On Identity in Art and Life

Article  /  Artists   Arnoldsche
Published: 22.04.2015
André Gali André Gali
André Gali
Edited by:
Arnoldsche Art Publishers
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This text is a fragment of the conversation between André Gali and Reinhold Ziegler from the book Cosmic Debris. Meteortites and jewellery objects by Reinhold Ziegler. Written by Halvor Nordby and André Gali with a foreword of Bernhard Wittenbrink, and Published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers in 2014.  A talk about his work, materials, why himself define it jewellery pieces, identity and the reference to music.
On Identity in Art and Life
A conversation between André Gali and Reinhold Ziegler
André Gali: In Cosmic Debris you have worked with meteorites both as material and as theme. I can see many reasons why you have chosen to work with meteorites, but it would be interesting to hear why you have chosen this particular material?
Reinhold Ziegler: To me meteorites are a natural variation on the basic theme in my art: using jewellery as a medium to express something about the larger, non-personal aspects of existence. For my first solo exhibition I worked with gravity as theme; a universal, extensive force of nature, that exists independently of the individual’s will and preferences. I have chosen meteorites as theme in my second exhibition, because it is the material that physically lies furthest away from us. Most meteorites come from asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter. This material thus tells us something about conditions beyond life on earth.

Reinhold Ziegler
Meteorite Cone, Pendant. 2013.
Stony Meteorite NWA, sulver, nylon cord

8 x 3.5 cm

AG: How did you get this idea specifically?
RZ: I saw a photograph of a meteorite in a newspaper and sensed that the expression was very close to an aesthetic idea in my mind. I read the article and learned that meteorites are residue from the creation of our solar system, and contain some of the proto matter from which our solar system is built up. At that point I realised that this material to the highest degree coincided with what I work with, both aesthetically and thematically.
AG: You state that you are interested in the non-personal, something I take to mean a distance from the individual, but at the same time you cultivate this material, you turn it into jewellery and in so doing it comes nearer to the individual.
RZ: Yes, and this nearness, the way I see it, is a precondition in order to experience what is distant. Distance and nearness are not necessarily opposites, but rather two terminological extremes of the theme space between objects.
AG: A more common strategy in art jewellery is to exploit this intimacy in order to create jewellery that serves as an identity marker, meaning a kind of token of the personality of the person wearing the jewellery. Can I understand your project as a wish to depart from this?
RZ: I believe that the role of jewellery as an expression of the wearer’s personality is weighed too one-sidedly in art jewellery. I can see how the jewellery’s closeness to the body would make this kind of approach natural, but my claim is that there are other possibilities in the medium of jewellery that this focus on individuality conceals. I myself found another approach after a meeting with the French philosopher Georges Bataille, who pretty soon became my intellectual source of inspiration. The entire foundation of my work is actually built on the following statement from his book Eroticism:
‘We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us with everything that is’.[1]

What Bataille says here, is that the human being is caught in a kind of dilemma, where on the one hand it wants to defend and justify its position as a unique individual, while on the other hand it longs for the experience of being part of something bigger or something more enduring, which he sometimes calls continuity and other times more poetically everything that is. My intention is to create various expressions for this continuity. I attempt to treat jewellery objects as some kind of symbolic connection between the individual and everything that is.
AG: But is there not some kind of a paradox in your project? When you wear a piece of jewellery in public, it is bound to function as an identity marker, as the surroundings will interpret the piece of jewellery as an expression of the identity of the person wearing it. At the same time it is possible to relate to your work as mere objects, not as something you wear. But that would mean that the jewellery aspect somewhat diminishes.
RZ: Yes, and this paradox is actually what makes jewellery meaningful to me. My objects are made as jewellery and may be worn on the body – the fact is that I am very concerned with developing technical and aesthetical solutions that make them as usable as possible – but at the same time my opinion is that you do not have to wear them. And this is the reason why I apply the compound term jewellery objects to my work. I was very inspired the other day when I read a statement from Peter Skubic: ‘The concept of jewellery as having a function only when being worn is something I abhor’.[2]
The way I see it there is a great reflexive potential in relating to jewellery as mere objects. The jewellery aspect creates an intimacy to the wearer or the beholder, while the object aspect creates distance. If, applying this horizon of understanding, you still choose to wear the jewellery it would not necessarily be as an identity marker or a social sign, but perhaps with the intention of sharing a more all-encompassing attitude with others – something which happens to be my motivation for working with jewellery objects.
AG: It would be interesting in light of this to talk about the background for how you developed this idea that the piece of jewellery does not necessarily have to be an identity marker. You have studied jewellery, and one could have expected a more traditional approach.
RZ: The turning point occurred on a study trip to Greenland in 2003. At the local museum in Nuuk I came across a series of talismans; small leather bags filled with magical material placed on the inside of the clothes with thin leather straps. The fact that these objects were hidden from view greatly fascinated me. At the same time I became practically obsessed with a desire to find a rational approach to the superstition in this tradition. My first angle of approach was to view the talisman as an expression of the irrational.
AG: What you say here about the rational and irrational leads me to think of Friedrich Nietzsche, who referred to these terms as respectively the Apollonian and the Dionysian forces. You mentioned that you are inspired by the French philosopher Georges Bataille. His thoughts are very much based on Nietzsche’s, the way I see it. At least they share the notion that the irrational has been lost in the Western culture, and that this has happened at the cost of something deeper within the human being as an individual. Bataille’s project is really about a search for something primal, something not contaminated by a modern rationality, and he looks to primitive communities and ancient religions for answers. I think it would be interesting if you could shed some light on this in relation to what you do.

RZ: Yes, this is important to me. What I believe lies in the primitive, and that has disappeared in our rationalized culture, is what Bataille speaks of as transgression. By that he means that there are activities that remove the individual from itself and the position it holds in everyday life, which he incidentally calls work. An important part of his project was to consider the sexual drive as a natural part of the same phenomenon. In the sexual act it’s about transcending yourself as an individual. In fact he has often used the word ‘eroticism’ as a synonym for transgression. This insight became my second angle of approach in order to understand what the talisman phenomenon is all about. When I removed the magical element I found that the remaining function of the talisman was to make the user give up his individuality and connect to everything that is.
AG: What you say about transgression makes me think about how rationality is linked to control – more specifically how the individual tries to control its own image outwards, that is how one presents oneself to others. Jewellery as identity markers is thus part of this control mechanism. You state that in the transgression this control is abandoned.
RZ: Yes, it is this understanding of identity, which is about constructing an image of yourself in other people’s consciousness, that I want to introduce an alternative to.
AG: You say that Bataille is a great source of inspiration to you. For a long time I have been interested in another French thinker, Jean Baudrillard, who as it happens bases some of his ideas on Bataille, and who has said a lot about structuring this image of the self. In the 1960s Baudrillard was concerned with analysing Western consumer society. One of the points he makes is that the consumer society profits from the fact that we never feel whole, or that we need something external in order to fully become ourselves. What we lack we can obtain through buying products. In the consumer society, the way Baudrillard understands it, everything you buy – or consume – is a sign of personality. He reads social reality as consisting of signs, put together in various sign systems, that express something of who we are and where we belong in society – and in the social hierarchy – meaning identity. For example, the car you drive might say something about who you are. For someone climbing the social ladder it might be important to show signs of wealth by buying a car that everybody knows is expensive, or that is large and flashy and in this way signals strength. However, for someone born into a cultural and economic elite, it might be a point to under-communicate these values. Then you have to be part of the same social community in order to understand what the car really communicates.
RZ: Either way this identity will be a construction and will not necessarily say anything about who we truly are. As a matter of fact, the opposite is more likely; our attempts to structure our own self-image stops us from seeing who we truly are. I have always believed that we all have a deeper base or an essence within us, where our true nature lies. To find out more about this I started meditating a few years ago, starting with various breathing techniques and moving on to a technique known as the Ishayas’ Ascension. This is an old Eastern tradition, going back several thousand years, introduced to the Western world about 20 years ago. Central to this tradition is the belief that we possess such an essence, and that we have to transcend our constructed self-image in order to experience it. For me, then, this meditation has become a concrete means to experience transgression.
AG: To move our conversation over to a more concrete level again. You have made a series of jewellery where the pieces of jewellery look like tools, for example hammers with a granite head, and thongs made in oxidised silver. Does this come under the same theme?

