Onno Boekhoudt: any parallel with Marcel Duchamp?

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Published: 12.12.2017
Ana Campos Ana Campos
Ana Campos
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Onno Boekhoudt. Set: A room for a finger, 1993. Painted wood. 2.7 x 1.8 x 3 cm. Onno Boekhoudt
Set: A room for a finger, 1993
Painted wood
2.7 x 1.8 x 3 cm
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Comparing the aspects of the work of Onno Boekhoudt with that of Marcel Duchamp. It points out comparable attitudes, not forms. Both their work show intellectuality and philosophical attitudes. The work of Boekhoudt belongs to the field of contemporary jewellery as much as it does to art which is comparable to Duchamp. Duchamp invented retinism for example, and Boekhoudt invented pining and brooching.

This text compares aspects of the work of Onno Boekhoudt with that of Marcel Duchamp. It points out comparable attitudes, not forms. Both their work show intellectuality and philosophical attitudes. The philosophy of the work of Duchamp intends to generate a new path for art that, questioning itself when discussions on the end of art and Pop art emerge, will define several reflexive courses. In the case of Boekhoudt, there is a similar philosophical quest that also deviates from visibility. This is another important coincidence. However, from the point of view of forms, the obsessive and continuous, creative and interrogative process of Boekhoudt has no direct consequences for jewellery with regards to the game with heterotopic time, nor with the absence of frontiers between models and the final work of art. These aspects have not been researched.

Key words: Onno Boekhoudt, Marcel Duchamp, visibility, heterotopy.

When referring to contemporary jewellery we designate a field the function of which is extraordinary in the sense that like all art, it resides in an unusual world out of daily life. It often deals with a heterotopic field where creative and communicative reasons intersect and offer us aesthetic experiences of a reflexive nature. As with all art, contemporary jewellery has no other purpose than to dis-organise reality and make us think about it, about life and the contemporary world.

Therefore, here the word jewellery appears to refer to something that brings disorder to the heart of art and to jewellery itself, and not to any kind of corporal adornments. Included in jewellery, it distinguishes itself from other types of jewellery - such as those that show status, jewellery, design, jewellery made by visual artists - precisely because it rejects the possibility of having a decorative nature. It communicates symbolically through metaphors, quotes, synecdoches or other types of rhetoric. It introduces humour and crossings between thinking and doing, between intellectual thinking – as the Illuminist – and thinking with ones hands, showing what each of these jewellers think and make or think while making. Contemporary jewellers express contents metaphorically, transforming materials into symbolically communicating mediums.

Although of the intellectual root, the work of Boekhoudt is also impromptu by nature as he himself said. In the catalogue of the exhibition with the expressive title Why not jewellery? Groninger Museum, 1996), the author Koos van Zoomeren gives us clues to understand better Boekhoudt and his work. This text is of special interest because it is based on conversations they both had in Friesland where Boekhoudt lived, and it associates their own opinions. Zoomeren asks himself, what in his early life in the countryside could have anticipated or configured his creative activity? To him, it seemed his things – as Boekhoudt preferred to call his pieces – could be refinements of his childhood activities, of a child that invents games and builds things like houses for rabbits or huts for children using materials he gathered. To Koos van Zoomeren, Boekhoudt seemed to be unstoppable like this type of boys. He also comments that he could spend many days without working in his studio, but he would not pass one day without taking care of the land. “I couldn’t live here without growing my own vegetables,” (1) he says himself with simplicity.

A Room for a finger, Onno Boekhoudt, 1993. Painted wood. Each 27 x 18 x 30 mm.

