Talking to God: When artisans meet artists

Audemars Piguet and the surprising results of collaboration. The relationship between art, design, and craft makes good conversation fodder because it’s open-ended.

WORDS Sam L. Marcelo


“When artisans meet artists, a lot of unexpected things come about. Artists see things differently, like they have different glasses. What we’ve been able to do is to borrow their glasses and look at the world,” said Olivier Audemars.

On a gray March morning, Mr. Audemars sat in The Patio of the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong with the curved carapace of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, partially obscured by fog, at his back. Mr. Audemars is vice-chair of Audemars Piguet (AP), the last family-owned watchmaking company in Switzerland. He is a descendant of the Piguet family—the great-grandson of Edward Auguste Piguet and not of Jules-Louis Audemars, the pair of childhood friends who founded AP while in their early 20s. (“Audemars,” it turns out, is a common last name in Vallée de Joux, the village that birthed Swiss savoir-faire.)

Mr. Audemars was in Hong Kong for a couple of reasons, foremost among them to unveil AP’s new lounge, designed by Sebastian Errazuriz, for the Art Basel 2016 fairs; and to introduce Sun Xun, the Chinese artist selected for the 2016 AP Art Commission.

AP’s interest in contemporary art is recent, having become an associate sponsor of Art Basel beginning 2013. Asked how this came about and why AP expanded the partnership in 2014 with the announcement of the AP Art Commission, Mr. Audemars answered like a man with a lot of time on his hands.

The short version is this: a collaboration with photographer Dan Holdsworth sparked a soul-searching process within AP that yielded insights about the company and its mission. So unexpected and valuable were these results that AP decided that it would venture into the art world more often. Thus AP’s presence in all editions of Art Basel: Hong Kong in March, Basel in June, and Miami Beach in December.

“Artists can transform the way you see yourself or you do things. We decided that it was worth it to continue this experience,” said Mr. Audemars. “Artists have a different language, different from what you get when you read economic reports or political reports. They help us get a deeper understanding of other people. That’s why we decided that Art Basel was a really good platform.”

The long version, on the other hand, rambles through the beautiful but harsh landscape of Vallée de Joux, called “Little Siberia” because of its severe winters. Mr. Holdsworth, a British photographer known for his large-scale long-exposure photographs, came back with images that lingered over the unique geology of AP’s home. The moody pictures of star trails and granite rocks swathed in ephemeral mist stirred Mr. Audemars. “It made us wonder why our ancestors decided to move to such a place,” he said. “The people who first moved to Vallée de Joux were extremely independent-minded. They thought that it was better to live freely in a difficult region with nearly no natural resources than to live a comfortable life under the rule of a king.”

Early settlers had to find a way to survive, a daunting task when nature’s bounty was limited to rocks and when snow cut off Vallée de Joux from the rest of the world for six to eight months of the year. “People spent a lot of time locked in their homes,” said Mr. Audemars. “To live as they wanted to live, they developed a craft of making small but highly complicated objects, which then evolved into making watch movements.”

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Olivier Audemars

Watchmaking was the key to AP’s independence. It is how the company’s forebears were able to stay in Le Brassus, where AP has been based since 1875. “This understanding was formalized because we started to ask ourselves questions when we saw the images of Dan Holdsworth,” said Mr. Audemars.

TICK, TICK, TICK

For Sebastian Errazuriz, the story told by Mr. Audemars provided the foundation for his project: to design a lounge that would represent AP to VIP collectors at a blue-chip art fair. The Chilean-born, New York-based artist and designer was also flown to Le Brassus (as is everyone who collaborates with AP) so that he could see for himself what Mr. Holdsworth saw through his lens. “When you’re asked to design a booth, it may seem like a very mundane thing,” said Mr. Errazuriz. Think about it more, he continued, and you’ll realize how scarce a commodity attention is in the Art Basel context. Held in the cavernous space of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, the fair featured thousands of art pieces by superstars. “How the fuck do I get you for a few seconds? How can I grab you and get you to use a microscope to see something again,” said Mr. Errazuriz, glancing at the other lounges in the VIP section. “It’s very hard, especially today, when watches are not necessary.”

Where Mr. Holdsworth was captivated by rocks, Mr. Errazuriz was inspired by water. “It was logical to incorporate this element of water, ice, snow into the booth. If you think about it, water, over time, freezes and creates these beautiful formations, which, come spring, start melting. We hear the tick, tick, tick, of the drops of ice melting and changing—almost like the tick, tick, tick of the watch,” he explained.

