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Interview with Caroline Cheng, curator of 'All that glitters is gold' exhibition at Sands Resorts Macao
Sands Style / Interviews & Features

Interview with Caroline Cheng, curator of 'All that glitters is gold' exhibition at Sands Resorts Macao

Caroline Cheng tells Rosebud Sim about her art and curating the for Art Macao

A traditional dress with outstretched, flowing sleeves seems to levitate under the light, encased in a spotless vitrine. It seems to be from the ancient past; the style is reminiscent of a costume from a Chinese period drama, and it glitters as though covered in tiny gold nuggets. On closer inspection, you realise you’re looking at thousands of thumbsized butterflies – each intricate and unique – sewn onto the fabric. The butterfly dress by Caroline Cheng is one of the works going on show at “All That’s Gold Does Glitter”, a new ceramic exhibition opening on June 8 that the acclaimed artist has curated as part of Art Macao, and commissioned by Sands. As a young girl, Cheng lived in Cambridge, England, where her grandfather worked at The Fitzwilliam Museum, the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge, and taught her to appreciate Chinese ceramics from different dynasties. She fondly recalls how her grandmother would bring out clay for her to mould. The resulting sculptures were put in a makeshift kiln: “We heaved a pile of dead leaves in the backyard and baked the clay in it,” says Cheng with a grin. 

Although immersed in the world of Chinese ceramics from an early age, Cheng never considered becoming a ceramic artist. Instead, she wanted to be a vet. Then, while at university in San Francisco, she took an art class as an elective, and ended up with two degrees – zoology and art. 

In the late 1980s, when artists began experimenting with the boundaries of digital art, her art teacher told her that painting and sculpture were old-fashioned, and the new was “internet art”. The World Wide Web, invented in 1989, opened up a whole new world of creativity, and it forever changed the way Cheng thought about art. 

After two years of exploring digital art, Cheng decided to rediscover ceramics. It was a quote by the famous contemporary artist Jeff Koons – “art should be borderline craft” – that reignited her passion for ceramic’s physical properties. 

It is impossible to discuss the art of ceramics without mentioning Jingdezhen, the ancient city in Southern China that has been synonymous with porcelain since the 6th century. Cheng first visited in the 1980s and, amazed by the skills of the craftsmen,  kept returning. 

In 2004, she launched an international ceramics centre in Jingdezhen, called The Pottery Workshop, to promote the development of ceramics in China and the world. “

“When we opened the workshop, we decided to do a ceramic fashion show where everyone had to create wearable ceramics,” says Cheng, recalling the early days. The Pottery Workshop went on to become a hub where international artists flocked to learn porcelain craft. Today, the centre is the heart of a strong community of independent craftsmen, sculptors and artists. 

Jingdezhen is also where Cheng first got the idea for a butterfly dress.

“I found a craftsman making the typical butterfly plates you see everywhere, that sell for 25 yuan,” explains Cheng. “So I asked him to make me a thousand butterflies, each with two holes at the back.” Bewildered, the craftsman set to work. His beautiful creations adorned Cheng’s first butterfly dress, and from then she went on to make several more such works featuring ceramic butterflies, each more complex than the last. 

Cheng says when the craftsman first saw the finished dress, he asked, “How is it that you came up with this idea, but I couldn’t?”

She replied, “As a craftsman, you excel in your traditional skill; as an artist, I turn it into something brand new – that’s the difference.”

Cheng believes the three things artists must have is knowledge of their country’s cultural history, excellent craftsmanship and, most importantly, to be able to innovate in terms of content or method, which her Prosperity series of butterfly dresses demonstrates perfectly. One of the works, a breathtaking example, is studded with more than 25,000 porcelain versions of the winged insect, and has been on display at the British Museum since 2013.

A universally popular motif, butterflies embody beauty, vivacity and fragility, but Cheng’s decision to incorporate them in her work had specific inspiration. 

“Early to mid-20th century, China was in political turmoil,” says Cheng. “Some of the greatest writers of Chinese literature, like Lao She, produced novels that were scathing critiques of society. However, there were others who were uninterested in political writing, and instead focused on romantic novels.” 

This literary school was nicknamed Yuanyang Hudiepai (literally mandarin ducks and butterflies), and was criticised as populist and frivolous by intellectuals. 

“A lot of popular souvenirs made in China are often related to the Cultural Revolution,” says Cheng, referring to copies of the Little Red Book and propaganda posters. “Western collectors find that so appealing. But I wanted to find something else that represents China. That’s how I thought of the butterfly motif in ‘Yuanyang Hudiepai’.” It is this insistence on innovation, while being grounded in tradition and history, that makes the Prosperity series so relevant to Chinese identity. 

Cheng hopes that people coming to see ‘All That’s Gold Does Glitter’ will be “wowed by the malleability of ceramics”.

As part of Art Macao, Cheng will not only be exhibiting five of her incredible butterfly dresses at five prominent venues like The Venetian Macao, Sands Macao, The Parisian Macao, Four Seasons, and Macao Museum of Art. She has also brought together ceramic artworks by 27 artists from 12 countries. 

One such artist is Vipoo Srivilasa, A Thai-born, Melbourne- based artist, and while he works predominantly with ceramics, his repertoire includes many other mediums that explore cultural shift and migration experiences. 

Srivilasa has received many accolades, most notably the 2018 National Sports Museum Basil Sellers Creative Arts Fellowship and Gold Coast International Ceramic Art Award in 2017. 

The artist created works especially for the exhibition at Sands Resorts Macao, where he wanted to reflect a sense of affluence, material wealth and extravagance. Inspired by the representation of gold and flowers, Srivilasa said that flowers represent love, prosperity and fortune, while gold is associated with wealth and victory. 

‘All That’s Gold Does Glitter’ is a special exhibition that balances seriousness with playfulness. From a life-size Buddha by Japanese ceramicist Tetsuya Ishiyama to Italian artist Antonella Cimatti’s delicate sculptures and Irish artist Michael Flynn’s quirky dancing figures, visitors can expect the unexpected. The exhibition promises to reveal the glory of ceramic art, and one will be delightfully rewarded by spending some time with the pieces. 

“These are some of the most amazing international artists who treat ceramics in a unique way,” says Cheng. “Some of them are masters of the craft, others are pushing the boundaries of tradition. I want visitors to be wowed by the surprising malleability of ceramics. The only thing I’ve requested is that the works all have a bit of shiny gold in them.”