The drunken God. The problem of beauty in the works of Philip Sajet

Article  /  Artists   CriticalThinking   Essays   PravuMazumdar
Published: 03.05.2018
Pravu Mazumdar Pravu Mazumdar
Pravu Mazumdar
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In this piece, Philip Sajet’s oeuvre in all its diversity is connected to the basic issue of beauty, its meaning, its reality and the problem of its realization in a work of art.
… Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch gerade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. …

Rainer Maria Rilke / Duineser Elegien

Beauty can be felt either as a form or a force, depending on the mode, in which we perceive it. From a distance, it appears as a constellation of symmetry and shine. At close quarters it reveals itself as pure Dionysian energy, sublime and terrifying. The transition from form to force has figured repeatedly in modern thought since the eighteenth century and attained its most lucid expression in Rilke’s idea of beauty as a beginning of the “Terrible”: as that, which we are barely able to endure, but admire nonetheless due to the serenity, with which “it deigns not to destroy us.” The sight of a distant waterfall overwhelms us because we are aware that in the course of our approach, the form would melt into a thundering power capable of breaking our bones. The battle for beauty, so familiar in all artistic endeavour, indicates a deeper battle within beauty, manifesting itself as a fundamental tension between form and force and revealing beauty ultimately as a threshold to the sublime.(1)

1. The battle for beauty

Along such lines, Philip Sajet’s work, distributed across a time span of four decades, can be appreciated as an on-going exploration of the difference between form and force, articulated in a wealth of materials like stone, metal, horn, coral, rubber, leather, mother of pearl, and culminating in individual pieces that function as little powerhouses for the transfer of the energy of difference to the body of a wearer.

The first thing that even a cursory glance at these works does not fail to note, is the enormous material knowledge invested in their making, discernible in the subtlety and confidence, with which the visual or tactile qualities of the materials are selected and combined to produce aesthetically convincing results.

A characteristic feature of many of the pieces is the antagonism between “high” and “low” value materials, as in the Magnet rings (1986), in each of which a heap of iron filings is made to gather on the magnetic plate of a silver ring; or the Red Parasite neckpiece (1991), in which red glass beads and rubies are strung together and rendered almost indistinguishable; or the Rust Ring series with rust iron rings mounted in gold frames studded with rubies; or the Le Rock necklace (2009), composed of mother of pearl, water buffalo horn chopped into large, conic discs, as well as smoky quartz cut to uneven chunks of different sizes and shapes, with a golden chain running through each of the elements.

In the Diamond Replica rings (2000), the play with the heterogeneity of materials recurs on a different plane, as pieces of rock crystal or smoky quartz are cut to give them a diamantine look that seems to refute their real physical properties. In Cullinan 2 Replica (2012), a single piece of rock crystal, cut like diamond and encased in a gold frame, hangs heavy at the lowest point of the worn necklace, in contrast with the other pieces that either remain uncut or are cut in a different manner and strung together by little golden rings and gold wire running through them. The visual power of the work seems to issue from an opposition generated within the same material through different techniques of cutting: between rock crystal as faked diamond and rock crystal as rock crystal. In all these pieces, the differences in form, physical properties and traditionally prescribed values are constellated to generate the impression of a leashed power holding together the materials despite their culturally prompted forces of mutual repulsion. Beauty consolidates itself as a fleeting suspension of incompatible materials and forms, almost as if their short-lived co-existence would flame up to a sudden flash of peace and harmony in the midst of their on-going axiological war caused by traditional expectations.

More recent examples are Gradient necklace (2014) consisting of river pebbles strung on a chain of golden loops, cut into cubes of the same size and varying degrees of clarity, starting as a bright golden hue and transforming in almost indiscernible steps into pitch black; or Le Coeur Noir (2017), a necklace of dark, flat pebbles, mounted on disc shaped rubies strung on a golden chain; or La Princesse (2017), a necklace of pebbles of different shapes, sizes and colours with chains of pearls wound around each of them and strung on a golden chain.