With water in all its states as his visual peg, the designer installed a transparent facade crisscrossed with acrylic rods that mimicked icicles. AP’s Haute Joaillerie Diamond Punk, an angular cuff watch encrusted with around 4,800 diamonds, rotated inside a shrine made out mirror shards, creating a kaleidoscopic view that fractured into light. Custom-made spikes evoking stalactites and, when viewed head on, the tapisserie pattern on AP dials, soundproofed a booth meant to show off the new chiming mechanism of the Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie, a titanium tourbillon chronograph.

“AP invests in ambition and it was amazing to work with them,” said Mr. Errazuriz. “I’m not saying it to suck up to them. As an artist, they give you the crayons that you need, the right oils that you need. It’s important because if you have certain ideas, there are certain materials that just allow you to do things better. It’s like a chef who says that you’ve got to start with the right ingredients. It’s true here. If you have the right ingredients, you can do better things.”

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Sebastian Errazuriz

Aside from providing the right ingredients, AP also supplied Mr. Errazuriz with a practical but complex brief that dove into details such as how thick the protective glass around a watch had to be. “Once you surpassed the technical stuff, you were pretty much free to do whatever you wanted. If I were just designing one watch for them, it would be easy for me to design a weird watch. But this is AP’s booth for the next two years. They are presenting themselves to Hong Kong, Basel, and Miami with this vision. That’s tough. If I went a little crazy, they needed to believe in it. That takes balls.”

Mr. Errazuriz is no stranger to collaborating with big brands. He did two collections for Melissa Shoes, a Brazilian brand that has worked with the likes of Zaha Hadid, Karl Lagerfeld, and Vivienne Westwood. His personal projects, meanwhile, include painting dollar signs on the center lines of Brooklyn’s streets (Wall Street Nation, 2012) and planting a 10-meter magnolia tree in the middle of Chile’s football stadium (The Tree Memorial of a Concentration Camp, 2006). Both are pieces of protest art that seem disconnected from the demands of designing a luxury lounge. But Mr. Errazuriz has no trouble reconciling the many facets of his prolific practice.

“I think that the real value I’m bringing will be seen later on, when I get older, by the sheer accumulation of problems I’ve been solving, whether through a product, an art piece, or a political thing,” he said. “Our understanding of the separation between art and design is closer to our understanding of the spectrum of sexuality. It’s a gradient that goes from black to white. Today, artists are also activists; artists are also responsible citizens and, as such, have a natural tendency to create works that ignite conversations,” he continued. “Am I allowed to work with a company? Of course. Is it tricky? Yes. I am also a brand and I need to look after my brand. I need to make collaborations with brands that share some ethos that I believe in.”

With his lean frame, slick hair, and penchant for suits, Mr. Errazuriz is an affable and articulate ambassador for artists who, on occasion, cross over into the luxury world. “I have projects that make money to fund projects that lose money. As long as you’re doing the right things, you will stand the test of time,” he said. “Today, the coolest thing on the planet is art. So cool, even, that the coolest thing since forever—music—has Jay-Z, a black rapper from Brooklyn, going into Pace Gallery in Chelsea and getting Marina Abramovic to lend him street credibility to make him cool. Miley Cyrus needs to go to Art Basel Miami because she’s not cool enough. How long are we going to be the cool kids? How long are we going to be cool in a society that constantly needs a new fix?”

TALKING TO GOD

Art Basel Hong Kong was also where the big reveal of Sun Xun’s AP Art Commission was supposed to take place. But due to unforeseen circumstances, it was announced that his work would instead be unveiled at Art Basel Miami in December. It’s understandable given how time-intensive his animation process is: one animated image is made up of 24 frames per second, each frame a separate painting or drawing made from a traditional woodcut. Simply put, it takes Sun Xun a long time to accomplish one work. During a press conference held inside the booth designed by Mr. Errazuriz, Andras Szanto, AP art adviser, described the commission in broad terms to avoid preempting Sun Xun.

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Time Vivarium by Sun Xun

“We thought a lot about what sort of territory this commission should explore and we decided that we would challenge artists to explore themes of complexity and precision,” Mr. Szanto. In 2015, Robin Meier, the first artist chosen for the commission, answered AP’s challenge with Synchronicity, a giant tent filled with pulsating fireflies and crickets. “I can tell you that when we first came up with the idea of the commission, we certainly didn’t imagine that it would involve living insects. But this is what happens when you involve artists. In any kind of conversation, you will be surprised.”

