After the End of Contemporary Jewellery

Published: 30.04.2014
After the End of Contemporary Jewellery.
André Gali
Edited by:
Norwegian Crafts
Edited at:

Liesbeth den Besten and Ted Noten have both published manifestos for a ‘new’ contemporary jewellery. André Gali reflects on these, and on a discussion between ‘content providers’ – critics, writers and editors within the contemporary field of jewellery – that took place in Munich during Schmuck, the annual jewellery week. ‘It´s the talk of the town’ says Jorunn Veiteberg. I meet the Norwegian art historian at Georgonhof, a restaurant in Munich. It is Schmuck – the annual jewellery week – considered by many to be the ‘Venice biennial’ of contemporary jewellery.

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‘It´s the talk of the town’ says Jorunn Veiteberg.I meet the Norwegian art historian at Georgonhof, a restaurant in Munich. It is Schmuck – the annual jewellery week – considered by many to be the ‘Venice biennial’ of contemporary jewellery. Veiteberg and I have been invited by Art Jewelry Forum's Benjamin Lignel to participate in a discussion on ‘content providing’ in the field of contemporary jewellery. Others invited to participate in the discussion are Dirk Allgaier and Marion Boschka from Arnolsdsche Art Publishers, Reinhold Ludwig and Annika Reith from Art Aurea, Marina Elenskaya and Sarah Mesritz from Current Obsession, Suzanne Ramljak from Metalsmith, Renee Bevan and Raewin Walsh from Overview, and curator and art historian Lisbeth den Besten, to mention a selection of the twenty or so people gathered at Georgenhof this Thursday afternoon.

Veiteberg, who is a long-time art critic, editor of numerous books on contemporary art and crafts, art jewellery, ceramics and so on, is this year’s ‘one-woman’ jury and curator for the jewellery exhibition at International Handwerksmesse, simply called Schmuck 2014. The exhibition is considered to be of great importance for artists who wants to make a name for themselves, and this year 552 artists from 43 countries applied to participate. After a strict jurying process, Veiteberg selected 66 jewellery artists from 25 countries. Only one Norwegian artist was included: Anna Talbot.

I’m proud to say that Veiteberg is also chair-woman of Norwegian Crafts, providing my colleges and I with incredible knowledge about international crafts milieus. She has tapped into the centre of art jewellery’s nervous system, so I’m immediately curious about what she is saying. What is it that is the talk of the town?

‘Liesbeth den Besten wrote an article in Overview[i] where she pretty much trashes the whole jewellery week,’ Veiteberg explains. Overview, it turns out, is an online jewellery magazine from New Zealand that has published its first print edition in connection with the group exhibition Wunderrüma at Galerie Handwerk. The magazine is handed out for free, and I grab one at the discussion.

Time for a change
In Overview, den Besten’s article is published under the title The Golden Standard of Schmuckashau’. Schmuckashau is a partly-nonsensical word invented by an Australian critic from ‘Schmuck Shau’ (meaning jewellery exhibition in German), and for den Besten, it becomes a term denoting the standardization of contemporary jewellery as ‘a fait-a-complit, a matter of fact, a this-must-be-it-experience’ that she feels has been dominant in Munich the last few years. The article, which also is a manifesto, seeks to establish that contemporary jewellery has grown stale and only communicates with an inside crowd who ‘speak jewellery – a language that is established and confirmed at the yearly jewellery-Mecca in March, the big social jewelry community gathering, the network magnet, the exhibition machine’.

Liesbeth den Besten is not just anyone making a claim about contemporary jewellery; she is a ‘grand dame’ in curating and critical thinking within the contemporary jewellery scene. Presently, she teaches at Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. She is a founding member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts. Her most recent book, On Jewellery: A Compendium of International Contemporary Art Jewellery,[ii] published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers in 2011, has become a must-read for anyone interested in the discourse of contemporary jewellery.

With this résumé, den Besten is someone you must take seriously, and the tendencies she sees in contemporary jewellery are worth thinking over. These tendencies are ‘[j]ewellery as props, objecthood without jewelleryness, isolation and exclusion’. She concludes that it is ‘time for a change’.

Her article goes on to criticize an exhibition held in 2013 at Pinakotek der Moderne, a major survey of the works of Otto Künzli, who has been an important figure in contemporary jewellery for decades, both as a maker and as a teacher. Künzli is described by den Besten as ‘a smart and sensitive conceptual artist’.

