There was something organic about a lone tree standing in one of the lounges at the recent Art Basel in Hong Kong — almost mythical, even. The Tree of Knowledge, perhaps? Or the Joshua Tree from the rock ‘n’ roll parables of U2 and Gram Parsons? Well, no and no. What is it, then? Certainly it was a relief from the cryptic poking and snappy obfuscation of some of the contemporary art pieces in the fair — everything from the jaw-dropping brilliance of “The Dead Make History” by Yoshio Kitayama to a few conceptual and performance pieces that deal cursorily with current events. The tree installation by Chilean-born, Brooklyn-based artist, designer and activist Sebastian Errazuriz, however, deftly branches out into the woodlands of metaphor.
Luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet (AP), exclusively distributed in the Philippines by Lucerne, invited The STAR to the 2017 edition of Art Basel at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre. AP is a global associate partner for Art Basel, presenting innovative concepts at the Collectors Lounge since 2013. The brand commissioned Errazuriz to put up an installation for the lounge.
(On view also was a video installation titled “Circadian Rhythm” shot in the Jura Mountains by Chinese artist Cheng Ran, which is part of a series of collaborations with artists that express the brand’s cultural and geographic origins.)
Speaking of “Watch X Artist” projects, at first you would picture Keith Haring or Andy Warhol putting their respective iconographies into collectible timepieces. A lot of the major players in the watch industry have done that. But what AP is doing is different.
“We don’t want to have the artists and the watches mixed. For us, it’s more about enabling. We almost act like producers,” explained Michael Friedman, whose job at AP centers upon how art, science, horology and history intersect.
He continued, “We like to work with artists who share our identity. That can be focused on precision and complexity in a very loose way. It can be about nature, because all of time measurement derives from natural products and are of course a representation of nature.”
For the Audemars Piguet booth, year after year, the brand presents its story through the lens of art. This time, the tree centerpiece titled “Second Nature” is a sort of evolution from the previous year’s ice formations. Errazuriz took lumber from where the brand is from — Vallée de Joux in Switzerland — recut the pieces of wood and then “rebuilt” a tree. A sort of reconstruction of a deconstruction.
“He utilized robotics in the first phase in doing the rough cut, and then finished it all by hand,” shared Friedman, “which is an echo of how we do our watches — certain elements are done by machines at the very beginning, and then everything is ultimately finished and touched by hand.” In AP timepieces, everything complicated is completed by hand.
Another fascinating parallel of Errazuriz’s work is how he constructed a metaphor of nature by utilizing a natural product. An art critic would put it thusly: it is a representation being represented by an extension of itself.
“That exactly is what a mechanical watch is — the steel in the watches is but ore from the iron. And watches are but metaphors of natural time. All this is just a symbol. Time is not dictated by watches but by celestial events.”
But one has to admit how beautiful and well-built these metaphors of time by Audemars Piguet are.
Friedman philosophized, “Mechanical watches today have been surpassed greatly — quartz watches came out in 1969, the atomic clock was invented in the Fifties. These technologies are superior in terms of accuracy.”
So, why are mechanical watches by brands such as Audemars Piguet still popular and highly sought after?
“And, oh, the time on your phone is more accurate,” quipped Michael. “We look at our mechanical watch around 30 times a day, but you only register the time half the amount. So, what are you looking at (laughs)?”
The answer: it’s the piece of art around one’s wrist. An object comprised of three universes: the movement or the mechanism (an example of the art of engineering); the case (very sculptural, very architecturally-driven); and the dial (the graphic component, the design element). It has all these competing elements in such a small package. That’s why collectors love mechanical watches. They can’t lug around their paintings, sculptures and other collected pieces of beauty and ingenuity — how weird they would be if they walked the earth with a Matthew Barney or a Jeff Koons in tow. (Meanwhile… “Hold my beer,” says the mechanical watch.)
“Which brings us as to why we’re engaging here at Art Basel. It’s because we recognize that people who like detail, beauty, craftsmanship, artisanship, all these different inter-disciplinary notions combined — these are people who will potentially find interest in our brand, our products and our story.”