understood why he had been so inspired by Kandinsky, Egyptian art and 50’s American cars: they were all triangles, angles, and sharp, and that is exactly how he was feeling inside. After discovering Tai Chi, he started to take life drawing classes, to find inspiration in feminine curves, contemporary dance movements, flowing rivers, waterfalls and nature. “The shape I am creating now are really soft and organic”, he says.

Chi Ball. Britannia silver. Courtesy of he artist.

The second defining moment of his life was when he decided to go to Japan to learn a technique called mokume gane (folding, cutting and hammering together different layers of metals to reveal colours and patterns) with Japanese masters. He spent two years at Tokyo Geidai (University of Fine Arts and Music) as a visiting professor but had to learn Japanese first! Those two years were very demanding but acted as a revelation: he met masters that taught him not only technical virtuosity but also Japanese ancestral ways of thinking about metalworking practices. It was as if somebody suddenly expressed loudly what he had been feeling deeply inside for a while. “You are more Japanese than Japanese” was the most extraordinary compliment he ever received from his master.

Professor Norio Tamagawa with Wayne in Mr Tamagawa's workshop in Nigata, Japan. Courtesy of the artist.

Tai chi and those two years in Japan changed his life forever and the Tao philosophy became indissociable from his relation to metalsmithing. To understand it fully, one has to look at him working on metal: bang, bang, kabang, pause, bang, bang, kabang, pause. Like a Tai Chi routine. A pause between each breath. “There is a dialogue, a rhythm, a music, between me and the metal. Then the metal knows that it is me handling it,” says Wayne. Like a dance, every stroke of the hammer has to be exact, precise and in the centre. “If it makes a mark, you dent it and it becomes sharp,” he adds.

Wayne working on his latest piece. Photo Isabelle Busnel

To get to know the metal even more intimately, Wayne is usually buying silver in the form of grains that he will melt into a bloc and then hammer. “When you buy a sheet of metal from a bullion dealer, it has already been worked on by somebody else or a machine and I can’t have a proper dialogue with it, so when I buy a lump of silver, it doesn’t know me yet, which is why I am making my own metal and my own alloys,” he says. Japanese metalworkers are, according to Wayne, the best in the world to make their own alloy because the scarcity of metal on their island have forced them to be experimental and creative in this field. Wayne has learned a lot in Tokyo about understanding the chemical formula of metals: “this enables you to know how far you can push the material before it cries and breaks”, he says.

Inner Golden Facets. Truffle. Mokume Gane and silver. Courtesy of the artist.
(This piece is in he final of the Saul Bell International Design and Crafts award 2011 competition)

Wayne’s profound respect for metal is only one aspect of his Tai Chi and Tao spirituality of which his impressive skills and patience are another face. Wayne has spent 8 years at University and 2 years in Japan learning the fundamentals. “You have to root yourself and grow like a tree. That way, you can become a stepping-stone for the next generation” he says. This is something that our fast paced society has sometimes trouble to cope with. “Young people want to earn quick money, to become traders or rock stars but not to spend 10 years painfully learning a technique,” he says. He is echoed by an interesting quote from Bruce Metcalf (a very thought-provoking jeweller/writer/curator/teacher whose website is full of inspirational texts about craft): “Basic article of faith in the Modernist academy was that careful, controlled work has no aesthetic potential. In Japan and Korea, mastery of technique is understood as evidence of spiritual maturity. To a Buddhist, work spent on attaining skill necessarily contributes to higher awareness. It is regarded as a spiritual discipline to have repeated the same act thousands of times, to have paid careful attention in years of work, and finally to have achieved perfection. Virtuosity is admired not just for its own sake, but because it demonstrates a religious accomplishment”. This quote seems to have been written to describe Wayne’s work… One of his vases can take a month to make - 10 hours a day, six days a week - and that probably explains why he is sometimes so hard with students, as he wishes to teach the value of mastering their techniques whatever the material chosen.