The exhibition, which was simply called The Exhibition, [iii] made little or no effort to reach out to a broader audience. It did not draw on much outside information, not even on Künzli´s own photographic works, which could have helped viewers understand what was going on in his jewellery. The Exhibition, according to den Besten, highlights a challenge which the contemporary jewellery world faces: it doesn´t reach out, it doesn´t engage with anyone other than the insider crowd who ‘speaks jewellery’ fluently.

Design, fashion or art?
den Besten is not the first to raise this claim. In 2012, art historian and collector Marjan Unger observed that the jewellery ‘bubble’ didn’t really bring in new audiences or collectors. She asked: What will contemporary jewellery do when collectors grow old? To be treated as art and included in the holdings of art museums may give contemporary jewellery status in the fine art world, but at what cost?

At the ‘content provider’ discussion at Georgenhof, some of the questions concerned the role of publications – books and magazines (online or offline) – in promoting contemporary jewellery. What can we do to raise awareness outside the closed circle of contemporary jewellery connoisseurs? Is it best achieved by uncompromisingly showing and talking about contemporary jewellery as art, or is it desirable to connect to the fashion world and the design world for new audiences, new ways of presenting the works and new interpretations?

According to the fairly new magazine Current Obsession, the answer is the latter. Marina Elenskaya and Sarah Mesritz, the two editors, want to collaborate with fashion and design and to connect with the experiences that people with that type of background have. They are ‘really really interested’ in contemporary jewellery.

While Overview seems to have established itself, at least by the look of the printed edition, as a subcultural newspaper for a die-hard, critical inside crowd, Current Obsession is, it seems, at the other end of the spectrum. It’s online presence reminds me more of a teenager’s fashion blog than a vehicle for critical thinking. However, it may just be what contemporary jewellery needs to break out of its self-inflicted boundaries.

Diverse approaches
During the discussion, Veiteberg expresses no concern about the lack of media coverage. On the contrary, she points to the fact that the 20 people participating in the discussion represent a great deal of coverage. And she points out that there is a need for the academic, educated jewellery audience to have informed, critical and analytical media coverage, regardless of whether it only communicates to a small public. I think what Veiteberg is pointing at is the need for a strong jewellery discourse for art historians like herself, a notion I agree with wholeheartedly.

It seems to me that the different ‘content providers’ involved in the discussion represent very diverse approaches to contemporary jewellery: Arnoldsche Art Publishers presents beautiful books on singular artists, the American magazine Metalsmith covers jewellery and other metal works like sculpture, the bilingual Art Aurea covers jewellery and objects. There is also the member-based website Klimt02, and let’s not forget Art Jewelry Forum, which took the initiative to invite us all to participate in the discussion; they provide an important archive of interviews and discussions on contemporary jewellery for collectors and others.

I think the variety in coverage also reflects a constellation of questions raised in the discussion, questions that always seem to come up whenever contemporary jewellery is discussed, and that have to do with identity: Is jewellery art or design? Should we call it author jewellery, contemporary jewellery, art jewellery, studio jewellery, or something completely different? Furthermore, what will it take to get the ‘message’ of contemporary jewellery out there, to get people to see that contemporary jewellery can be ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’, and that it has meaningful stories to tell about the body and the world?

Diverse readability
I don’t have any conclusive answers to these challenging questions, but it seems to me that it may be a strength that contemporary jewellery (let’s call it that for now) can be art, fashion and design, and maybe even something completely different altogether.

How do you categorize works like Stefan Heuser’s fat-pieces, pill-pieces or breast-milk-pieces? Or the mechanical engineer-pieces by Sigurd Bronger? Not to mention the gut and pig-skin brooches of Eunmi Chun? Or the toy-pieces by Felieke van der Leest? And what about the Munich maestro himself, Otto Künzli? It is he who has taught many of the contemporary jewellery makers who have made a name for themselves (some of whom I also mentioned here), and he seems to have a kind of omnipresence in the jewellery world.

