Precious Stories in Metal
Jewellery maker Dabin Lee is a co-founder of Mass Lee and an artist in her own right. She is currently exhibiting as part of the DIVA pop-up exhibition, DIVA: Work in Progress, where you discover what goes into a piece of jewellery or a silver object before it and its makers are ‘museum worthy’. The exhibition is free to visit on the Grote Markt, Antwerp until November 27. We talked about the disruptive power of jewellery and how precious pieces of wearable art can carry memories, stories and concepts on our skins.
Tell us about Mass Lee.
I started Mass Lee with a friend of mine, Josefine Mass, in 2020 during the first lockdown. We studied art jewellery, as in art objects that you can wear and hang on the wall. We always wanted to make art jewellery mixed with commercial jewellery, so people would be more open to wearing it. I love to see people cherish what I create when you can directly see your consumer and their reaction. With art you don’t really see your collectors, you don’t have this direct connection. This is how I can do what I like, and continue to make my own art on the side.
What kind of art are you making?
I‘m always doing something - I can’t stay still! I used to work with the textile museum in Tilburg; I developed my art jewellery skills with tufting techniques. Instead of wool, I used metal wire to make brooches. These days I’m making bigger objects with it, so it’s developing. I use fine metal, sometimes silver or gold for tiny objects, but mostly copper and coloured copper. Most of the time I don’t use a tufting gun, I do it by hand. It is a very delicate process and the wires are usually thinner than human hair.
We think it's important to put our stories into our collections
You are participating in the pop-up DIVA exhibition at the moment. What are you showing there?
I’m showing pieces from my master's year about animal testing in the cosmetic industry. I love make up, but it’s unnecessary to make animals suffer for it. Jewellery has power, it can have multiple meanings. I started trying different metals and techniques and that’s how I got into tufting because there’s a soft fluffiness to it. My metal brooches are not soft, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at them. So they may seem really cute, but when you touch them they’re cold, dead. They’re joyful and colourful, like cosmetics, but when you know the story behind how animals are treated in the process, it becomes a different thing.
It’s not like I want to change people. It’s up to them if they want to change
Could you explain how storytelling is part of your making?
In contemporary jewellery one of the most important things is, for me, the concept. Just like in modern visual art, you usually have a story: it’s not just merely beautiful. What I like about jewellery is that it can last a long time, go through generations and have a memory. It’s really nice when people come in with old jewellery from their grandmother and ask to make something new with it. Everyone who has jewellery has a reason for having it, a lot of people buy it when they travel and attach memories to it. So we think it's important to put our stories into our collections.
Your work has been described as disruptive jewellery.
Like disturbing? Or more political? It makes people uncomfortable sometimes - it even makes me uncomfortable sometimes. I do question myself: am I really cruelty-free? Would I dare to say such a thing? It’s a sensitive topic. The only thing I want to do is make more people aware. It’s not like I want to change people. It’s up to them if they want to change.
Do you think being here in Antwerp influences your work?
Of course, it's a beautiful place, but sometimes I forget what I’m looking at. It’s a bit sad that I’m so busy going in one direction and not looking around. I’m from Seoul in Korea and it’s a really different environment. In Korea, I didn’t cherish my culture, but since I’ve been here I appreciate it a lot more.
You use recycled metal. Could you tell me more about this and does it change your experience of making?
Yes. We are working with casting, always within 5km of Antwerp, with local people. We take our old silver or a client brings old jewellery and we recycle it. We want to keep on doing this and avoid mass production. The nice thing about jewellery is that you can always recycle it. If you make something with silver and you don’t like it, you can melt it down and make a new one.
Would you like to talk about your new collection?
It’s still a secret, but there’s something new coming. It follows our second collection which was about 16th-century portrait paintings. Here in Antwerp, there are so many beautiful paintings, and they inspired us to get into the texture of the paintings, the colours and brushstrokes. We also include more art objects so you can hang them on the walls. It will be out next week.
The following jewellery makers will take part: Wieke Aerts, Mara Balode, Rosalie Carlier, Han Ning Chiang, Andreea Cojocaru, Yuxi Lu, Julia Mercier, Tieke Scheerlinck, Charlotte Van de Velde, Niels Van de Wouwer, Saskia Van der Gucht, Karen Vanmol, Ingrid Verhoeven, Urzula Volatovska, Kaouter Zair