Another thing he was always mentioning in his class: “you are unique, and if you don’t believe in yourself, who will”? He was therefore pushing us to find the gem hidden deep inside ourselves, and didn’t let us go until he thought we had done the best we could which led some students to cry on a regular basis. “Tears are not a bad thing, they are cleansing. Students knew I was opening up areas within them to allow them to grow. It was emotional because I was mirroring what they were thinking and feeling inside but they didn’t know how to express it” he says. Looking at the inner quality rather than at the outside: a philosophy directly inspired from the Tao, the yin and Yang, the positive and the negative and the art of finding balance between them.

Mother and child. Britannia silver. Courtesy of the artist.

This is why, according to Wayne, his vases do not need flowers: the beauty lies inside the forms, the curves and the sensuality of the silver alloy. The “unknown” and the mystery are inside. As he likes to say: “my work goes up inside”.

Inside of the Inner Golden Facets. Courtesy of the artist.

The time spent interviewing Wayne about his life, his work and his Tai Chi practice helped me understand why he was so passionate (and sometimes hard) in his teaching. It also helped me to better understand his work: “being a craftsman, an artist and a designer, I want to tell people in my own way a spiritual message through art about Tai Chi” he said at the end of the interview.

Embrace within. Mokume gane and Britannia silver box. Courtesy of the artist.

The box in the above picture will act as a perfect conclusion for this portrait: it is made of mokume gane and raised Britannia silver, has a sort of yin and yang game playing between the two parts, is sensual and curvaceous, hides the unknown inside and has been virtuously crafted… All of Wayne’s philosophy in a box. 

Friday, 15 April 2011


On March 9th, I have posted an article about a collective of artists called Dialogue. I met them before they were heading to SCHMUCK in Munich (which is the oldest exhibition of contemporary jewellery in the world).  You can find this article here.
Having interviewed them on what they were planning to do in Munich, I ended my post with the following project: “And I am really interested to see how people will react to the three different spaces in Munich. I have asked Dialogue Collective to gather as much information as possible: pictures, people’s reactions, audience feedback and we have agreed to meet again soon to debrief. Rendezvous in a few weeks…”

As promised, we met again and they gave me a full debriefing of what happened in Munich. I have selected some of their pictures (with their permission) to illustrate the interview.

IB: Did the exhibition attract a lot of people ?
DC: It was a big success: around 200 people came to see us during the 3 days and we sold more pieces than last year, which is a good sign as well. Two amongst us have been selected by a gallery to be exhibited in COLLECT in May.

IB: How did people react to the different spaces?
DC: the Shoppery was right at the entrance so people gathered there first. It was very lively, like the kitchen in a house party where people hang around. After a while, they usually went checking the Gallery space and then wandered back. They were touching pieces, picking up stuff and were trying them. They seemed to feel comfortable.

IB: how was the atmosphere in the Gallery?
DC: much quieter. People felt less inclined to touch pieces. They usually didn’t stay very long, but as they had already been in the shoppery first, they were probably less intimidated and some asked questions.

IB: how did you manage to differentiate the Shoppery and the Gallery?
DC: the Shoppery had price tags, pieces were displayed on tables sitting in paper drawn presentation boxes, we even had a fake till in cardboard and people were standing behind the tables. We think it was quite obvious. In the Gallery, the space was huge, there were no prices, no names and no explanation. Only one member of our team was staying there in case some visitors had questions. The Shoppery might be compared to the gift shop in a gallery or museum where people can buy souvenirs and postcards.

Images of the Shoppery:

Images of the Gallery:

IB: what about the games?
DC: they were really successful. The choice of games was very good. We had them all the time during the 3 days and some people came back to play again. There was a kind of competition between some of the visitors as well. We had a sawing game (particularly liked by the jewellers), a throwing game, a chest game (a guy stayed 20 minutes to win it), a matchbox game (silver matches were randomly added to some boxes and people could win them) and plenty others. At the private view, we had to throw people out at 11PM!

