Jewelry and value: Some observations around Peter Bauhuis' fly-brooches

Published: 07.11.2021
Pravu Mazumdar
Edited by:
Edited at:
Edited on:
Peter Bauhuis. Brooch: 38 Flies, 2020-2021. Silver, yellow bronze, red bronze, copper, gold.. 0.9 to 8. 5 cm. Peter Bauhuis
Brooch: 38 Flies, 2020-2021
Silver, yellow bronze, red bronze, copper, gold.
0.9 to 8. 5 cm
© By the author. Read Copyright.

This essay is based on Pravu's contribution to the booklet accompanying Peter Bauhuis’ exhibition 'Flies'. See Mazumdar, Pravu, "On the value of flies. Some reflections on the latest brooches by Peter Bauhuis" in Peter Bauhuis, Flies, Munich, 2021. Bauhuis' project can be seen as an experiment in connecting the problems of form and value in jewelry through the fly motif.

They come in swarms and take over the city. Some of them have a golden hue, others are dark or a coppery red. Some of them reveal the wirework of their wings. Others can be recognised by the oversized half-globes of their facet-eyes or the voluptuous curvature of their wings. As they settle down, the white of the floor comes into view.

Peter Bauhuis, Brooches and Pins: Flies, 2020-2021. Silver, Red bronze, yellow bronze, copper. 1 to 7.5 cm.
© Peter Bauhuis.

I. On things and values
Seeing is never an isolated act, but always enmeshed in activities like assessing, measuring, desiring, anticipating, loathing. The mind of the eye never absorbs only forms and colours, but also values. Users for instance perceive not only the thingness of things but also their use-value. Traders, in contrast, are obsessed with their exchange-value and gallerists with their “display-value” (1). We are always enveloped in a space of things that emit value constantly, revealing themselves initially in their physical forms, but ultimately flashing into apperance in their beauty and power as they take up their position within a general hierarchy of values.
With the circulation of value, jewellery fulfils a specific role within the order of things. As a piece of formed material, augmenting the value of its wearer and probably representing the most ancient manifestation of surplus value – long before the ascent of market economies –, it serves to render its human wearer visible in the fullest sense of the term. However, jewellery is also what I would term a mnemonic device for counteracting the “axiological oblivion” of the observing eye. To explain this formula, I will try to draw a basic connection between value and transience.
Across the barriers of culture, human beings have an inbuilt tendency towards being and appearing valuable. Such a tendency, however, is easily obscured and forgotten, as it runs uphill against an opposing tendency towards the spontaneous wear and tear of human value. People keep losing their lustre through hunger, cold, toil, disease, war or, even if none of these ever take place, through the sheer biology of ageing. Jewellery functions in this connection as a tangible memory of the human proclivity towards value, which establishes itself repeatedly against the inexorable processes of decay.

Value triggers desire and mobilises not only the gaze of the observer, but also the motoric systems associated with shoulders, elbows, hands and fingers. Anything valuable attracts us. We reach out for it and wish at least to touch it. Anything that is not valuable, fails to attract us. We stretch out our hands and want to at least push it away. Value and non-value unfold a field of forces, in which the neuromotoric being of the observer is triggered into motion. Can jewellery trigger such effects? Can jewellery acquire a form that can communicate value or non-value and generate motion? This is the kind of question posed by Peter Bauhuis in his Avance series (2008). Crafted from gold and blackened silver in the shape of tiny open pods, these brooches resemble darkened or gilded finger prints left behind by a past touch. They also seem to function as tiny landing pads for future finger tips, buzzing through space, fuelled by curiosity, along their tracks of attraction to settle down finally on the opened pods. Each brooch evokes the magic of imminent touch. Each brooch documents the magnetism of value that sends an image through the eyes and prompts the shoulders, arms, fingers to move and consummate the drama of touch.

Peter Bauhuis, Pin: Avancen, 2008. Gold 750, silver, ca 2 x 2 cm.
© Philipp Mansmann.

A contrasting physical response is triggered by the pins belonging to Bauhuis’ Lint series (1997), which, on being worn, generate the optical illusion of yellowish or dark fluff on a dress. The question raised by these pieces is, whether jewelry can function as an evocation of non-value. The pins consist in minuscule pieces of gold and silver capable of triggering a reflex reaction and prompting the observer to stretch out an arm and bring the fingers in position, in order to flick off the tiny fragments of disruption on the fabric of a textile.

Peter Bauhuis, Fussel, pins, 1997. Silver or gold. (Andi Gut wearing a Lint Pin flicked away by thehand of Mirei Takeuchi.
Photo © Peter Bauhuis.


But the connection between jewelry and value gets complicated by a further step, when the form of the brooch derives from a living being supposed to have originated in filth and squalor, constantly buzzing around us as a nerve-racking symbol of our own metabolic discharges and now made to attain a new value through the medium of jewelry. A thing that was devoid of value for centuries, becomes valuable all at once by lending its form to jewellery.