A rather dramatic episode in Sajet’s battle for beauty is a piece like Rubies on the Soles of my Shoes (2009), in which ten identical brown and semi-elliptical heels of rubber shoe-soles studded with ruby are connected by little golden rings, forming a circular constellation to be placed around the neck. The symmetry and combination of shapes, colours and textures result in a deceptive beauty that masks the traditional incompatibility of the materials and obscures the grotesque conjunction, in which the conventionally low status feet – symbolized by the rubber soles – connect with the conventionally high status neck, which the piece is after all meant to adorn and enhance.

2. The play with distances

In another piece, the Francis Bacon necklace (1992), the difference between two traditionally favoured and symbolically loaded materials, gold and diamond, enables the production of a wearable chain of words and, along with it, a transition ­from form to force with shrinking distance. The necklace calls to mind a small essay by Roland Barthes (2), postulating a functional opposition between gold and diamond. Gold, says Barthes, is not much more than a “yellow metal … with little poetic reality” (3), endowed with a certain semiotic power in the economic sphere, where it functions as a general equivalent for the circulation of commodities and the constitution of a market, evoking thereby the desire to possess it. Diamond is by contrast a poetic symbol, infused with the qualities of the elite that it is applied to symbolize: it is hard, it is clear, it is luminous.

In Sajet’s piece, gold wire is bent to words connected by little rods of gold to produce a necklace that is also a readable text punctuated by bits of diamond. The words, ascribed to Francis Bacon, spell out a dismal eschatology, in which the nihil of modern nihilism appears as the merciless truth of the human condition: Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. He thinks of life as meaningless; he creates certain attitudes which give it a meaning while he exists, though they in themselves are meaningless.

In other words: the gold wire in Sajet’s piece is bent to produce words endowed with a meaning, which makes them enter a process of semiotic exchange similar to that of gold coins. In contrast, the little beads of diamond are inserted only to mark the rhythm of the statement, to translate the pure musicality of language into space and bring into play what Barthes terms the poetic function of diamond, exercised here as a rhythmic interruption and scansion of the otherwise monotonous flow of golden, meaningful words signifying the meaninglessness of life.

But, unlike painting or sculpture, jewellery involves the living human body. It is for this reason that one has to come closer to the body of a wearer to appreciate the details of a worn piece. As the face of the viewer approaches the wearer’s neck to read Sajet’s necklace, the mind shudders at the words, while it is at the same time affected by the eroticism of the wearer’s body. At close quarters, the distant optics of enchainement reveals itself as a dual and contrasting impact of semiotic and erotic forces. But when the viewer recedes into the distance, the opposite takes place: the text transforms into an illegible pattern as it settles down around a neck and becomes a wearable chain of meaningless golden loops: a mere element of adornment for enhancing the beauty of a body. Distance is thus the common condition that lets the power of the text fade out of consciousness even as it articulates the futility of life and reveals a beauty that superposes the text and blinds us to any writing on the wall.

Beauty is not merely a form. It is the tip of an iceberg of power, or rather: a form mounted on a plinth of forces.
Other works by Sajet, exemplifying the play with distances, are Anulus Vulgaris (2013), a ring of gold wire bent to form the two words “Anulus” (ring) and “Vulgaris” (commonplace, ordinary) in Latin – which is certainly not an ordinary language – and clasping between them a ruby crown that is anything but commonplace; or the earrings Bonkers Bananas (2016), each reading at close quarters one of the words of the title signifying “crazy” or “outlandish”, but looking like classically elegant golden chains from a distance, hanging down from the ears and revealing themselves only at close quarters as a lattice of little golden rods strung upon a chain of golden loops – in opposition to the idea of the gross and the grotesque signified by them.

