The ATTA Gallery in Bangkok has been representing contemporary jewelry since 2010. The gallery’s owner Atinuj Tantivit – her friends call her Atty – collected jewelry herself before opening the first and thus far only gallery for this genre in her country. Questions for a pioneer of art jewelry in the Far East.
Art Aurea You had already collected art jewelry before your time as a gallery owner in Bangkok. How did that happen? Where did you first get to know contemporary jewelry?
Atinuj Tantivit I started collecting Native American jewelry when I was studying and living in the USA between 1994 and 2004. After graduating in Marine Resource Management in Miami, I worked in the field of marine science for a while and I took up jewelry-making as a hobby, but I soon wanted to make jewelry more than to go to work. It was at this time that I bought my first piece of what would be considered “contemporary jewelry.” It was created by Gabrielle Gould, an American artist represented by a local gallery that sells arts-and-crafts items. After considering my options, I decided to leave the field of marine science and started exploring the jewelry world. I thought I needed to know more about gems, so I enrolled at the GIA in California to study gemology. At that time, I searched for books about modern jewelry even though I didn’t yet know anything about contemporary jewelry and the contemporary jewelry movement was not big in the USA. My interest prompted me to take courses in jewelry-making in Europe, where I stayed from 2004 to 2008. I bought my first piece of European contemporary jewelry at Louise Smit’s gallery in Amsterdam. It was Beppe Kessler’s “never a dull moment” necklace. Most of my early education in the field of contemporary jewelry came from books. I still have a large collection of books relating to jewelry at the ATTA gallery. My first eye-opening experience was the “Schmuck” exhibition in Munich in 2009, where I purchased several more pieces. That was just the beginning!
AA Which artists were you interested in at the time?
AT Through books, I came upon works by Tone Vigeland and fell in love with them. I love jewelry with moving elements. I also discovered creations by Herman Jünger, but I didn’t yet know how important he was for contemporary jewelry in his time. David Bielander’s works also captivated my mind.
AA Contemporary jewelry has a tradition of more than 50 years in Europe, where it is taught at many academies and schools. Its protagonists, at least, now regard it as an independent art form in its own right. Could you say something about the development in Asia and especially in Thailand?
AT Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Thailand. When I returned in 2006, there was one university that had been teaching jewelry design in terms of art for almost ten years. I was very excited about the prospects for the field in Thailand. Since then, however, the program has become increasingly commercialized due to educational requirements and some in-house politics that I don’t fully understand. At the moment, jewelry design is taught in departments of decorative arts or product design. It is still seen as “applied art” and is judged by its function rather than by the “why” and the “how” involved in its creation. I think we still have a long way to go. ATTA Gallery is recognized as a specialized art gallery, not a jewelry shop. By bringing in different types of contemporary jewelry from abroad to Thailand, our audience seems to warm up to the idea that contemporary jewelry can be a kind of art.
AA The artists represented at your gallery include a number of internationally known names from Europe. What criteria do you use to select your artists?
AT The motto of the gallery is “express your ATTA through contemporary art jewelry.” Atta means Self, so we encourage artists to express themselves through their jewelry and we encourage wearers to find jewelry that speaks to them personally rather than simply following trends. Because of this, we look for artists who show unique and original expressions through their pieces of jewelry. I also try to have a good mix of different types of jewelry to give the local audience an overall view of what’s happening in the world of contemporary jewelry. Another important criterion is to be able to communicate with our artists and have basic understandings and agreements in our working relationships. We are not situated near the artists, so trust is very important.
AA Which customers do you address with this selection? And is your fan base growing?
AT We hope to reach out to individuals who enjoy art, are self-confident and, to a certain degree, want to be different or to show off their unique characters. Our fan base is growing very slowly, although the contemporary art scene in Thailand has grown during the past five years, so we have seen some improvement in the local market. Internationally, with us being in business for almost ten years now, we have gained trust from the international audience and this also translates into a wider customer base.
AA Thailand is a so-called “emerging country,” currently with a military government. Tourism is very important for the economy. What is the importance of traditional craftsmanship in Thailand? And are there any contemporary developments?
AT We take pride in our time-honored craftsmanship with our traditional gold jewelry. However, I have not seen many local artists exploring the use or transfer of traditional techniques into contemporary Thai jewelry. The concept of cultural preservation is rather strong here, but this can hinder the process of moving traditional techniques into the future in a sustainable way. Many governmental agencies attempted to pair up designers with local jewelry craftspeople, but the outcomes were neither effective nor sustainable. Many projects turned into mere academic papers with no real impact on the practice or the market. However, Rudee Tanchahroen is one local artist who is trying to use traditional craft technique in her contemporary pieces of jewelry. She has been able to create awareness for the importance of preserving a traditional livelihood and adapting the age-old craft technique.
AA You had planned to participate in the International Crafts Fair in Munich in March 2020, but the fair was cancelled because of the coronavirus. What does this cancellation mean to you?
AT It means a loss of opportunity to showcase great works by artists whom we represent. And this means loss of income for both the artists and the gallery. Artists have been working hard to make new items to be shown at IHM because it is the biggest international platform for our field. The artists invested time and money in this work. Two-dimensional images on social-media platforms cannot do justice to their pieces. A jewelry fair like this one offers opportunities for the audience to have intimate relationships with pieces of jewelry as very intimate items to be worn directly on the body. For me, contemporary jewelry still needs to be touched and tried on so prospective wearers can experience how they personally interact with the pieces. And the fair in Munich is almost the only opportunity for me to connect face to face with artists, collectors, students and other gallerists based outside of Asia. This is important because nothing builds trust and collaboration better than personal face-to-face connections. It’s too bad that this opportunity was taken away from us this year.
AA The whole world is currently experiencing the shock waves of the corona crisis, which will affect economy, tourism, nearly anyone and will spare hardly any industry. However, this crisis will surely be over at some point. Do you have any idea what humanity could learn from it?
AT I think we have to learn to be resilient and adaptive. One main teaching in Buddhism is that everything is impermanent. We have to be prepared to face constant changes and challenges, and still be optimistic about life. Limitations are not there to limit us, but to challenge us to go beyond them in creative ways.