Reinhold Ziegler
Pincer Plier, Pendant. 2012.
Silver, leather, nylon band
15 x 4.2 x 2 cm
Private Collection, Germany
RZ: The functional aspect is on the one hand meant as a vehicle to lead the attention away from the purely decorative aspect, which is so closely associated with the notion of jewellery. At the same time, I try – by transcending the original function – to create associations with another kind of function, for instance a symbolic or ritual act. But without having in any way wanted to say something about which act is being talked about. The user or onlooker must imagine that himself. The central issue here is that a ritual is – according to Bataille – an act where you transcend yourself.
AG: So far we have talked about the functional aspects in your work. Another aspect that is quite striking, is the inclusion of nature, perhaps especially since you in almost all your work use traditional natural material like leather, wood and stone. In your own essay Gravity[3], accompanying the exhibition with the same title, you stated that the element of nature in your art not only has to do with aesthetic beauty, but that it is a natural consequence of Bataille’s influence on your art. Could you explain this further?
RZ: To Bataille, the rationality that constitutes life in work is a ‘no’ to nature. We organise our communities to control nature, both its destructive and its productive powers. Transgression is in turn a ‘no’ to work and a return to nature. So, my approach to nature is using it as an expression of transgression.
AG: In art jewellery there is a clear consciousness about the wearer and the wearer’s body. As you are so concerned with departing from jewellery as an identity marker, and even advocate that jewellery does not have to be worn at all, how do you relate to the body in your art?
RZ: I view the body as an amazing vehicle that enables us to experience; through a multitude of sensory organs. Even thoughts and feelings take place in the body. It is easy to forget this when you treat the body as a showcase of the individual’s personality, as we find in various body cultures and in many kinds of art jewellery. Everyone is unique, and everyone has a unique body, but we are not our bodies.
AG: It has become very popular to say that the body is the interface, or the meeting point between the individual and reality. You can physically experience reality, or you can think of it in terms of concepts. The intellect is the starting point for the conceptual in art. What role does it play in your work?
RZ: It’s easy to assume that our thoughts can express who we are. As you mentioned, rationality can be traced back to the Greeks and maybe further back, but in our Western world I suppose it is Descartes who is considered the father of rationality in that respect. I think, therefore I am! This has taken up such a great part of our culture that it’s easy for us to believe that we are our thoughts. But in a spiritual understanding we are not our thoughts. We do have thoughts, but they do not express who we are. Many of the techniques within the Ishayas’ Ascension are about distancing yourself from your thoughts, not stopping them completely, but to understand that they are just thoughts that come and go.