The word jewellery became too inclusive.
It no longer allows to specify any element within the vast typology it includes and that needs to be worked on urgently.
It is enough, for now, to recall that this typological shelter, which houses both conflicting and other types in dialogue, emerged with the industrial revolution and has been multiplying since. It is therefore always necessary to resort to some complement of meaning, to some additional explanation that specifies what we intend to refer, in order to open a dialogue with our audience. First and foremost I think that jewellery
is pushing sociolinguistics into the need for study.
Yet, within this panorama there are also some philosophical questions: contemporary jewellery must be thought of and studied as an autonomous art, self-conscious, reflexive. This is a vast issue. Trying not to be reductive, it is by approximation with contemporary art that the respective designation arises. Contemporary jewellers think about jewellery, they don’t make jewellery. They reconfigure traditions, they start a criticism or a discussion in the creative process itself and as with all art, and they propose complex experiences through unexpected and deliberately disordered ways of communication. They defy the philosophical aesthetics, not to order those complex puzzles, but to try to understand their intentions.
It is not unusual to find coincidences, more or less profound, in the way criticism or discussion settle in the works of different artists. At times, certain artists and jewellers, separated by decades, seem to be motivated by the same reasons, but these do not coincide entirely. I try to find some of these parallels between Onno Boekhoudt (1944-2002) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).
Duchamp, as is well known, fought against contemplation, or in his own words retinism, that is, visibility as the unique experience made possible by art. He moves away from that and takes a philosophical approach to art. Simultaneously he pushes philosophy to a new and necessary opening to solve this problem.
Before Pop, Duchamp is at the origin of the theories about the end of art and of attempts to philosophically redefine art so as to include new changes and propose experiences that are not just for the eyes but that demand an intellectual effort. This issue occupied philosophical aesthetics for decades, and Danto dedicated an important part of his life to it because he considered that Duchamp established a criticism and a philosophical reflexion “at the heart of the artistic discourse”, and by doing so he also challenged philosophy itself.
Duchamp already questioned himself on this issue. In the 1960s in an interview to the BBC he declared “I am against retinism” (2) and he explained that he didn’t aim at the end of art but that instead he aimed to go beyond visibility. He also said this famous sentence: "painting is a means of expression, not an end in itself. One means of expression among others, and not a complete end for life at all.”(3) Duchamp also tells us he understands art as an intellectual activity and – even if in this interview he hints indirectly at the etymology of poïesis, he reminds us that the word art indicates a making, an activity, manual work – that it also demands an intellectual effort and reflective work, not just from the artist but also from the public, in order to understand and interpret the implicit meaning of a work of art, beyond what the eye can see.
On the other hand, Duchamp implicitly invites us to understand his daily life and escaping from repetitions and commonplace ideas, he seeks to share his experience, his intellectual pleasure with the public. His ready-mades come from collections of common everyday objects that he moved from their place of origin. What interested him was what they triggered, the experiences offered for reflection. How did he choose them? He found them. And as he said during the same interview, he would then have to decide “to choose an object that wouldn’t attract me either by its beauty or its ugliness, to find a point of indifference in my looking at it. (They are indifferent if) there is no styling, no taste, no liking, no disliking."(4) Those indifferent objects would not be similar to anything, they did not repeat anything in the artistic field, as he also intended.
Several decades later the Dutch jeweller Onno Boekhoudt was equally immersed in a fight against visibility. How far did his interest in Duchamp go? At the moment, I do not have the answer to this question. Nevertheless, I dare ask the question: Why does Boekhoudt have the very same concerns regarding visibility? Unlike Duchamp, he didn’t seem to be ill at ease with uniqueness or with the absence of similarity in his work. Boekhoudt was not just focused on his work. At the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn where a vast archive regroups his work, it became clear to me that he also had the reconfiguration of jewellery in mind. Visibility and jewellery both coincide in making an ironic critique of visibility that comes out in notes, texts, drawings and models.
Boekhoudt collected objects and made things with them. This is how he used to refer to what we would normally call jewels or pieces of jewellery, the results of a jeweller’s activity. However, not all his things were conceived to be worn on the body. Simultaneously, his attention focused on jewellery’s old and deep issue of visibility. He defined his own creative and communicative intentions in detriment of visibility. In fact, jewels, even today, are made to be seen. Most of jewels do not have an implicit meaning. They are appendices to clothes, they tend to aestheticize. That is why his things, like Duchamp’s ready-mades, are associated with his fight against visibility. Boekhoudt understands them as anti-sieraad (anti-jewellery). This is not because he aspired to the end of jewellery itself or to a break in the tradition, on the contrary, it is because he was concerned with jewellery and he sought to reconfigure it, to make people think.

Jewellery? Why not jewellery? Why not interior design? The question Why not jewellery? was the title he gave to the last exhibition held in his lifetime. Boekhoudt considered that his work was interior design, it was his way to profess his stance against visibility. His approach to jewellery is also philosophical. He introduces a problem, proposes to the public to think about it and challenges philosophy itself. Contributions of jewellers like Boekhoudt, with the changes their work present, put jewellery in motion. Those advances and those new paths that open are full of intentions and consequences for the world of jewellery. Therefore, philosophy must consider the intentions of jewellers in order to study contemporary jewellery as an extension of art, and wonder where they intend to lead us.