3. The limits of the human hand

However, it is not always the heterogeneity of materials or the difference between form and force that constitutes the strength of Sajet’s works, but also the deeper and more unsettling discontinuity between form and the absence of form, which can be felt in the precise insertion of found or unprocessed objects into individual pieces, functioning as acts of intervention in the culturally informed practices of cutting and processing. An example is the emblematic Red Shard ring (2008), in which the crown is a jagged piece of red glass, standing out against the mounting, which is a perfectly circular band of silver with niello engravings. Other examples are the Gnome necklace (2008), in which uneven pieces of glass alternate with rings of gold and globules of antique Venetian beads; or the neckpiece titled Black Parasite (2009), in which irregular chunks of rock crystal and smoky quartz clash with perfect spheres of gold and also the perfectly geometrical shape of the niello-on-silver pendant consisting of two elongated pyramids joined at their common square base, with the tip of the upper pyramid chipped off along a cross-section parallel to the base. In all these works, the contrast between the regularity of form and the irregularity of unintentional shapes reveals the limit of form and its habitual anthropomorphic impediments.

The focus on the limit attains maximum intensity and precision through the insertion of objects, to which no human hand or no aesthetic intent has ever been applied, as in Le Mariage (2009), consisting of a necklace of three circular chains: an inner circle of pearls, a middle circle of tourmaline pieces and an outer circle of carefully selected and exquisitely shaped beach pebbles encased in gold; or in Oefs d’Oie (2009), a neckpiece, in which goose eggs alternate with pearls; or Beach Pebbles (1991), a necklace consisting of pebbles of different sizes and shapes, encased in gold and connected by golden chains; or the Red Shard earrings (1992), in which little beads of diamond connect fragments of synthetically coloured agate encased in gold with little beach pebbles, also encased in gold and hanging beneath the agate shards; or Flora (1993), a necklace of fresh flowers, fastened into little cups of silver strung on a silver chain; or A Crumpled Beautiful Paper necklace (2013), in which unruly clumps of crumpled Japanese paper are strung on a gold chain.

A remarkable example is La Campagne No. 04 (2014), a necklace composed of uneven pieces of aquamarine of different sizes and shapes strung on a double chain of circular golden loops that spill over to an arrangement of golden ellipses mounted onto the surface of a jagged horizontal slab of green agate with an elongated, vertical and uneven piece of brown agate hanging down from it, all in sharp contrast to the geometricity of the clasp, which is a perfect sphere of gold. Dispersed between the golden ellipses, reminiscent of leaves, on the green, horizontal piece of agate, are tiny purple amethyst globules that signify prunes and let the roughshod, T-shaped pendant of green and brown agate evoke the tree of knowledge. Thus, above the pendant-tree arches a blue sky of uneven aquamarine pieces, threaded together by a ray of golden rings emerging from the sun-like golden ball of the clasp and returning to it to conclude the loop of the necklace. Wearing the piece – which is of a rare beauty with regard to the choice of form and material alone – appears on a symbolic plane as an act of wearing the world.(4)

In all these pieces one perceives a strange harmony that establishes itself despite the repeated conjunction of things found, grown or deformed with things derived from an aesthetic intent, in which the distinctiveness of each category, as well as the difference between them both are emphasized.

Thus a substantial section of Philip Sajet’s work, evolving over the decades, can be seen as a multifaceted portrayal of the limit of form. It is as if the hand of the master, otherwise in perfect control of the materials, distances, forms at his disposal, would slacken from time to time and give in to the inherent energy and form of the things as they cross his path. It is as if a drunken God, lost in singular moments of self-enjoyment, would let the things have their way, let them cross the threshold of his reach and reinvent themselves as they re-enter the orbit of his work.


(1) I use the term sublime in Edmund Burke’s understanding of the word as something that surpasses us and, in doing so, strikes us with awe and terror. 
(2) See "Des
joyaux aux bijoux“ (1961) in Roland Barthes, Oeuvre complètes, vol. I, 1942 – 1965, ed. by Éric Marty, Paris: Éditions du seuil, 1993: pp. 911-914. 
(3) Ibid. 
(4) See Pravu Mazumdar, "Wearing the world: some reflections onjewellery and metaphysics“ in Manon van Kouswijk, Hanging around, edited by Willem Drent, Amsterdam: Uitgeverrij
Boek, 2010. 

