The Israeli Designer Who Replaced Gold With Paper

Award-winning jewelry designer Attai Chen explores the ways materials are perceived in the digital age.

For his final project at the jewelry and fashion department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Attai Chen displayed more than 40 pieces of gold jewelry. Breaking with convention, he decided not to display them side by side. Instead, he fixed a small digital screen onto a brooch that displayed the photos one after another, like a slideshow. “Those were the noughties − the beginning of the age of iPods,” he reminisces over the phone from his home in Munich.

“I took an ounce of gold, 31 grams of pure gold, and started to play around with the material. I made one piece of jewelry, photographed it and then melted it. All that remained of the piece was a photograph, a digital file. I continued in this way: making a piece, taking a photo, melting it and so on. Eventually I had a presentation that documented a process of growth and decay. The past interested me − that place where gold was considered to be eternal, considered to be the ideal material, almost an anti-material − in contrast to the digital space, which also tries to create eternal life. Alchemists always tried to create gold, to create immortality, and the digital age is also more or less in the same place.”

The project represented a theme that underlies much of Chen’s work: the way the materials are perceived in the digital age, their life cycles and demise, and the question of what defines the value of a piece of jewelry − the material it’s made from or the thought that has gone into it. Chen’s conceptual interest in the materials he uses is mentioned in the description of his work by the judges of the Andy Prize for Contemporary Art − an award established by Charles Bronfman and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Chen won the 2014 prize for his work, which the judges called a “poetic body of work ... developed with the aim of immortalizing the individual as well as commenting on the political, crossing boundaries between the organic and non-organic. His works represent a visual world that references its own extinction as well as its resurrection.”

Creative family

As well as being a graduate of the jewelry and fashion department at Bezalel, Chen, who was born in 1979, also studied toward a postgraduate qualification at the jewelry and department of the Academy for Fine Arts in Munich, where he has been living for the past six years. During the second half of the 20th century, Munich became a center for contemporary jewelry. Over the last decade his work has been featured in many group exhibitions, such as the “Unexpected Pleasures” exhibition at London’s Design Museum. The exhibition ran from December 2012 until March this year.

Chen has also won a variety of prizes, including a sponsorship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Herbert Hofmann prize, awarded each year at the international Schmuck design exhibition.

Chen was born into a creative family with strong connections to Bezalel. His mother studied ceramics and glassware design there, while his father studied in the art department. One brother studied visual communications, another brother studied in the architecture department, and his sister studied video and new media. “Though I studied art in high school I didn’t want to study in the art department [at Bezalel],” he says. “I wanted something that was connected to materials. Eventually I decided upon jewelry as I liked the idea of a department that provided you with a technical foundation, combining metals and soft materials such as fabrics and leather, as well as the technical and conceptual. When I was studying I didn’t necessarily want to make jewelry, and today I relate to what I do as something sculptural that communicates with the body.”

In Munich he studied under Prof. Otto Kunzli, one of the most important contemporary jewelry artists of recent decades. “In contrast to a standard Masters’ degree, the studies in Munich were built in the manner of a master class, as was customary 200 years ago. They usually last between five and six years,” he says.

Paper creations

After studying for four and a half years, Chen decided to leave his studies a year ago. “I felt like that was it, I had enough,” he says.

A year beforehand, in 2011, he had won the Herbert Hofmann prize for his series of paper creations, called “Compounding Fractions.” He is still working on the development of this series.

“A piece of jewelry that is made from paper is a relatively delicate object − and undoubtedly isn’t as eternal as a piece made from gold. This raises the question of how we measure the value of a piece. I think that in these pieces, the work and idea [behind them] has more worth than the material the piece is made from.

“The reason I started to work with paper was because I was fed up of working with metal. I felt obstructed; I wanted to work on a far larger scale, at a much quicker pace. I started to work with paper thinking that I’d just use it to sketch with, but I then understood that it enabled me to work faster, bigger, more freely, and I could fix and add to it until I reached a point where I felt that at least something was finished within that time period.”

What issues did you investigate while working with paper?

“In the background there’s always the desire to capture one moment of fulfillment within a process of growth and decay. In terms of the material, I was also interested in recycling, in cycles, in reaching a state where something is biodegradable. Not long ago I finished another work, ‘500 goldfish.’ I took real dried sardines and processed them one after another, covering them with gold leaf, all by hand. I exhibited them on a stage arranged like soldiers in an army, each fish being a slightly different size and appearance to the other, all wrapped up and embalmed in pure gold. In this work I am also dealing with growth, transience and the relationships between materials. I’m suddenly investing so much attention on these fish, wrapping them up like mummies, as if they are soldiers in a Chinese terracotta army.”

When Chen had just arrived in Munich, he tried to engage with political issues in a more obvious manner, “being an Israeli living within this conflict.” One of the works he produced during this period was “D-9,” a brooch made from olive tree wood in the shape of an armored bulldozer. This piece was displayed at the “Unexpected Pleasures” exhibition in London’s Design Museum.

What common factor do your works have?

“I’m interested in the aesthetics that characterize the feeling of the moment before something happens, something about the process, the recycling. There is something very sad but also very optimistic about it. Like a forest that burns and creates the best fertilizer for new trees to grow upon. I can never understand why I deal with these questions, it is unconscious. The awareness arrives later. I usually don’t have a defined, formulated, resolved idea with which to approach the material.”

Mirei Takeuchi
Mirei Takeuchi