IB: don’t you think those games were distracting people from looking at the works?
DC: No it wasn’t, on the contrary it builds up a rapport with people that wouldn’t have happened otherwise: this is what Dialogue is all about. It was actually great fun: everyone enjoyed it, like a party, allowing more interaction with people.
IB: is it becoming a kind of signature for Dialogue?
DC: People’s feedback was that we were very different from the other shows in Munich. So, in a sense, you might indeed say games and fun are part of our signature.  However, for the future events, if we don’t have games we will try to come up with something equivalent. It has to be done cleverly to avoid too much distraction and keep a connection with our aims in Dialogue.

IB: your logo was very strong and visual. How important was it?
DC: we did much better than last year. This time we had a very powerful logo but a lot of freedom in the show. We gave away flyers although communication is not easy in Munich: no website, programs distributed late … But with the X on its orange background, people recognised us easily and we were very pleased to see our badges worn by some people in the street!

IB: did you give any explanation about the treasure hunt, which was the starting point of your show?
DC: we displayed a board providing some explanation on the back of the entrance door, although we are not sure anyone read it. At the same time, we didn’t want to say too much as we prefer to leave doors open but not force people to enter. The “dialogue” occurs when people actually push the door and start asking questions, which they did a lot in Munich.

IB: anything you would like to improve in the future?
DC: we grow organically and we improve every time we organise a new event. This year we were much better organised and we had more energy and confidence, but we could have done better in terms of displaying names, artist statements and price lists in the Gallery space.

IB: what next for Dialogue Collective?
DC: we are maybe thinking about having a Shoppery in London, as we invented the concept and would like to test it outside Munich which remains a special place. It could also be a pop-up shop with a different name. Munich 2012 is on the agenda as well as an event in Normandy (France) in July 2012. It is time for us to spread and maybe to have split Dialogue to deal with different issues, one with commercialisation for example. The time is right to expand further and to push the boundaries….

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


An exhibition called “Circuit céramique” held recently in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris will be my starting point to reflect on a trend that has always fascinated me: mixing contemporary artefacts with permanent historic collections.

One of the most well-known and controversial attempts is perhaps the Chateau De Versailles in France where 3 contemporary artists have been recently exhibited: Jeff Koons in 2008, Xavier Veilhan in 2009 and Takashi Murakami in 2010. When asked by  The Economist in November 2010 why to confront a Japanese contemporary artist with an iconic French site, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, director of the Versailles museum replies: “I think that the presence of contemporary artworks in an historical setting, as that of the Château de Versailles, awakens the glance of the visitor who passes through the royal rooms. It makes him reflect on the perenniality of the artistic experiment, on the relations that the artists of today maintain with the artists of yesterday. It also allows the visitor [to become more committed to what he sees and] to avoid this terrible disease often seen in museums and in monuments, which is the lethargy of the glance”.

Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami’s exhibitions have led conservative groups to launch websites and petitions that defend the preservation of Versailles as a symbol of French heritage, “not a place to display contemporary culture”, which in their opinion “spoils the site”. But both artists seemed to have genuinely been inspired by the historical site: “Contemporary art is so imprisoned in the present that juxtaposing new works with old ones allows you to rediscover a connection between history and the history of art. The baroque is the ideal context for me to highlight the philosophical nature of my work”, says Koons. "I am the Cheshire cat that welcomes Alice in Wonderland with its diabolic smile, and chatters away as she wanders around the Château” says Murakami.

Jeff Koons. Photo: Thibault Camus (AP Photo), AFP

Xavier Veilhan. Photo Google Images

Takashi Murakami. Photo: Cedric Delsaux

I personally believe that this kind of confrontation is always thought-provoking and I don’t think it spoils historic collections. You can always skip contemporary artworks, avoid some rooms and enjoy the site. Or come back when the exhibition is finished… And in a way, it is continuing the legacy of such places: on the Murakami exhibition leaflet, the Head of Events at Versailles writes that the Chateau “is a place known for its collaborations with some of the best creative people throughout history, including Molière, Lully, and Delacroix”. He compares historic sites as “mille-feuilles” (a French pastry made of overlapping layers), which were built over the course of decades, and sometimes even centuries, through creative interventions.
And as shown in the pictures above, juxtapositions are sometimes very successful: colours, shapes, materials are very different but they clash, they emphasize differences, they communicate. Something is happening. I agree with Aillagon when he says that Versailles was designed for celebration and is not “a place for penitence”. And both Koons and Murakami's art are joyful and colourful and fit well with the profusion of the quasi-baroque decorations of Versailles. For Veilhan, the crisp modernity of his pieces sharply contrasts with the surroundings, and makes a successful confrontation.
They, in a way, break the barriers between cultural heritage and contemporary art audience and it is a fantastic way to reach different audiences and create new opportunities through the juxtaposition of past and present.

