Fable of Body by Teng Fei 01

Interview By Jiang Yuehong

Strategy: if you’re not going forward, you’re falling behind.

In terms of creating jewellery art, the impact of Western contemporary jewellery design on the students’ work is clear. When speaking with friends from abroad, one often hears the statement, “They must look at Western catalogues.” What do you make of this?

I would like to consider this from two angles, the first related to personal practice and choice. It doesn’t matter if your material or the ways in which you express an idea are similar, in terms of form, to someone else. In creating art, what matters more is that there is a difference in the concept or problem you are trying to express or solve. I personally believe that a similarity with red to the channel or means of expression is allowed. For example I created a work using hair, a method used by other artists previously; Mona Hatoum has done a hair necklace. My motive here is not to find a material no one else has used; rather it is to find the best possible way of expressing something. I won’t pass on it simply because it has been done before by other artists; there is no issue as long as I am focusing on something different. The challenge, though, becomes about who is more precise. You can challenge yourself to use the material in a more detailed way, in a way that even more lucidly expresses your own idea. That is to say, there is definitely a comparison here, an acknowledgement of reference that will inevitably take place. I will typically tell my students that if not only the outcome but also the motive is similar, it might be best to consider another solution, as others have already done it better.

The other aspect of this has to do with our current context and recent history. When I got back from Germany, what I saw was an education system constraining what was interesting, and human, about individuals; I saw a system that extinguished creativity. It became clear to me that one of the most important things I had been taught in the West was the skill of expressing myself: self-expression, allowing oneself to be natural, passionate, and authentic, remaining deeply rooted in one’s own personality. So when I came back, I saw the importance of encouraging students to express themselves freely. I saw we needed to challenge the status quo, and inspire students with vivid examples of other possibilities. But, while the saying is ‘out with the old, in with the new’, if we are too focused on breaking all of the old things, then we have no energy left for building anew. In this light, the most urgent need was instead to address the prominent issues, and otherwise to just begin with the essentials, bringing in the most valuable things first. Thorough destruction would not be possible; what was most necessary at that time was an initial ‘untying’, a relaxing. And then it was about communicating, from my heart, about what I had learned abroad. This was the situation in the nineties. I think it was a process of self-healing. Only after you become healthy can you even start considering other options, or asking questions like ‘how can we incorporate some of our own, Eastern, things?’

Liu Yao’s post-graduate work is a classic example of this. He produced a lot of work as an undergraduate; at the time, we said to students that copying was not a problem, and I didn’t try to stop him from going about it in that way. I believe that in copying others’ work, as long as you copy it well, you learn something through the replication of the action. Then, when your own ideas have formed, you can work on changing the image or going in search of your own means of expression. At the time, all of the stories behind Liu’s works were his own, even though the language he used was not yet able to separate itself from that of his models. When he began his master’s degree, the question shifted to how he could break out of his cocoon. I advised that he use the material as a starting point; we talked about this extensively. He worked very hard, especially in the works where he combined gems with rice paper. People would say things like, ‘Does China really have that many diamonds? Shouldn’t you have more pearls or something?’ At least through that kind of dialogue, he could begin to understand himself, and others, better.

At the moment, what would you add to the jewellery course, if it were in need of any changes?

I see the past ten years as a part of a process, an accumulation of teaching experiences. There have been successes, but there are also areas that could stand to be improved. It is always good to comb through and learn from previous experiences, and I already know I’m not satisfied yet, and that a lot of things must be adjusted over time. When an opportune moment comes to reflect and change, not forging ahead means falling behind. There are some fundamental problems you can consider as an educator; how do you reposition yourself in a positive way as a teacher? How do you establish more platforms for communication with students and co-workers? And then of course in terms of jewellery making specifically, how do you improve technique? Naturally, I also consider the future of the major, and still feel that it is important that we emphasize the importance of ideals, of having a dream.

We see all kinds of students during the application process, and we need to face this reality. Times change and people become more ‘practical’ with regard to their careers. True passion for the arts requires patience, a tolerance for solitude, perseverance, and the shouldering of heavy responsibility…and when they enrol, a lot of students do not understand what their interest—or the pursuit they are choosing—really means. But as we grow larger as a school and are able to admit more students, we have to adjust our standards. Going forward, “Interactive Art and Design” and “Heritage Research and Expansion” will be the central foci for teaching development and research.

We cannot ignore that times are changing; the digital era is directly influencing and changing our lifestyle as a race. I remember when I hosted an international jewellery exhibition and seminar back in 2002; we were discussing the future and jewellery’s place in it. What we imagined back then is a reality today. The artist Susan Cohn, in attendance at the seminar, brought up some of the possibilities of what jewellery design would become in a high-tech era. Every one of our hypotheses at that meeting has now come true, and now we are looking to the next ten years with the same expectation.

There is the question of how to realize the potential of systems of philosophy, religion, and the humanities, with a basis in Eastern culture. For example, jewellery metalwork is a compulsory course for our major, but in terms of how we can take up the proposition of ‘pouring new wine into an old bottle’ while using the same skills is still something we have not fully worked out. We have already mobilized several very good teachers and a host of resources towards this very goal. For instance, Zhang Fan is my first master’s student. Her research focuses on filaments in the traditional Chinese fine silver and gold crafts. This is why I kept her on to research the legacy and development of traditional crafts. When I started the enamel craft research project, she organized a large amount of resources and was invaluable in laying a good foundation for the course. We are still developing the curriculum in this area, and hope to take it further in the coming years.

What can one say about native, Eastern culture and its appearance on the surface? How might one enrich it, or, in another words, how could one improve it? Perhaps we need to adjust the structure of our curriculum, and carefully go through the history of the Chinese jewellery tradition and its techniques, thereby establishing a more effective means by which we can bridge the gap between design and art.

I read a book recently about trends in design in which the author spoke of design and art as one entity, which made me excited—it’s rare that I find someone who thinks like I do on that point. We talked about how jewellery design could be contemporary, such as jewellery as an accessory, as something linked to fashion. I gave a talk a few years ago in which I discussed the fact that clothing brands now require accessories that stand out. Compared with traditional jewels, jewellery today must be more exaggerated, more carefree. It needs to have personality. Several years ago I began to see that we should be expanding into this area, but we still haven’t gotten the curriculum going. I want to engage with my students in research into this area. The integration of art and design into life is a new demand born out of the development of human history. It is also a personal need today.

Obviously, any sort of adjustment or addition to your work begins with self-respect, and goes from weak to strong, eventually becoming part of your artistic development. You need to gradually strengthen and stand up for what you think and say. This takes constant learning and practice, and in turn extends to the creation and teaching of jewellery design. It’s like a web where everything is connected—nothing is an island. This is about the history of contemporary jewellery, traditional jewellery techniques, and the blurring of boundaries as we try to redefine jewellery today. It’s always been my hope that jewellery education can take root in this, but also constantly move forward and offer real solutions.

To be continued…

Courtesy Teng Fei and CAFA ART INFO.

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