Magic miniatures

Article  /  ArtistsArnoldsche
Published: 15.04.2015
Jorunn Veiteberg Jorunn Veiteberg
Jorunn Veiteberg
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Arnoldsche Art Publishers
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This text is an excerpt written by Jorunn Veiteberg from the book Felieke van der Leest: The Zoo of Live Jewellery & Objects 1996-2014. Published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers in 2014. This book looks over the career of the Dutch artist. Almost 20 years from her early schuster-nicole-schuster-nicole-beginning-2016-2016s in the Gerrit Rietveld Akademie till the present. She combines textile work, like crochet with precious metal and plastic toys. Although there is an evident reference at childhood, her artwork is far away from a childish issue, revealing irony and absurd humor.
Excerpt from the book Felieke van der Leest: The Zoo of Life Jewellery & Objects 1996–2014
Jorunn Veiteberg and Ward Schrijver, 2015
Arnoldsche Art Publishers

Magic miniatures
Animals have always played a central role for Felieke van der Leest. She grew up close to the Emmen Zoo in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands, where giraffes, elephants and other exotic animals were an everyday sight. She herself was mostly interested in horses, like so many other girls. When she was thirteen years old, she got her own pony, and for several years she worked at a horse centre every summer. Her interest in animals can thus be said to have been there ever since childhood. As an adult, there are admittedly not that many live animals around her. On the other hand, her home is full of plastic ones. Neatly sorted on shelves stand flocks of penguins, sharks, koalas, ducks, zebras – just to mention some of the species in her large menagerie. All of them are miniatures and are found in various replicas. Some lions are just cute, while others look scary. Some of the hippos look surprised, but most of them gape threateningly with their jaws. And the deer often have an alert expression as if they have just caught the scent of a human being. All of them are mass-produced and moulded in hard plastic, with the intention of serving as toys for children. But the narratives into which Van der Leest has placed the animals go far beyond a children’s play room. With clothes and accessories she gives the animal figures a new identity, and with the aid of various props they are placed in a situation that reveals their secret lives and characteristics to us. But despite the often amusing appearance of the figures, they are neither childlike nor sentimental.
A work from 2012, Anti-War Warrior (cover), illustrates this well. The animal that has provided the head of the figure is a bull terrier. The rest of the body has the shape of a well-trained, strong man – a warrior, in other words. He has a bristling coxcomb, a reference to both Red Indians of the past and more recently punks. In his hands he is holding an arrow broken in two. The broken ends point towards a red hole in his body. The target on his chest implies that he has been exposed to an attack. But what’s the point? Why kill? The broken weapon in his hands is, in fact, a classic anti-war symbol. So the revolt which he symbolises is not of a violent nature. This is a warrior against war, and the work is one of her clearest political statements. s props they are placed in a situation that reveals their secret lives and characteristics to us. But despite the often amusing appearance of the figures, they are neither childlike nor sentimental.


Why animals?
A childhood close to animals, though, is not sufficient to fully explain Van der Leest’s choice of animal motifs. She is not the only one to tell us about human characteristics and follies via the personification of animals. Popular culture as well as folktales and children’s literature is full of animals that act and speak like human beings. The British writer Marina Warner emphasises in her book Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds that stories about animals that become humans and humans that become animals are stories of metamorphoses that express conflicts and uncertainty. Seen from this point of view, one of Van der Leest’s most frequently represented works, Hare O’Harix and his Six Carrots (p. 51), becomes more than just an amusing arrangement. With his strange name and blue-and-white striped baggy trousers he is clearly related to Obelix, who for many readers is the favourite character in the French cartoon series Asterix. Obelix is naive, sensitive and easy to offend, and he particularly dislikes being called fat. O’Harix is also fond of food, and he has procured an extra supply of carrots that he is about to run off with. The work can thus be said to deal with both overeating and greed, but at the same time O’Harix is portrayed as a relation of Obelix. The carrots even have the same shape as the menhir stones that Obelix likes to lug around with him. So more than a moralising finger, it is a touch of good humour that typifies this piece.