My list is limited by the knowledge I currently have about this field, and maybe by my background from contemporary art and theories on theatricality makes me see this in a certain perspective that differs from the people who have known this field for years and who ‘speak jewellery’ fluently. But one thing I noticed during the discussion, and I think others noticed it too, was the genuine joy of Current Obsession’s editors when they talked about how their friends in design and fashion experienced contemporary jewellery in a way they (or we) will never know. It shows how a dialogue can take place between the jewellery pieces and individuals with completely different previous experiences and knowledge. Although that dialogue may not be all that close to what the jewellery artist intended, it can make a serious impact. But let’s consider it a strength of the jewellery piece if it can evoke new ideas and make people see connections the artist – or the curator or critic – wouldn’t so easily see. If a work can be read in many different ways, it seems to me to be more sustainable in these shifting times than what den Besten considers in her article.

A conspiracy of contemporary jewellery
Just before I had to skip town, I was introduced to the new metal professor at Oslo National Academy of the Arts, Anders Ljungberg. While discussing what we’ve seen thus far, he recommended, or maybe not so much recommended as responded negatively to, a manifesto written by Ted Noten that was published on Current Obsession’s website.[iv]

The manifesto starts off by declaring contemporary jewellery to be dead. These kinds of claims are always bold, and oftentimes nothing to take too seriously. My immediate thought went to painting, and the many times the medium has been declared dead the last hundred years. The next thoughts went to the ‘end of art’, as established by the late art theorist Arthur Danto,[v] and to ‘the conspiracy of art’ as described by French theory’s bad boy Jean Baudrillard.[vi]

In Danto’s view, contemporary art represents the end of Art because the relationship between the artwork and the world was broken by Modern art. Art became disenfranchised because it had nothing to do other than be itself. It came to be realized that what made a thing art was the philosophy, theory and history surrounding the thing, also the relationships and institutions (both formal and informal) into which the thing, as artwork, was integrated. The conspiracy, according to Baudrillard, who famously declared the ‘death of the real’, thus arises from the lack of a relationship to reality, and it has created an ‘art world’ – a system of people and institutions that give the impression that art is still alive.

Back to the wearer
From the two manifestos, den Besten’s in Overview and Noten’s in Current Obsession, it seems that contemporary jewellery shares a fate with art; it has ended but is kept on a respirator through a conspiracy of institutions and people. It’s tempting to think of den Besten’s and Noten’s attack on contemporary jewellery as following the uncovering of ‘the conspiracy of contemporary jewellery’ that has appeared after the ‘end of contemporary jewellery’ – to put it in words resembling those of Danto and Baudrillard.

It may be an interesting point to make in this connection that since Baudrillard published his ‘conspiracy of art’ text in the French leftist newspaper Liberation in 1996, [vii] a new aesthetic has been on the rise, and it is centred in Paris. This aesthetic has been described by French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’. Later the whole of the art world would come to speak of this as ‘relational aesthetics’. [viii]

It seems that both den Besten and Noten are calling for a ‘new’ jewellery that will reinvent its relationship with the wearer; it should leave the stale and lifeless gallery wall or glass vitrine behind and become enmeshed in human social relationships. If so, it may be a productive way out of the conspiracy of contemporary jewellery, or Schmuckashau, to take a fresh look at the art spawned by relational aesthetics. Maybe contemporary jewellery could be a major contributor to an art form that does not take materiality or formality as a starting point. Instead it could conceive of itself as a relational intervention in the fabric of social life. It may not matter if you call it art, fashion or design; what matters would be the ability to create and/or recreate relationships between people – a platform for exchange more than a work to possess. It doesn’t seem so farfetched to me, and it would be a way to bring the wearer back in focus.

Norwegian Crafts
Rådhusgaten 20, 0151 Oslo, Norway
Phone: +47 22910260

Norwegian Crafts is founded by Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts, and is funded through support from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Art Jewelry Forum -
Arnoldsche Art Publishers -
Art Aurea -
Current Obsession -
Metalsmith -
Overview -
Klimt02 - http:/

[v] Arthur C. Danto (1984). ’The End of Art’. In The Death of Art. New York: Haven Publishers.
[vi] Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Texts, Interviews (ed. Sylvere Lotringer), New York: Semiotexte.
[vii] Ibid. This is according to the editor Sylvere Lotringer, who writes a preface called ‘The Piracy of Art’ in Baudrillard’s book. The article was published in May 1996 in Liberation. The text was seen as a scandal in ‘the international artistic community by declaring that contemporary art had no more reason to exist’.
[viii] Nicolas Bourriaud (French 1998/English 2002). Esthétique relationnelle (Les presses du réel, 1998) The book was a collection of essays written during the 1990s. Bourriaud describes a new generation of artist like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno.