Jewellery as Performance: on Gisbert Stach's Experiments with Jewellery and Life

Article  /  CriticalThinking   PravuMazumdar
Published: 22.11.2019
Pravu Mazumdar Pravu Mazumdar
Pravu Mazumdar
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Gisbert Stach. Brooch: Golden Toast, 2013. Baltic amber, silicone, steel.. Gisbert Stach
Brooch: Golden Toast, 2013
Baltic amber, silicone, steel.
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Beyond the familiar image of jewellery as a constellation of material objects distributed across a human body, Stach's work explores jewellery in association with elementary processes like movement, growth, disintegration, simulation, behaviour. He regards such processes as constitutive elements of a lived and liveable life, and subjects them to an artistic analysis in the mode of performances tuned to the specific nature of jewellery. Stach's work provides rare insights into the performative dimension of jewellery.

Jewellery as Performance (1) :
On Gisbert Stach’s Experiments with Jewellery and Life

Die Aura einer Erscheinung erfahren,
heißt sie mit dem Vermögen belehnen,
den Blick aufzuschlagen.

/ Walter Benjamin (2)

Jewellery is not simply one object slapped onto another, the body of a wearer. It is instead a process involving the making, selling and buying of things, things that can be worn, flaunted, marvelled at, talked about, kept aside, lost, retrieved, remembered, recast, given away as gifts. It is not merely a chip of eternity, meant to outlive individuals and generations, but suffused with transience: materially, through its exposure to age, erosion, patina; symbolically, through its anchorage in the fragile existence of a wearer. It is in this vein, that Gisbert Stach has unfolded over a period of almost three decades an ongoing research into the essential bond between jewellery and life. Beyond the familiar image of jewellery as a constellation of material objects distributed across a human body, Stach’s work explores jewellery in association with elementary processes like movement, growth, disintegration, simulation, behaviour. He regards such processes as constitutive elements of a lived and liveable life, and subjects them to an artistic analysis in the mode of performances tuned to the specific nature of jewellery. Stach’s work provides rare insights into the performative dimension of jewellery.

The Auratic Gaze
In early Greek imagination, human nature was thought of as embedded in a system of three shells protecting it from a primordial, extra-cosmic chaos: the shell of the body (σῶμα), the shell of the house (οἶκος), the shell of the world (κόσμος). Each of these shells corresponded to a specific type of ornamentation: the luminous constellations ornamenting the night sky, the geometric or floral motifs ornamenting the house and the fretwork of noble metals ornamenting the human body. The word connecting all three shells was κόσμος, meaning neither only the world in its entirety, nor ornamentation alone, including jewellery, but, more generally: order and the glamour of order, which enable both nature and the πόλις to glow into visibility.

Belonging as it does, to the innermost of the three shells, jewellery finds itself displayed on a living surface that breathes, moves and assumes its role in a world populated with other similarly animate and interactive surfaces. Contrary to the stellar constellations constituting and adorning the cosmos, contrary to paintings on walls or sculptural object in architectural space, a piece of jewellery can be experienced in two distinct and mutually exclusive modes. It can be worn or viewed, but not both at the same time. In both modes, it is enmeshed in the fabric of life. For it is inseparable from the life of the wearer and the living eye of the viewer. It is, in a sense, permeated with a life of its own.

Life, however, can mean two different things in contemporary discourse. It can be taken as the observable object of the life sciences. But it can also be taken as the lived and liveable life at the focus of all ethical, political, artistic discourses. In the latter sense, life can be read as a gaze, which is why all art – the visual arts more immediately than music or literature – is inseparable from the experience of the gaze.

Walter Benjamin connected modernity – understood as the industrialised production of large, open series of identical copies – with a fundamental loss of the aura, which he deciphered as a collective loss of the faculty of attributing a gaze to things and works (3). Contrary to the modern perception of de-auratised mass products, experiencing the aura of things involves the expectation of being gazed at by them. In the poetic context of Baudelaire and Proust, a phenomenon is not only that which I gaze at, but also that which I expect to gaze or “shine” back at me. Experiencing the aura of the stars implies the experience of being able to be gazed at by them from their intergalactic distances. In a Benjaminian sense, all traditional jewellery and ornament can be seen as auratic proposals at the surfaces of people and things, and the “primordial phenomenon of the aura” as a mimesis of the distant gaze of the stars(4).

However, with the onset of modernity things first lose their aura and transform into the gazeless objects of scientific knowledge, while, at the same time, a typically modernist critique of the ornament surfaces(5) and proliferates throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Logically speaking, however, the opposite must also be true. If modernity is inseparable from a loss of the aura and a refusal of the ornament, then a return of the ornament must entail a critique of modernity. It is therefore no surprise that the emergence of contemporary jewellery takes place at approximately the same time as the emergence of postmodern discourse and its critique of modernity.
In a certain sense, both art and advertisement propose what could count as modern versions of the ornament. By ascribing a gaze to things and creating fictions of their subjectivity, art as well as advertisement affect their circulation in the symbolic markets of modern economies. Practices of re-auratisation can take place either in the mode of art, which is capable of destroying commodification, as for instance in the case of artistic interventions that transform an object of utility into a readymade; or in the mode of advertisement, steeped in the opposite tendency of supporting and enhancing commodification, as in all promotion and packaging.

The Gaze of a Ring and the Blaze of a Brooch
Can the question of re-auratisation be addressed within the narrower limits of contemporary jewellery art? Can a piece of jewellery, functioning to enhance the subjectivity of a wearer, itself be ascribed a subjectivity? The young history of contemporary jewellery is replete with attempts at representing subjectivity by incorporating eyes, finger prints, sculptural simulations of all sorts – like slugs, beetles, berries, fingers, hands, masks etc. – or inserting photographs, narratives, etc. into wearable pieces to dramatize the presence of jewellery on the body of a wearer. However, the problem of re-auratization is mostly approached in an indirect manner through strategies of representing subjectivity instead of constructing or presenting it. But what would happen, if re-auratization could circumvent representation and take place instead as a single gesture replacing for instance the precious stone of a solitaire by a gaze? It is as if the shine emanating from the stone, the mimesis of a distant stellar gaze in Benjaminian terms, would cave in to become a gaze, never to be perceived as a visible object anymore, but as an act of seeing that can be read in the visibility of the things seen and the standpoints assumed.

This is what Gisbert Stach does in one of his earliest jewellery experiments in 1993 during his student days with Otto Künzli at the Munich Art Academy, in which he mounts a miniature film camera on the face of a ring(6), which is then worn as one goes about one’s daily chores. The result is a strange film consisting of nine sections, in which familiar activities like brushing one’s teeth, shopping, taking the subway, blowing one’s nose, driving a car can be experienced from the point of view of a ring.

Drawing by Gisbert Stach to demonstrate how the video is made, 1993.
Click here to watch 3 scenes of the video From a Ring’s Perspective: Taking the subway; Driving a car; Shopping (The length of the original videos is 18 minutes in total).

But the point of view of a ring is also that of the finger wearing the ring. The finger is part of a hand and the hand is part of an arm, which has a relative autonomy of motion, as it dangles at a frequency that is different from that of the legs as one moves or the eyelids as one blinks or the mouth as one chews. However, the arms, the hands, the fingers are just as capable of conscious motion, which is why the point of view of a ring is capable of manifesting the inherent dexterity of the hand, not as an object, but as a subjectivity absorbed in behaviour and revealed via the movement of the camera. Suddenly, we find ourselves empowered with a vision that is not coupled with the motion of the head, but with the movements of an arm, a hand, a finger, all of which are endowed with a sophistication and skill that single us out as human beings.

Trying to understand a ring thus becomes a way of experiencing the point of view of the hand that probably made the ring or – at least theoretically – is capable of making it, but preoccupied at the moment in a daily act like that of brushing one’s teeth or pounding on the keyboard of a typewriter or turning the steering wheel of a car or lunging for a product on the shelf of a food store. The life of the ring is embedded in the life of the finger and the hand wearing it. But the life of the hand involves much more than merely wearing or making the ring. It consists in executing movements, which are far more diverse and far richer than a set of professionalized movements constituting a specific skill. The hand, just as the other parts of the body, has a life of its own, and the life of the body is an ensemble of the lived lives of its parts.

A ring as a material object and artefact reminds us of the hand that can make or wear it. The gaze of the ring, however, reveals the life of the hand in full bloom. The reduction of the life of the hand to a set of professional movements (making a ring for instance) or a state of being adorned (wearing a ring for instance) is revoked.

In Gisbert Stach’s ring experiment, the shine of the ornament caves in to become a gaze. The inversion of such a process would obviously mean triggering off the opposite tendency of enhancing the shine of the ornament, which is essentially the reflection performed by a glossy surface. Reflection in its turn involves the mimesis of a source of energy, retaining the light, but keeping out the heat of the source. Inverting the construction of a gaze as in the ring experiment would therefore involve a transformation of the shine of an ornament into a blazing combination of light and heat. Stach explores such a process in his performance Sparkling Diamond (2014), in which a two-dimensional constellation of sparklers, reproducing and representing in its form the crystal structure of diamond, is set ablaze, either as a brooch on the t-shirted chest of a wearer or as a large object on a wall. The diamantine structure transforms into a blazing configuration of sparks, enacting the archaic process of glamour for a few minutes and subsiding ultimately to a charred and inconspicuous trace on a surface. The exuberance of life is succeeded by the emptiness of death and dissolution.

Sparkling Diamond, performance; Reproduced Paradise, Villa Vancza, Budapest; © Gisbert Stach, 2016.

Sparkling Diamond, installation; angewanzt, Bayerischer Kunstgewerbeverein, Munich; sparklers; 85 x 120 cm.; © Gisbert Stach, 2017.

The Many Perspectives of Life
The reason, why the ring experiment is capable of revealing an otherwise unseen life of the hand, is that the movement of the finger is identical with that of the camera. Starting out with what the gaze of the ring actually sees, we may draw the general conclusion that the lived life of the body is composed of the lived lives of its parts, one of which is the hand. Each of these lives corresponds to a perspective of its own, so that ring experiment could be seen as a first step of an ongoing project of viewing life through the lens of jewellery and analysing it as an open series of perspectives. Much of Stach’s later work continues in this vein, as he explores the connection between jewellery and life by shifting from one perspective to the other.

Living involves a system of rhythmic exchanges like breathing in and breathing out, seeing and appearing, producing and receiving sounds, ingestion and excretion, all of which regulate the traffic between an organism and its environment. Each mode of exchange activates a specific perspective. And each perspective reveals the environment associated with it. However, that is only one side of the story. A gaze, for instance, incorporates a perception of the environment from the standpoint of receiving images. It is based on the assumption that the environment is an inexhaustible supplier of images. But there is also the opposite action, in which images are generated and emitted into an environment, as by dress, jewellery, cosmetics. Such an action is based on the perception that the environment itself can function as a recipient of images. Another example is the process of ingestion, which involves a perception of the environment as a repository of matter to be ingested, contrary to that involved in the process of excretion, which returns matter to the environment after the organism has retained whatever is physiologically compatible.

An important segment of Gisbert Stach’s work is devoted to the starting point of the process of ingestion, which is the visual splendour of food and its dual promise of consistence and flavour. An early work is the “Egg Chain” (Eierkette, 1993), in which a boiled egg is cut into longitudinal slices that are then cast in silver to yield what looks like oval medallions with cameo engravings to be strung on a rubber cord and create a chain. Later works are the food brooches, based mainly on (Baltic) amber and simulating for instance Shushi on paper plates (Sushi series, 2008); or slices of bread, toasted to different degrees of brown (The Golden Toast series, 2015); or schnitzel (Schnitzel series, 2016) in the shape of the maps of the European Union or Germany or Bavaria, closing in gradually upon the location of the maker. The simulation is so perfect that these brooches can almost be smelt. Another approach to the issue of ingestion are Stach’s art actions in collaboration with a pizza baker in Munich, involving the insertion of jewellery-readymades into ‘real’ dough, which are then baked along with the dough to create a series of hybrid objects like a pizza margarita with a metal chain and pendant on its upper side (Pizza Gioielli, 2008); or a pearl necklace and silver earrings placed on a round piece of pizza dough and baked with it; or a charred loaf of bread with a gold chain and silver earrings on it; or a ‘real’ bread roll, all baked and ready, to serve as a pendant for a silver necklace.

Egg Necklace, necklace; silver, cast, elastic band; Ø approx.190 mm; © Gisbert Stach, 1993.

Sushi 1 – 4, pendants, brooches; Baltic amber, silicone, paper, silver, cord; 163 x 103 x 18 mm (Sushi 2, 3); 103 x 163 x 18 mm (Sushi 1, 4); © Gisbert Stach, 2009.

Golden Toast 1, Golden Toast 2, Golden Toast 3, brooches; Baltic amber, silicone, steel wire; 105–110 x 105 x 18 mm; © Gisbert Stach, 2013.
Golden Toast 5, brooch; Baltic amber, silicone, onyx, steel wire; 100 x 100 x 18 mm; © Gisbert Stach, 2014.

Golden Toast – White, brooch; Baltic amber, silicone, steel wire; Ø 96 x 90 x 18 mm; © Gisbert Stach, 2015.

EU-Schnitzel • DE-Schnitzel • M-Schnitzel • BY-Schnitzel • AT-Schnitzel, brooches; amber, silicone, steel wire; Ø 135–175 x 100–165 x 18 mm; © Danner-Stiftung; photo: Eva Jünger, 2015/16.

Pizza Gioielli (1), objects; pizza dough, costume jewellery; Ø 240 mm; baked by pizza baker Flo; © Gisbert Stach, 2008.

Pizza Gioielli (2), objects; pizza dough, costume jewellery; Ø 280 mm; by pizza baker Flo; © Gisbert Stach, 2008.

Ingestion and excretion are integral elements of what can probably count as the most extensive chronobiological process encompassing the entire life span of an organism: the cycle of growth and decay. The perspective of growth, associated with values like health, childhood, youth, is obviously different from the perspective of decay, associated with values like disease, age, death. Stach’s longest experiment, extending over a period of five years, explores the relation between growth and jewellery (Tree Necklace, 2004-2009). A chain of pearls strung on a thin steel wire is wound around the slender stem of a young tree. As the tree grows, the steel wire retains its length, so that the chain gradually cuts into the trunk of the growing tree. As the constriction deepens and the pearl chain gets overgrown by the wood, the relation between jewellery and life gets inverted. The chain is, ultimately, no longer a part of the tree’s visible exterior, articulating its invisible inner life. As the necklace sinks into the trunk of the tree and gets swallowed by its wooden materiality, the visible ornament finds itself overwhelmed and concealed by the process of growth, functioning here as an insignium of the life of the wearer.

Tree Necklace, 4 photographs; long-term installation, plastic pearls, steel, wire, ash tree; © Gisbert Stach, 2004-2009.

Stach also explores the perspective of decay – following that of growth – in a series of video projects, in which the stages of dissolution and disappearance of jewellery readymades are displayed. In a video lasting 7:31minutes (Transformation, 2006), one can see a silver cross studded with gems, suspended in an acid bath. Within minutes, layers of the metal begin to break away. The gems drop from their mountings as the structure of the cross collapses and finally disappears. The issue at hand is not merely the dissolution of a material object and the economic value associated with it, but, beyond that, the contingence and fragility of an age-old collective symbol, which caves in under the onslaught of science, technology and modernity. In such a context, wearing jewellery can become a recursive experience, as exemplified in an iPod pendant displaying the dissolution of a pendant in the form of a cross (Transformation, 2009). Another video (Maybe Forever, 2011) demonstrates the dissolution of another symbolically loaded jewellery object: the wedding ring. Two identical rings, standing vertically in an acid bath and partially overlapping in the manner of two circular Venn diagrammes with an intersection, evoke images of marital harmony including associations like reciprocity, fidelity, cohabitation. As the acid corrodes them, the rings tumble to the base of the acid bath and dissolve completely.

Transformation, pendant; video loop on iPod; 7 Min 31 Sek; Ø 6 x 11 x 1 cm; iPod touch, steel wire, aluminium, silver; © Gisbert Stach, 2009.

The list of such examples could be extended ad lib to include other works like Stach’s knife action (Aktion Wurfmesser, 2015), in which a knife is pitched from a distance of several meters to strike a metal badge on a wooden board and cut into it. The indentations look like gashing wounds that evoke the pain and vulnerability characteristic not only of a lived human life, but also typical of the process of making, which involve acts of intervention and injury inflicted on a material. Then there is the experiment with gravity and the posture of a wearer, as depicted in the video presentation Fitting (2008), in which metal chains are placed successively on the neck of a seated woman, letting the layers of chains gradually become a heavy mass that finally weighs down the body of the wearer. What began as adornment, ends as a burden.

Fitting, videostill; 30 minutes; performance by Sonia Ruiz de Arkaute and Gisbert Stach, 2008.

Thus Gisbert Stach’s works reveal a basic tendency of jewellery towards transforming the process of self-adornment into a recursive experience. It shows that jewellery, taken as a visible constellation of objects on the surface of a living body, can be fashioned into a lens, through which life itself is revealed in its elementary rhythms: as a gaze and a blaze, as ingestion, excretion, growth and decay, as the vulnerability and tribulations related to gravity and weight, even if the latter only means the weight of adornment.
Through a wide range of such experiments, Stach’s work shows that jewellery is not merely an object appended to a human body or a process of self enhancement via adornment, but, over and above, a performance replete with anthropological explorations of the lived and liveable rhythms of human bodies. 
In the course of such forays into the connection between jewellery and life, Stach’s work emerges as a unique voice in the diverse world of contemporary jewellery.

(1) I owe the idea implicit in the title to an informal exchange with Ilaria Ruggiero, founder and curator of A/dornment (Barcelona). During the discussion I was deeply impressed by her suggestion that jewellery is essentially performance, and would like to thank her at this point for the inspiration. The following text is based on an essay titled “Jewellery and Life. On Gisbert Stach’s ongoing experiments with jewellery” in: Pravu Mazumdar, Corrina Rösner, Bernhart Schwenk, Gisbert Stach: Jewellery and Experiment, Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2018.
(2) “Experiencing the aura of a phenomenon amounts to attributing to it the faculty of opening its eyes.” (Transl. by P. M.) Walter Benjamin, Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire (1939) in: Gesammelte Schriften Band I, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1974: p. 646.

(3) See Benjamin, Walter, Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire (1939) in: Gesammelte Schriften Band I, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1974: „Dem Blick wohnt aber die Erwartung inne, von dem erwidert zu werden, dem er sich schenkt.“ [“An intrinsic element of a gaze is the expectation of a response from the thing in which it is absorbed.” Transl. by P. M.], p. 646. Or: „Die Aura einer Erscheinung erfahren, heißt sie mit dem Vermögen belehnen, den Blick aufzuschlagen.“ [“Experiencing the aura of a phenomenon amounts to attributing to it the faculty of opening its eyes.” Transl. by P. M.], ibid. See also Adorno’s remark in his letter to Benjamin a year later: „Ist nicht die Aura allemal die Spur des vergessenen Menschlichen am Ding?“ [“Isn’t the aura anyway the trace of the forgotten humanness in a thing?” Transl. by P. M.], 29th February 1940 in Suhrkamp, 1994: p. 418.
(4) “… die Gestirne mit ihrem Blick aus der Ferne …” Unpublished fragment, see Benjamin, Walter, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II.3, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1977: p. 958.
(5) A canonical document of such a critique is the famous lecture text „Ornament und Verbrechen“ (1908) by Adolph Loos. See Loos, Adolph, Trotzdem (1900-1930), Innsbruck: Brenner-Verlag, 1931: 81-94.
(6) Stach used a so called „spy camera“: a tiny lens mounted on to the finger with tape and connected by an electric cord with a video recorder for sounds, to be carried in a side bag. The lens was mounted parallel to the finger, facing in its direction. It would have obviously been more precise, if it would have faced upward like the gem of a ring. However, the parallelism between the axis of the lens and the finger led to images that were all the more impressive due to the hidden perspective.

Biography of Gisbert Stach :
Gisbert Stach studied at the Staatliche Berufsfachschule fuer Glas und Schmuck (State College for Glas and Jewellery) in Kaufbeuren-Neugablonz in Germany. After that, he devoted himself to studying sculpting and jewellery at the Fachhochschule fuer Kunst and Design (Colone University of Applied Sciences) in Cologne – Peter Skubic as well at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he finished his studies with diploma in 1996 at Otto Kuenzli. He lives and works in Munich, where he has his own studio. His artwork is exhibited in international galleries and renowed museums, such as the The Design Museum in Munich, and it is a part of public collections.

Gisbert Stach’s works of art display a great variety ranging from contemporary author’s jewellery and experimental silverware to performance, sculptures and video art. His videos have been shown at international film festivals. In 2006, Gisbert Stach won first prize at the 15th International Silverart Competition of Gallery of Art in Legnica in Poland, as well as the Amberif Design Award in Gdansk in 2011 and the Danner Merit Award in Munich in 2017. Gisbert Stach is a jury member at competitions and gives lectures at international jewellery symposiums. In topic-related workshops he has taught students at art colleges and cultural institutions in Antwerp, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, Dubai, Beirut, Bratislava and Oslo. He is one of the most important authors of contemporary art jewellery.

Portrait of Gisbert Stach, photo by Rose Stach.

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.