Josef wearing a fly. Photo © Peter Bauhuis.

What happens then actually, when a fly buzzes through the air, settles down on a body and hardens into a brooch? The question entails an entire cluster of issues. Can something that is abhorrent become jewelry? Can something that is nauseating be made to feel attractive? Can something that is not merely valueless like fluff, but traditionally associated with negativity, something, which was long regarded as a vermin or a descendent of hell, become a fountainhead of forms for jewelry? Such are the questions pursued by Peter Bauhuis in his latest brooches.

II. The fly through the lens of science
All visual wonders are constituted by the gaze of the admirer. In general, the eye is capable of perceiving different things in the same entity. This occurs for instance when we cross the thresholds between different cultures. This also happens in historical moments of transition in technologies of seeing (2). Since the invention of the microscope, a drop of water from the gutter can reveal a strange and marvelous world of ghostlike animalcules. In the same drop of water, the naked eye would have been unable to see anything of the kind for a long period of time. In a similar fashion, the microscope could reveal a despicable and not quite so tiny an animal like a fly as “a network of fibers, vessels and a precise wirework of nerves” (3), prompting the philosopher Nicholas Malebranche to acclaim in 1711 that “a fly has just as many, if not more organic parts as a horse or an ox. A horse has only four legs, whereas a fly has six … in the eye of an ox, one finds only one single lens, but one finds thousands of them these days in the eye of a fly.” (4)
For centuries, this tiny animal was seen through the lens of Christian eschatologies and classified under a residual category titled “lower creatures”, consisting of a motley assortment of animals like snakes, locusts, worms, mice, bats or moles. These creatures were not taken to originate from the union of sperms and eggs, but from “the rot and slime of matter” (5), from which they emerged in the course of a process called “spontaneous and primordial procreation” (6), which took place as the warmth of the sun permeated and activated elements like air, water, earth, as well as waste of all kinds. (7)
The gaze through the veil of degradation was never very accurate. Aristotle characterized a mayfly as a quadruped in his historia animalum (8), even though he classified insects in general as hexapods in another section of his work (9). In truth, however, the mayfly is a hexapod and no different from the common housefly or insects in general. This piece of misinformation was perpetuated for almost 2000 years, as it was copied from one text to another and passed on to generations of writers, till the Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam presented a detailed monography on the mayfly in 1675 and acknowledged that it did in fact possess six legs.
The fact that the fly was designated as a quadruped for centuries, although its legs could easily have been counted anytime even without a microscope, was not only due to the authority enjoyed by Aristotle through centuries of European philosophy and science, but also due to the insignificance of this tiny creature, which was taken to be simply not worth a more accurate description. It was only with Swammerdam, the originator of the so-called Theory of Preformation, that the Ephemerus was revalued and acquired the status of a scientific object, possessing a describable structure as all living beings, emerging from an egg and worthy of a meticulous study of its characteristics. (10)
We would be well adviced, though, not to forget that the scientific revaluation of the fly brought with it the doubtful privilege of its mass sacrifice at the alter of science, as manifested in the destiny of the Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit or vinegar fly, which was used in a wide variety of experiments concerning its breeding and mutation in the first half of the 20th century. Thus, historically speaking, the fly became the first laboratory animal for modern genetic science. (11)

III. The aesthetic elevation of the fly

How would the fly appear from the vantage point of art? Can it be subjected to an aesthetic elevation, parallel to its ascent to the status of a scientific object? Such questions are dealt with on three levels of Peter Bauhuis’ fly brooches, the first of these being the level of the sheer existence of these brooches. One can observe on this level, how the mere act of refashioning the fly-form into jewelry becomes a first step towards an aesthetic elevation of the fly: a step that stands out against the centuries old collective devaluation of this creature in the Christian world view.

Peter Bauhuis, Brooch: Flies, 2021. Silver 925, gold 750, 12 x 4 x 1.5 cm, 8.5 x 5.9 x 1.5 cm.
© Peter Bauhuis.

There is no doubt that something like a fly-jewelry did exist in other historical connections as well, like the fly-fibula in Gothic tradition or the “Medal of the Golden Fly” conferred in ancient Egypt as a recognition of special acts of bravery. But the cultural basis for such a jewelry was the positive evaluation of the fly as a symbol of happiness or resilience in the face of adversity. This is quite in tune with a general tendency of traditional jewelry to conform to socially pre-existing values. Modern jewelry, however, which is in this sense no different from modern painting or sculpture, does the exact opposite. It questions, resists and revalues traditional aesthetic stipulations.

Posted by Liesbeth den Besten on her instagram account: @liesbethdenbesten.
Her profile reads: On Jewelleryness. Things I see, find or wear that have jewelleryness #notadaywithoutjewellery

The second level is that of the material. On this level, the elevation of the fly-form to jewelry is continued and reinforced. Through the employment of matted gold or darkened silver, the morphological shape of the fly acquires a new dimension of splendor. The occasional color patterns on the surface of the brooches, owing to the vagaries of oxidation, enhance the aesthetic charm of the form.

Peter Bauhuis, Brooch: Big Yellow Fly, 2020. Yellow bronze, gold, 5.2 x 4.2 x 1.1 cm.
© Philipp Mansmann.

The third level is that of the form itself. On this level, the aesthetic elevation of the fly is revealed in its innermost logic. For the form of the brooches is by no means a simple replication of the fly-form, but is rather constituted through a systematic deduction of morphological details from the shape of the insect. As the process of abstraction unfolds the possibilities of metaphor and metamorphosis, our visual experience is catapulted from the sphere of the entomological taxonomies of the 17th century to that of the oldest fertility rites in human history. For, in their final shape, these brooches seem to re-enact the ascent of the Goddess of Love from the shell of the fly-form.
On the subjective plane, one experiences thereby something like the gyration of an inner kaleidoscope, letting the broad sweep of the wings of the insect swell to a symbol of prehistoric womanhood. On an objective plane, the brooches appear as minuscule stages, on which the aesthetic elevation of the fly-form is repeatedly enacted. As these swarming denizens of hell descend upon us to become brooches, their daily nerve-racking buzz and flutter is elevated to the high flight of eroticism and fertility.

Peter Bauhuis, Brooch: Big Black Fly, 2020. Silver, 7.3 x 5.9 x 1.3 cm.

(1) The term and concept "display value" was introduced by Walter Benjamin and denotes the use-value of works of art in the industrial age, taken as the age of their technical reproducibility. See Benjamin, Walter, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, in Benjamin, Walter, Abhandlungen. Gesammelte Schriften, vol.  I.1, stw. 931, Frankfurt a. M. /Suhrkamp, 1974.
(2) See Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer. On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century, Cambridge, Mass. etc.: MIT Press, 1990.
(3) Jacob, François, The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, Princeton Science Library, Princeton: Princeton. University Press, 1993, quoted from the German version, Die Logik des Lebenden. Eine Geschichte der Vererbung, Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer Verlag, 1972: p. 62.
(4) Malebranche, Nicolas, Entretiens sur la Métaphysique, sur la Religion et sur la Mort, Paris : Michel David, 1711, vol. 2, p. 14-15, quoted in Jacob, Logic of Life: p. 62.
(5) Fernel, Jean François, „De abditis rerum causis“, I, 8, in Opera: p. 538, quoted in Jacob, Logic of Life: p. 32.
(6) See Jacob, Logic of Life: p. 32.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Aristotle, A History of Animals, ed. by Richard Cresswell, London: Henry G. Bohn, 1862, I.5 490a32-490b3 und V.19 552b17-23.
(9) See Schmidt, Stefan, „Die Fliege des Aristoteles. Bemerkungen zur Anomalistik und eine Forschungsübersicht zum Zusammenhang zwischen Meditation und Psi“ in Zeitschrift für Anomalistik, vol. 12, 2012: p. 160.
(10) Swammerdam, Jan, „The natural history of the insect called the Hemerobios, Ephemerus, or Diaria”, Chapter I. “The Ephemerus is produced from an egg” in John Swammerdam, M. D. (posthumous), The Book of Nature, London: C. G. Seyffert, 1758: p. 103.
(11) See Jacob, François, Die Maus, die Fliege und der Mensch. Über die moderne Genforschung, Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1998: p. 51.

Meet the flies in stock at the following venues:
Galerie Biró, Munich, DE.
Gallery Loupe, Montclair, NJ, US.
Gallerie Sebastian Schildt, Stockholm, S.
Friends of Carlotta, Zürich, CH.
The National, Christchurch, NZ.
Gallery Funaki, Melbourne, AUS.
ATTA Gallery, Bangkok, THA.
Galerie Noel Guyomarch, Montreal, CAN.
Galerie SO, Solothurn, CH.

Peter Bauhuis
was born in Germany and lives and works in Munich. He was trained as a jeweller and studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Since 1999 he has exhibited his work all over the world and won numerous awards and prizes. In 2020 he was shortlisted for the Loewe Craft Prize.
Peter’s work, which can be seen in public collections in Europe, the USA and Australia, consists primarily of jewellery as well as objects. However, there is also much in his oeuvre that cannot be restricted to these genres. With his exhibitions he challenges the viewer by creating both his exhibits and curatorial concepts as autonomous works of art. In addition, there are his numerous artist’s books, which are independent artworks as part of a network of made things and their perception.

Photo © Mirei Takeuchi

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.