In the Paris’ “Circuit Céramique” exhibition, contemporary ceramic pieces were spread over the permanent collection of the “Musée des Arts Décoratifs”, the French equivalent of the London V&A. A leaflet was needed to find your way in this treasure hunt, as some pieces were not easy to spot. A green line on the floor was therefore helping the visitor and added a fun element to the visit. In the “circuit” (journey) contemporary works were dialoguing with the surroundings and the historical objects. Relationships between forms, historical references and sometimes more unconscious, emotional links built up and the viewer was solicited to use his sensibility to establish the connections. Works and displays have been carefully chosen to stimulate the dialogue between pieces from different periods (from Middle Ages to Art deco) and contemporary works.
This juxtaposition was a real success as it attracted two very different crowds: amateurs of antiques and historical artefacts discovering the contemporary ceramic production and amateurs of contemporary craft rediscovering the permanent collection they probably would never have visited otherwise.

Here are some photos of juxtaposition I particularly found interesting:

Michel Gouery. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Kristin McKirdy. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Gabrielle Wambaugh. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Gabrielle Wambaugh. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Patricia Glave. Photo Isabelle Busnel

Xue Sun. Photo Isabelle Busnel

A stimulating experiment is to compare contemporary objects on their own (with “white cube” surroundings that generally characterize exhibitions in galleries) and the display in the museum:

Wayne Fisher’s “Disques” are organic and mysterious and they echo admirably the white fluffy sheets of the baroque bed, but at the same time look like living creatures crawling in the intimacy of the bedroom. 

Wayne Fisher, Disque, 2010. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Ruth Gurvich’s vases are inspired by Chinese ceramics. At first glance, the viewer is reassured: Asian vases sit well in the antiques display but when looked closer, onlookers discover they are made of paper. Forms, materials, and decorations…they seem familiar but they aren’t. The juxtaposition with antiques is brilliant as it emphasizes and destabilizes our perception at the same time.

Ruth Gurvich, Vases “pleurs” (2001/2002) and “Lightscape” (2010). Photos Isabelle Busnel

Sylvain Thirouin’s installation “Intrusions” is made of clay and represents manholes. I find them much more intriguing displayed in a Louis XIV living room than on a white floor as they are, according to the artist, a testimony of the past:  spread on the luxurious carpet, they make a striking contrast with their dull colours and raw materials.

Sylvain Thirouin, Intrusions, 2010. Photos Isabelle Busnel

Overall this exhibition resonated perfectly with my taste for displays mixing old and new which forces visitors to think outside the box and walk away from their comfort zone. But there is more: for me, “Circuit Céramique » is a great illustration of what contemporary craft represents nowadays. Previously, craft stood for the decorative arts and was synonym with hand made luxury goods for use and display (inside buildings or on the body). The contemporary craft scene is completely different and I agree with Bruce Metcalf in his very interesting overview of the history of craft (Bruce Metcalf website) when he says that with the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris created a new category of objects. According to Metcalf “they [contemporary craft objects] were theorized. They were both the product and subject of discourses”. He then states that “Craft continues to be a social movement, often intuitive and without leadership. I see craft as a collective attempt to relocate personal meaning in a largely indifferent world. As a teacher and observer, I constantly see how craft functions as a vehicle to construct meaning, and how it gives substance and dignity and grace to individual's lives”.

This is particularly obvious in this exhibition: contemporary ceramic objects might echo some historical artefacts in their materials, colours, shapes, textures but they strongly differ in their meaning and function. They are no more luxury interior décors or products of a trade but, quoting Bruce Metcalf’s words, rather “a combination of social awareness and respect for tradition”.