Why did Boekhoudt say: “I do consider my rings as interior design”?(5) First, this type of design is not an a priori. It is not an understandable project that was planned, worked and programmed to designate ideas or shapes, to respond to needs and/or forecast given results at various levels, including expectations of a public nature, as architects or designers do in their fields. On the other hand, the work of Boekhoudt does not follow an archi-tectonic process, like an arkhitekton (according to Greek mythology, the head or the coordinator of a construction). On the contrary, he does not coordinate anything, he relies only on himself and follows an impromptu process, like a free jazz player, thinking as he plays along.

A Room for a finger, Onno Boekhoudt, 1993. Painted wood. Each 27 x 18 x 30 mm.

Secondly, the term interior design comes up, obviously, as an opposition to the emphasis put on visibility, to this old issue that jewellery drags along. For years, one of his obsessions has been deciding how to focus on this problem. Something is clear. Like other contemporaneous jewellers, Boekhoudt takes into account that the primitive adornment did not privilege visibility, on the contrary, it excels in meanings, and it is a form of socially relevant symbolic communication. It was urgent, thus, to retrieve this element, and to build meaning, at the present time. In which directions? Interior design is the metaphor he chooses and that drives him down a path that is always in process. He refers to something that will be inside, to meaning.
Thirdly, let us look at the practical side of the project, the making, which he never abandoned unlike Duchamp. When he makes a ring he privileges its interior to take visibility away or to eliminate it. It is a piece of jewellery that is in contact with the body, unlike a brooch that he regards as a postcard, something used to present, to be seen. His objective with a ring is to open a room for a finger. He works them from the interior to the outside, carving for example. In other cases like the rings of A room for a finger, the finger penetrates inside a room, a metaphor of a small compartment, a house that seems to be built for a child.
In his notes Boekhoudt comments on the shape of his things stating that they are not special, that they are banal. Would making commonplace things be an objective? What he wants us to understand is close to the body of the wearer. Consequently, in another text he adds: “the inside is more intimate – so more important – so, that part will be invisible but fellable! What happened is that I have split the piece into out-in side. It is my answer to the most intriguing problem of jewellery: is it the observer or the wearer who is important?”(6) His interior design turns into a metaphoric content constructed over more than a decade. It helps understand some of his other works, before and after those rings.
Whether Boekhoudt and Duchamp like the word intention or not, their critique of visibility – that one defines as retinism and the other refers to fiction about interior design – shows intentions that shape their work. As for Boekhoudt, he preferred that there be desire in an intention and not so much rational and logical design, as if it was an incomplete word, “an idea” - something intellectual, in process - “an intention, but not complete.”(7) As such, he preferred the word work, work that – like Duchamp in The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors – was elaborated without an end in sight during many years, not constituting a continuous work of manufacture, but rather like a restless labour of intellectual investigation. For Zoomeren, Boekhoudt enjoyed working like a mole: “both calculate and unreasoned”(8), discreetly but leaving a trace of his activity. Boekhoudt wrote a letter to Paul Derrez saying “ideas are often the first five years on the shelf before I pick them up.” It was a process, a long experiment of creative exploration that would eventually lead to answers, or things.

Both enjoyed inventing metaphors by associating one word with another – assemblages – like retinism or interior design. In Boekhoudt’s notes several terms come from jewellery artefacts like brooching, by association with pinning. They gain the power of action, they become substantial, tangible. For Duchamp, maybe the principle was to avoid words that are too common: “like a landscape, loses its savour, wears itself out, and becomes a commonplace.”(9) Boekhoudt wanted to explore contents, to create new capacities in words to be able to manipulate them against visibility. Words also gained a new identity, leading to a reality-fiction loaded with humour. For Boekhoudt, as far as Duchamp was concerned, the distance between art and daily life was practically null. As much as Duchamp engaged in de- aestheticizing art, Boekhoudt was engaged in de- aestheticizing jewellery. We can take note of their common interests or their come ironic attitudes, and of their shared intentions to fight visibility even though those intentions have different targets and objectives. However, the paths they choose to share their creative process with the public are very different.