Narrative jewellery
There have always been figurative motifs in jewellery, but the main emphasis of the avant-garde jewellery field in Europe was clearly oriented towards the geometrical and abstract in the 1970s and 1980s. However, that a change was on its way is indicated by a forecast made by the writer Peter Dormer. In 1985, the year before Van der Leest started at Schoonhoven, a technical school for gold- and silversmiths, he wrote in the book The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions, ‘Although it is unwise to prophesy, it nonetheless seems likely that the next few years will see more and more figurative work of innovation and interest.’ Van der Leest is among the pioneers who have laid the foundation for this tendency within contemporary jewellery. Not only does she work figuratively, she also uses the medium to tell a story. And precisely this, telling stories, was singled out in 2005 as one of the new tendencies within jewellery in the 1990s and 2000s in the anthology New Directions in Jewellery. Van der Leest is not represented in this book, but that is not so surprising since the nine artists selected, with one exception, all live in Great Britain. On the other hand, Van der Leest was an obvious participant at the first international exhibition on the narrative as a trend in jewellery, Maker Wearer Viewer: Contemporary Narrative European Jewellery. The exhibition was put on at the Glasgow School of Art in 2005, and it included work by more than seventy participants from all over Europe. From the Netherlands, apart from Van der Leest, only her teacher from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Ruudt Peters, and Truike Verdegaal had been invited. There were not all that many from Scandinavia either: three from Norway, three from Denmark and two from Sweden.


Absurd humour
There are many different types of humour, and Van der Leest makes use of both irony and satire, but first and foremost she plays on the comic effect that is to be found in what is illogical. It is precisely the lack of logic that characterises the absurd. Or as the dictionary definition says, ‘Out of harmony with the reasonable or appropriate’. When in daily speech we say that something is absurd, we often mean something ridiculous. But beneath the absurd there are other layers of meaning that are both serious and profound. In art and philosophy absurdism is linked to a conception of life as meaningless and that there does not exist anything firm in which to believe or to live for.
With an absurdist attitude to life it becomes difficult to take self-important people seriously, and Van der Leest has to an especially high degree allowed her humour to target sports athletes and macho types. When footballers form a wall in front of the goal, she does not first and foremost see seriousness and tension but rather draws attention to the comic detail of them holding their hands protectively over their private parts. It is this situation that she has captured in the bracelet The J. Russells (pp. 102/103), so called after the breed of dog that has provided the bodies of the players. The Jack Russell is a little terrier with short legs, but it is also strong and tough. The figures’ outfit is striped, as is often the case with football players and prisoners. The association with imprisonment is further emphasised by the fact that the players are shackled to each other. She has named the criminal Dalton brothers as a reference for this work. They appear in the cartoon series Lucky Luke but were also historical figures. In the late nineteenth century, they ravaged the Wild West and were eventually declared outlaws. On their backs, the J. Russell figures have golden nameplates with impersonal names numbered from JR 01 to JR 06. Comradeship on the pitch is often glorified, but Van der Leest depicts this group of men more as a gang of prisoners.


There is a photograph of Van der Leest as a four year old, dressed in a crocheted dress with pink, dark brown and white stripes. Her mother had made the dress, and from an early age Van der Leest was taught how to crochet and knit. But when she started her education to become a jeweller, she had no idea that these skills could come in handy for her as an artist. Contemporary jewellery had admittedly opened up to the use of non-precious materials, such as plastic and paper, alongside all kinds of metals and stones, and some makers knitted with metal thread and twined with yarn, but a direct combination of textile craft techniques and jewellery was unthinkable. For Van der Leest, crochet work and knitting belonged to leisure time and home life.
The one who got her to change her mind about this was Ruudt Peters. As a professor at the Gerrit Rietveld Akademie, he visited her home one day and discovered the crocheting materials lying on the table. He immediately realised that this represented something original and personal and encouraged her to make use of this in a jewellery context. This resulted in her graduation show in 1996 where all the pieces were made of textiles and knitted, crocheted or sewn. They attracted attention. The TextielMuseum in the Dutch city of Tilburg bought five pieces. Using thread, colours, humour and a figurative artistic idiom, she had struck a topical nerve. One of the brooches from this exhibition, Spermheart (p. 29), can almost be considered her trademark. Unlike most of her other pieces, it does not exist in a limited edition but is still being made. The red colour can symbolise passion, but also danger. So it can seem to be more than coincidental that the red colour that has been chosen has the number 666 in DMC’s range of yarn colours. This is the devil’s number, but the number six in Norwegian (seks) is also pronounced as sex. When Spermheart came into being, the AIDS epidemic was raging, and many people were dying of ‘love and lust’. The combination of a sperm shape and heart is thus quite ambiguous. It can be interpreted as our urges that control us (read: casual sex), but it can also be seen as a union of eroticism and emotions (read: love relationship). Actually the brooch has become popular as a love token, and people are getting married wearing it and have even been buried with it.