Images, codes and poetry: the jewellery of Suska Mackert

Article  /  Artists
Published: 28.02.2006
Images, codes and poetry: the jewellery of Suska Mackert.
Love Jönsson
Edited at:

Making use of a variety of media, she underlines that jewellery’s complex grid of relationships between maker, object, message, wearer and spectator cannot be analysed solely from the viewpoint of the physical encounter.
It is almost a truism that a piece of jewellery, when worn, functions as an image of the properties and qualifications of its wearer. These representative and symbolical aspects of jewellery are highlighted in official insignia, such as the pieces of jewellery traditionally worn by royalty, lord mayors, and church officials. The conditions for private persons may not be quite the same, but any use of jewellery says something about who its wearer is, or wishes to be. Consciously or not, jewellery speaks of power, desire, folly, and longing.

To send and receive messages through jewellery is, naturally, only possible in a social context. These social and performative facets of jewellery have been thoroughly scrutinised, and at times criticised and undermined, by a vast number of jewellery artists of the latter generations. Consequently, the psychology of wearing and perceiving jewellery has been a recurring topic in many a discussion within the field.

The work of Suska Mackert builds on this tradition, but manifestly expands and deepens the theme. Making use of a variety of media, she underlines that jewellery’s complex grid of relationships between maker, object, message, wearer and spectator cannot be analysed solely from the viewpoint of the physical encounter. Equally important is the distribution of images of jewellery through mass media, advertisement, and fiction. At the heart of Suska Mackert’s work lies an awareness that the commercially guided communication systems of society not only provide us with representations of reality, and tools for interpreting them; this all-present imagery also contributes to constitute our very notions of the world.

Albeit addressing complex theoretical issues, the work of Suska Mackert also emphasises the direct and emotional sides of jewellery. Even if she strictly speaking does not make jewellery, she still deliberately adopts the effects of beauty and precision that we know from the art of the goldsmith. Her choice of media – preferably photography, video, and text – is anything but arbitrary, and in executing the works she often puts a striking emphasis on the material and haptic aspects of making and perception.

Already in one of her early works, the small book juwelenboek madame tussaud (1998), Suska Mackert approached many of the subjects she has since repeatedly returned to: representation, identification, the reading of social codes, and the relationship between the private and the public. This small book offers close-ups of pieces of jewellery adorning figures of wax. The rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and medallions function as attributes that fortify the wax cabinet’s alluring images of the rich and famous. Suska Mackert’s photographs focus on the hands, necks and ears of the figures, only rarely exposing their faces. Through their different types of jewellery and clothing, however, one can often tell which group of celebrities the figures belong to – and, in extension, which public roles they play as models or objects of identification.

Another image in the book is a newspaper photograph of a rehearsal for an official reception. A group of people take their positions on a grand staircase, wearing large cardboard signs identifying them as President, President’s spouse, President’s daughter, etc. The ‘jewellery function’ of the cardboard signs, as Suska Mackert puts it, is obvious. Not only do the letter signs help us identify the status of the persons, they also inform about the family connections between them. Regarding the levels of representation, one may notice that just as Suska Mackert makes use of the wax cabinet as a filter between the real and our perception of it, she chooses to include an image of the rehearsal of a reception rather than a document of the event itself. Moreover, the question if the group actually consists of a president and his attendants, or just occasional actors, remains unclear.

Later on, in the last photograph of the book, we see a reconstruction of the rehearsal session, only now featuring friends of the artist, wearing similar signs and standing in the same positions as the persons in the original image. Here the humorous feature of the situation becomes obvious. The exchangeability of the individuals, and the absurd ‘jewellery function’ of their signs, exposes something of the incongruities of social conventions and expectations. If there is a logic to jewellery, it is not one of principle so much as of imagination and projection.

