“Yewn residence” by Dickson Yewn 翁狄森之翁府
THE TRADITIONAL FUTURIST: DICKSON YEWN
Historically in Chinese culture, jewelry for both men and women had largely been considered as part of costume and a signifier of rank and social status. Ornamented with symbols and rebuses, jewelry also has auspicious efficacy. As a form of material culture, it was sometimes appreciated for its complicated technology, artisanal expertise and superficial beauty, but largely ignored in the annals of connoisseurship. In more recent times, with ‘Fine Jewelry’ considered an asset class in the world of luxury commodities, the type, grade and cut of precious stones have taken center stage. There is less interest in keeping the integrity of a design by an anonymous artisan, and stones can be reset at a patron’s whim.
So, can jewelry be art? Multi-media artist Dickson Yewn would most certainly answer in the emphatic affirmative. The concept of art jewelry has existed since the early 20th century in the west, where it was associated with aesthetic movements, and artists like Calder, Picasso, Man Ray and Dali made wearable works that reflected the modernist zeitgeist. However, by comparison, Yewn sees himself more as a latter-day literatus, who combines his contemporary training in film, photography, wax carving and jewelry design, with his
lifelong study of the timeless Chinese tradition.
It is therefore not surprising that his earlier works like the ‘No Man’s Land’ series, delved into various facets of Chinese philosophy, metaphysics and mysticism. Beginning with photography, it was only in the second iteration of this series, that Yewn ventured into a three-dimensional installation format that displayed silver sculptures of natural forms, that could be worn as rings or pendants, as a micro-landscape through which scholars wander, articulating Taoist notions like man’s relationship with Nature and the concept of energy in motion. Parts 3 and 4 saw him explore the connection between the I-Ching and the yin-yang binary with Chinese games like chess, chequers and mahjong. While Part 5 on the theme of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream highlighted Yewn’s meticulous attention to detail and research. Noting that butterflies were always stylized in jewelry, he based his renditions of specific species, even earning praise from natural scientists on their lifelikeness.
Yewn believes that his mission is to bring Chinese culture back to the contemporary Asian lifestyle, which he feels has been disrupted by Western modernity. He spent much time studying the imperial collections at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, acquiring a connoisseurial eye for his personal adventures in collecting as well as an extensive vocabulary of quintessentially Chinese forms and motifs. Over the past decade, under his eponymous brand, Yewn has produced series which have been inspired by Ming period literati aesthetics, the imperial sword collections, bronzes, porcelains and architectural elements, among other themes.
In 2020, Yewn’s creative vision of living with Chinese culture was expressed through a collaborative work with the ink painter Eunice Cheung. Entitled ‘Yewn Residence 2040’, it projects his family some two decades in time, placing them in an idyllic garden setting. The patriarch is seated in his studio surrounded by antiquarian objects, while his wife and daughter are seated outside watching his grandchildren at play. Fitted western clothing has been ditched and replaced by hanfu, and there is a distinctive absence of technology. The air is festive as a jazz band plays in the background. Closer observation reveals an intriguing accumulation of signs: some referencing set themes in Chinese visual culture, while others are instantly recognizable as iconic objects from the imperial collections or connected to Yewn’s body of work, yet more are playful puzzles that interfere with our understanding of the forward movement of time. Is this painting anachronistic or futuristic? Why are there seals from the famous emperors (Taizong from the Tang dynasty, Huizong from the Northern Song dynasty and Kangxi from the Qing dynasty)? While there are no certain answers, it leaves the painting open for the viewer to construct their own 2040 storyline.
Fast forward 28 years, ‘Yewn Residence 2068’ presents a very different picture. Yewn worked with Lewis Lau to conceptualize this work. Painted in heavy oils with a somber palette, it is a dystopian and subterranean world echoing the isolation experienced by many due to the pandemic and war in 2022. Unlike the deeply personal ‘2024’ which is an homage to Chinese culture, Yewn’s past work and his love of family, ‘2068’ is a commentary on the impact of climate change and the industries of the future that will dominate in China. The aggregation of signs, mostly in the form of corporate logos, are well integrated into the painting, some more easily spotted than others. It signals the rise of companies invested in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and agriculture. The penguin with the red scarf is instantly recognizable as QQ the brand mascot for Tencent’s messaging platform, encouraging the viewer to look for more logos. In many instances, they help to amplify the story.
The four figures depicted⎯Yewn’s daughter, a polar bear, a penguin and Eve in the garden of Eden⎯do not interact with each other. The daughter, dressed in a robe that is decorated with the WeChat logo, is looking intensely at her Huawei laptop, while a device that looks like a teacup is streaming her health data; isolated on a rocky outcrop, it is no longer the human touch that connects. How did the polar bear arrive at the door? The matrix of binary code beyond the door, together with logo of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) at the door handle, suggest that teleporting is a real possibility. Life underground is viable as wheat can be cultivated and the plum tree blossoms. Across the stream through which TikTok flows is Eve reaching out for the apple, only to find it no longer has the signature one bite but now there are three. Beside the exuberant flourish of the 支 character in Alipay’s logo on Eve’s sash, and the upward pointing arrows of the CNSA on her dress, the apple looks much diminished.
Four rings, each depicting one figure, provide a contrast to the realism of the painting. Abstracted in Cubist form, the designs have been rendered in pastel color enamel and inlaid with precious stones. With their square form representing the earth, each ring is decorated on the left side with plants and flowers that have healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine. ‘Dharma Biotech’, the ring depicting the woman with a laptop is matched with the Winter Daphne, which is known for its attractive appearance and strong fragrance. ‘I- Ching Magic Square’ depicting the polar bear is accompanied by the East Asian Pollia, a perennial flowering plant, whose roots and stem are used for replenishing the qi of the kidney and treating back pains and bruises. ‘Tencent and Sina Binary’ depicts the logos of these two Chinese tech giants on opposite sides, and is paired with the frangipani, which has calming properties and is used for relief of abdominal pain. ‘Two Bites’ (a pun on bytes), depicting Eve, is topped by Beautiful Sweetgum, whose resinous sap is used to treat pain and inflammation. The bright warm tones tones of these rings and their tactile qualities bring out a sense of well being. When seen as a whole, ‘Yewn Residence 2068’, seeks to achieve a yin-yang balance between the painting and the rings and serve as a warning and a hope for the future.
DR HWANG YIN
Adjunct Senior Lecturer Department of Chinese Studies National University of Singapore
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