In projects like this, it is important for AP to function through recognized professionals within the art world. “It’s not the role of a watchmaking company. We are very clear in our desire to work through experts,” said Mr. Szanto. Sun Xun, for example, was selected by Ruijun Shen, who belongs to a young generation of distinguished Chinese Mainland curators. A practicing artist herself, Ms. Shen has curated projects in China and around the world, including Times Square and Queens Museum in New York City.

According to Mr. Szanto, AP sees itself as an enabler. Aside from providing the financial wherewithal to make the commission happen, it also helps connect the artists with whatever kind of expertise, technology, scientific knowledge, or special tools that are needed to realize the work. “When we heard that our first artist was interested in working with insects, we went and found experts who knew a lot about insects,” he said. “In the future, we may be working with companies that work with optical technologies. Maybe we’ll work with NASA. Maybe we’ll work with porcelain makers. We don’t know. But what we do know is that AP will be the connector to this kind of expertise.”

In a separate tête-à-tête with journalists, Sun Xun, bleary-eyed and short on sleep, powered through a short conversation on a steady stream of coffee and cigarettes. “You have to find ‘same-same,’” he said. “Gallery show, museum show, Audemars Piguet—it’s the same. Art is talking to God, even for a few seconds. Making watch is the same thing: talking to God. It’s about worldview, about life, about philosophy.”

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Sun Xun

‘ABSTRACT AND ILLOGICAL’

The relationship between art, design, and craft makes good conversation fodder because it’s open-ended. A textbook answer will point you in the direction of Renaissance Italy; the blossoming of humanism, which celebrated individual genius and innovation; and the publication of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times.

Mr. Audemars, a physicist and economist by training, acknowledged this—“Until Leonardo da Vinci, there was no difference,” he said—but offered a circuitous answer that was more within his ken. “In Vallée de Joux, there is an underground river that has built huge caves, a bit like underground temples and those temples are decorated with stalagmites and stalactites. What’s extremely fascinating is that they work on completely different timeframes,” he said.

While it takes a few weeks for an ice stalactite to form above ground, the limestone stalactites found deep in the belly of the earth took much longer. It could have taken decades, centuries even, for calcium carbonate to deposit, drop by drop, and grow into towering columns. Push that analogy further and one finds that geologic time isn’t measured in minutes or hours, but in millions of years. “You have two different phenomena in the same location, you have two different clocks working on two different timeframes but are still synchronized by the rotation of the earth around the sun, the sun around the galaxy,” marveled Mr. Audemars.

Riffing on yet another concept, he moved to quantum physics before bringing it back to the relationship between art, design, and craft—the question that began this entire discussion, in the first place. (Incidentally, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a 1979 book by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter about recursion and self-references, is a favorite of Mr. Audemars.)

“Quantum physics is extremely strange, abstract and illogical,” he said. “There have been big fights even among the people who know the most about it. Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein argued about the underlying reality behind it, but it works perfectly. The math works perfectly. Based on the math, you have physics. Based on the physics, you have instruments—your computer, and everything that works around it, is based on quantum physics. People have tried to demonstrate that it is not a complete theory but it works perfectly. Something that we cannot understand at the very basic level is how a particle can go through two holes at the same time without dividing.” And at this point, Mr. Audemars reached payoff. The quantum particle was his version of Mr. Errazuriz’s “spectrum of sexuality” and Sun Xun’s “same-same.” Art, design, and craft are the same but different, a particle passing through two slits at the same time.

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On his left wrist, Mr. Audemars wore a Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. Although made of steel, a material that doesn’t connote luxury, it commands a premium price because its value stems from the exquisiteness of AP’s craft. A watchmaker working on a complicated mechanical watch, such as the Perpetual Calendar, has to manually adjust the thickness of several springs to the exact strength required to activate a certain function. “Every watchmaker has his own way of solving this equation. It’s not an exact science. A watchmaker could tell you, when he sees one of these watches, who was the watchmaker who made it. There is a signature in the way they put things together,” said Mr. Audemars.

“A mechanical watch is about having something different. It’s about an emotion. It’s about having feelings about something that you are wearing. Basically, you don’t need it. It’s like a painting. I mean, you could use wallpaper on your wall. Wallpaper is a bit like a quartz watch. If you want to have an emotion, you have a painting or a sculpture or a mechanical watch.”

(Full disclosure: High Life was part of a press trip to Art Basel Hong Kong sponsored by Audemars Piguet.)