Following the themes of representation and status, Suska Mackert has in some of her projects investigated the commercial world of jewellery. There, as in other market areas, brands have outdone products. The major companies do not principally sell objects; they sell a logo and a lifestyle. Their pictures of the good life fit perfectly well into the general maelstrom of seductive images aiming to influence our desires. Suska Mackert talks about this imagery and our conception of it in terms of ‘a collective consciousness taken for granted.’ She uncovers its codes and forms of representation by way of appropriating and seemingly confirming them, thus taking on a role suggestive of the agent provocateur. In her video To be on display (2002), she is seen carefully painting replicas of the logos of companies like Cartier, Piaget, and Tiffany & Co. At first sight, her work acts as an acknowledgement of the status of the companies, but the lack of reference to their products also silently points out what these once inventive producers have become: mere logos.

In a recent site-specific work in Middlesbrough (2005), Suska Mackert adorned the floors of two low-price jewellery shops with gold leaf letters reading: Materials with a shiny surface reflect light, while elsewhere the light is fully absorbed. The lettering, which demanded days of concentrated labour, mirrors Suska Mackert’s predilection for time-consuming craft methods. Yet the finished pieces were anything but enduring; the shoppers’ shoes slowly wore the messages away. The valuable gold dissolved into fragments – a disrespectful, somewhat extravagant way of handling the material, seemingly at odds with the modesty of the shops.

When investigating the marketplace, Suska Mackert also approaches the inconsistency between the disinterested view on jewellery that permeates its commercial system, and the individual wearer’s private, affectionate relation to the same objects. This comes to the fore in her booklet juwelen (1998/2005), which contains written descriptions of various pieces of up-market jewellery. Devoid of personal accent, the texts convey the crass perspective of a professional. They appear to be catalogue excerpts, but do not reveal if their original author represented a manufacturer, an auction house, or a museum.

In Suska Mackert’s booklet the text excerpts are placed irregularly on the pages, even leaving some of them blank. Through this act of appropriation and displacement, the objectiveness of the catalogue record is undermined. The text fragments become invested with a surprisingly poetical quality. As often in Suska Mackert’s work, there is a correspondence with the seductive means of jewellery itself. In this booklet, the glossiness of the white paper echoes the qualities of precious metals and stones. Again it may be pointed out that without making jewellery, Suska Mackert uses the properties of it.

In conclusion, it is important to notice that Suska Mackert avoids judgements. The questions she raises, about jewellery and the roles it plays in our lives, are left to the individual beholder to reflect on. A spread at the end of juwelenboek madame tussaud shows a vintage photograph of a group of men in heavy winter coats and snow-covered caps. Three men in the foreground all wear big, circular badges on their chests. These badges can be read as brooches – an odd interpretation, perhaps, but again jewellery does not always adhere to logic. In fact, the men are Soviet citizens, honouring Lenin by wearing badges with his portrait. Do they follow their free will? The same question goes for the persons represented by the figures in the wax cabinet seen on the neighbouring pages. Do they carry their luxurious attributes by inclination, or coercion? Can their pieces of jewellery even be seen as signs for an imprisonment, even if the cage in their case is a golden one and in some respect is shared by all of us?

Originally published in the catalogue Suska Mackert: Properties, Galerie Spektrum.

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About the author

Love Jönsson lives in Gothenburg and is as a craft and design critic. His writings on jewellery include reviews and articles for Swedish and international magazines, and essays for the jubilee publication from The Association for Contemporary Swedish Silver (2003) and the catalogue for the travelling exhibition Swedish Jewellery (2004). He was the editor of the anthology Craft in Dialogue: Six Views on a Practice in Change (2005) and contributed to the anthology Re:Form – Contemporary Swedish Crafts (2005). He lectures at The School of Design and Crafts at Göteborg University and is a member of the network Think Tank: A European Initiative for the Applied Arts.
Juwelenboek madame tussaud (1998), image courtesy of
Juwelenboek madame tussaud (1998), image courtesy of

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To be on display, videostill 2002, image courtesy of Louise Smit gallery.
To be on display, videostill 2002, image courtesy of Louise Smit gallery

© By the author. Read Copyright.
Middlesbrough (2005), image courtesy of Spektrum gallery.
Middlesbrough (2005), image courtesy of Spektrum gallery

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Juwelen (1998/2005), image courtesy of Spektrum gallery.
Juwelen (1998/2005), image courtesy of Spektrum gallery

© By the author. Read Copyright.