AG: What role do feelings have in this?
RZ: The same applies here as well, we are not our feelings. I see that many of the artists that treat the jewellery medium as an identity marker have a tendency to become overly sentimental, for instance by focussing on memories and affective values. This sentimentality also lies behind the material based expressionism we have seen in the last few years, where materials and colours are mixed with each other in collage-like ways, and where difficult craft techniques are abandoned, so that the jewellery to a large extent becomes a result of the artist’s intuitive and subjective whims. There are, however, some artists that work with feelings in a convincing way, but a large part of it is pretty insignificant. In addition I claim that a one-sided worshipping of sentimentality is a delusion. We have feelings, and they often provide important clues to life, but we are not our feelings.
AG: This thing about who we really are I find interesting. If we follow Baudrillard, there is no self to speak of, not even an objective reality, everything is signs, formulated and reformulated in an ongoing flow – he calls it Simulacrum in one of his best known books, a book that by the way was an important source of inspiration for the film Matrix. It also points to Descartes and what you say about rationality establishing what is real. But it isn’t this simple to Baudrillard, because he believes that some kind of a personal essence, a self, or even an objective reality quite simply does not exist. Quite the opposite, he believes that the world’s purpose, and especially the visual world’s, is to cover up the fact that there is nothing beyond. Everything is staged, even the self. So, considering this, I am curious as to what you believe our essence is.
RZ: I disagree with Baudrillard on this. We have a stable and peaceful place inside us, which is a completely natural state most people have experienced once or many times in the course of life. The easiest explanation is to say that this place is our pure consciousness, a silent presence where thoughts cease to exist. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow called it peak experiences, and described it as a kind of flow zone where things happen without effort. He referred for instance to artists who are immensely creative, athletes who are capable of performing something extra and women who give birth. To him it was important to demystify this phenomenon and describe it as a common experience. The good thing about meditation is that we learn techniques that we can use to enter this state whenever we want to, it can even become permanent. The philosophy of the Ishayas’ Ascension is that as you eventually, by refining awareness, get better connected to your pure consciousness, your natural self will present itself automatically and without effort. I myself have not yet experienced this fully, so I can’t prove that this is how it is, but my experiences so far indicate that this is true.
AG: Since you to such a degree go against the most dominant movements within art jewellery, how do you relate to your own field, for instance, do you have any role models?
RZ: I pay close attention to what goes on in the field and I think there are many artists that make both good and interesting works. I have already mentioned Peter Skubic. His retrospective exhibition Radical in the Pinakotek der Moderne in Munich in 2011 was magnificent. Bruno Martinazzi, with his interest in physical distance and fragmented human bodies, I find both interesting and beautiful. However, the jewellery artists that I feel closest related to are Dorothea Prühl and Warwick Freeman, perhaps particularly due to their significant use of nature; Prühl through her motifs and of material choices, Freeman through his influence from the indigenous population of New Zealand, the Maoris.

AG: In closing I want to ask you about the title. Aftermath refers to The Rolling Stones and their breakthrough album from 1966. The title of your project, Cosmic Debris, leads me to think of Frank Zappa’s song with the same title from 1974. It’s about a guru, ‘The Mystery Man’, offering Zappa Nirvana for a small sum of money. Zappa reverses the situation and hypnotizes the guru and steals his belongings. It is a song that in my opinion mocks the kind of things you talk about; spirituality, rituals and meditation. He says: ‘So take your meditations an' your preparations An' ram it up yer snout’.[4] Why have you chosen this title, and what does it mean to you?
RZ: Well, I am a Zappa fan and think it’s a really cool song, and there is still room for more rock and roll associations in art jewellery. Having said that: The literal meaning of the term Cosmic Debris coincides with what meteorites really are: Residue from space. It is also the title of a well known book on the subject. In other words it is quite appropriate, and at the same time as it snobs down instead of up. It actually took me a long time to find a term that could describe the meteorite theme, because most terms I came across had too strong associations to dubious alternative movements. Even though I am interested in spirituality I still have reservations when it comes to things that are out of touch with reality and quack movements, including several religions. I think it’s a good thing that Zappa’s song mocks this. I’m happy to let Zappa keep me on my toes. It helps to balance my project. It reminds me that no matter what my intentions are I can’t keep my audience from doing like Zappa: Running off with my work and telling me to take my meditations and preparations and ram them up my snout.
Bataille, G. (1962). Eroticism.  London: Penguin.
Cherry, N. (2013). Jewelry Design and Development. London: Bloomsbury., Cosmik Debris. Accessed 20 Oct. 2013.

[1]     Bataille 2012, p. 15.
[2]     Cherry 2013, p. 104.
[4], Cosmik Debris. Accessed 20 Oct. 2013.
The full interview is printed in Halvor Nordby/André Gali: Cosmic Debris. Meteorites and Jewellery Objects by Reinhold Ziegler, ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers, Stuttgart 2014.