The text is based on an essay published in the catalogue Philip Sajet 2010-2017, Firenze, 2018. Many thanks to Parwin Abkai for her valuable suggestions, including the title. The essay is dedicated to her.


About the author

Pravu Mazumdar studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Born and brought up in the eastern provinces of India and living between several languages and three continents, Pravu Mazumdar leads a typically contemporary interstitial existence. An essential category of such a mode of living is the idea of hybridity, to which Mazumdar has devoted several writings, like Das Niemandsland der Kulturen (Berlin: 2011) or “Wishful Thinking” on jewellery and existence.


View Jewels)

Bellow you have the 21 pieces referenced in the text:

Philip Sajet. Ring: Magnet, 1986. Silver, magnet, iron filings.. Philip Sajet
Ring: Magnet, 1986
Silver, magnet, iron filings.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Red Parasite, 1991. Red beads, rock crystal, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Red Parasite, 1991
Red beads, rock crystal, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Le Rock, 2009. Amethyst, smoke quartz, water buffel horn.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Le Rock, 2009
Amethyst, smoke quartz, water buffel horn.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Ring: Diamond Replica Portuguese, 2000. Gold, enamel, smoke quartz.. Philip Sajet
Ring: Diamond Replica Portuguese, 2000
Gold, enamel, smoke quartz.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Gradient, 2014. River pebbles, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Gradient, 2014
River pebbles, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Les Couers Noirs, 2017. Pebbles, rubies, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Les Couers Noirs, 2017
Pebbles, rubies, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: La Princesse, 2017. River pebbles, silver, gold, river pearls.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: La Princesse, 2017
River pebbles, silver, gold, river pearls.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Rubies on the Soles of my Shoes, 2009. Rubber, rubies, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Rubies on the Soles of my Shoes, 2009
Rubber, rubies, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Bacon, 1992. Gold, diamonds.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Bacon, 1992
Gold, diamonds.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Ring: Anulus Vulgaris, 2013. White gold, ruby.. Philip Sajet
Ring: Anulus Vulgaris, 2013
White gold, ruby.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Earrings: Bonkers Bananas, 2016. Gold.. Philip Sajet
Earrings: Bonkers Bananas, 2016
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Ring: Red Shard, 2008. Red glass, niello on silver.. Philip Sajet
Ring: Red Shard, 2008
Red glass, niello on silver.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Gnome, 2008. Rock crystal, antique venetian beads, red glass, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Gnome, 2008
Rock crystal, antique venetian beads, red glass, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Black Parasite, 2009. Niello on silver, gold, rock crystal.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Black Parasite, 2009
Niello on silver, gold, rock crystal.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Mariage, 2009. Tourmalin, pebbles, pearls.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Mariage, 2009
Tourmalin, pebbles, pearls.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Oeufs d'Oie, 2009. Goose eggs, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Oeufs d'Oie, 2009
Goose eggs, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Beach Pebbles Sienna, 1991. Pebbles, gold, saphires.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Beach Pebbles Sienna, 1991
Pebbles, gold, saphires.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Earrings: Red Shard, 1992. Gold, red glass, pebbles, red coral.. Philip Sajet
Earrings: Red Shard, 1992
Gold, red glass, pebbles, red coral.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: Flora, 1993. Flowers, silver.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: Flora, 1993
Flowers, silver.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: A Crumpled Beautiful Paper, 2013. Japanese paper, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: A Crumpled Beautiful Paper, 2013
Japanese paper, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Philip Sajet. Necklace: La Campagna 4, 2014. Synthetic colored agate, amethyst, asquamarine, gold.. Philip Sajet
Necklace: La Campagna 4, 2014
Synthetic colored agate, amethyst, asquamarine, gold.
© By the author. Read Copyright.