With the recent passing of Peter Chang on 31 October, it is fitting to share the following article written by former curator at the Powerhouse Museum, Louise Mitchell, about Chang’s studio practice and inimitable exuberant style.
In his workshop in Glasgow Peter Chang makes spectacular jewellery, like the bracelet made from a mix of bought acrylics and old beads, map pinheads and part of a broken shop-sign, which was acquired by the museum in 2004. Large but light, comfortable to wear but robust, the bracelet is like a sculpture that you can put your hand through. Dazzling in its saturated colour, it reminiscent of exotic plants and creatures from the sea or science fiction.The bracelet invites curiosity.
How was it made? After sketching a design, Chang started with a polystyrene base that he carved into shape. He then painstakingly covered the surface using mosaic and lacquer techniques, faceting and tweezering tiny pieces of coloured acrylic into position:
[I] build up layers of resin, painting it on – a bit like runny honey. Last are the inlaid, inset shapes. Some glitter! I use hand planes, rasps, needle files, and finish it off with wet and dry sandpaper, from coarse carborundum and progressively finer, ending with a linen polishing mop and wax. I do use lathes and power tools for piercing, and a thing like a dentist’s drill. I also do thermo-forming, heated in the oven.
Making the bracelet was malodorous and dangerous work given the amount of fumes and dust, and use of solvents and adhesives. Chang worked on the bracelet on and off for just under a year. He calculates it took about 246 hours, excluding the time spent drawing and thinking about it. This patience, technical skill and dedication to detail is unusual for someone working with plastic, a material often considered worthless. Chang’s work exemplifies how a person can bring preciousness to a material:
Diamonds, marble, gold, canvas and paint, as materials, are nothing in themselves until their creative potential is explored, exposed and fused through vision, intellect, instinct and the hands of artists, sculptors and craftsmen. The same is true of plastic. It is the joy of exploring their qualities of malleability, creating colour and sensuality, teasing the materials to obey, exploiting all to the maximum, which gives it value to me.
Peter Chang has been working with plastic for over 20 years. The son of a British mother and Chinese father, he grew up in Liverpool, England, where he trained as a graphic designer and sculptor. He worked for many years on sculptural projects, interiors and furniture designs before turning to jewellery in the 1970s, a period of experimentation and risk taking in jewellery making. His age and background point to the influence of the Pop art movement in Britain during the 1960s that saw conventional good taste replaced with vivid imagery and bright colour. In keeping with much postmodernist craft, Chang’s work promotes a decorative, sensory and humorous role of objects through an exaggerated use of colour, pattern and form.
In an interview Chang said his attraction to plastic was partly fuelled by its throwaway quality as it gave him the freedom to take risks. He also liked plastic’s anonymity or lack of character. Besides, at the time, he wanted ‘something that would reflect the age we live in’.
The bracelet is a fitting addition to the museum’s collection of plastics that was begun in the 1940s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic mouldings used in the manufacture of munition supplies. Keeping abreast of the development of plastic became a preoccupation of Sydney’s Technological Museum, which boasted Australia’s first plastics industry exhibition.
The above text was written for MAAS Powerhouse Museum’s publication ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows’ edited by Graeme Davidson and Kimberly Weber, 2005.