Ring project, Onno Boekhoudt, 1996. Wood, clay: 30 x 29 mm

Boekhoudt was interested in sharing his search, his studies, and his models, that is, he was interested in sharing why and how certain things interested him to the point that he would transform them into things. He did not establish hierarchies between the manufactured and the non- manufactured, between the model and the final thing. Several cases were exposed in the exhibition and in the catalogue Why not jewellery? at the Groninger museum in 1997. In other exhibitions like the one at the Marzee gallery, in Nijmegen in 2002 he showed Monument to a pair of scissors. In another exhibition, he displayed a collection of bench pins he was given by friends and that showed holes made by tools. As to the pair of scissors, in addition to being a ready-made, an intellectual result, it is also a starting point for a vast work. The pair of scissors is a vestige from his frequent visits to local scrap yards when looking for things that would make him think, regardless of any aesthetic characteristic as this was never a criteria for selection. Sometimes he also collected presents from friends or things like bench pins. They are, once again, the result of his walks along the margins of the river Linde, or of his work in a studio, drawing, writing or manipulating materials until exhaustion because he uploaded his reflections onto them, or because he managed to transform them into means that could become contents, to make things.

On the other hand, in his restless daily activity that helped him answer his concerns, in each thing he brought together worlds of different identities and times to build meanings beyond visibility, making them simultaneous and non-amnesic, in a process that is both impromptuand heterotopic in the Foucauldian sense. Boekhoudt collected, he accumulated to infinity. In certain things like Box with Materials, even time itself was collected, not as an oblivious time but as time that was accumulated, put in dialogue, synchronised to express individual choices.
Box with materials, Onno Boekhoudt, 1978.

To focus on inhabited places Foucault opposed heterotopy to utopia. He related utopia to essentially imaginary places, whereas he considered heterotopy as a place of multiple or mixed experiences. These are places he understands as “other spaces”. He shows a variety of examples where mixed experiences all happen in one place like in psychiatric clinics or in prisons, places of typical Foucauldian interest. For this author, heterotopy has the power to “juxtapose several spaces into one real place, several locations which are in themselves incompatible”. Heterotopy works well when the subjects choose a sort of “absolute break with their traditional time.” It would be, thus, what also happens in museums and libraries where – even if it depends on a certain choice – time is accumulated in dialogue and symmetry. Foucauldian heterotopy has something of wunderkammer, something of a cabinet of Renaissance curiosities where multiple rare or strange objects would be collected and exposed during social occasions without any intention of establishing an aesthetic or qualitative hierarchy between them, nor to include temporary or geographical frontiers between them. There, there was a dialogue between the animalia, the vegetalia, the mineralia and human creations.
The Box with Materials illustrates the nature of Boekhoudt’s creative process. It shows the same intention to group in one single place resources to work with, tools, natural and artificial materials, things he found or made and collected with time. There are temporary or permanent things, the idea is to create a common forum for elements that are supposedly incompatible. Is it a thing? It is a heterotopy, an accumulation of occurrences, of things in a thing, of the present time and memories in dialogue. It is offered to the public experience just like other things, with no hierarchy between the made, the found and the collected. Without museological hierarchy. With no aesthetic hierarchy. Going back in time, Boekhoudt partly resumes the heterotopic characteristic of the wunderkammer. But not without intentions. This is the opening of his impromptu process, of his creative experience that is to be understood. This is one of his main communicative intention, the one at the heart of the meaning of his creative process.

Onno Boekhoudt was an unstoppable jeweller. His work is out of the ordinary and offers us unexpected aesthetic experiences, it must be understood in light of his intentions – it was an impromptu spontaneous process, like free jazz – and it is within this context that it must be interpreted, both his collections resulting in ready-mades, his drawings, models or unfinished pieces, and his finished pieces, several of which are made with short-lived materials.
The work of Boekhoudt belongs to the field of contemporary jewellery as much as it does to art. Although it is impromptu, it was without a doubt a conscious work. It includes creative and communicative reasons that lead it onto paths – in some respects indicated – that make it comparable to Duchamp. Both used ready-mades, both invented words. Duchamp invented retinism for example, and Boekhoudt invented pining and brooching.
His work is about his life and the world. But overall, like all art, is it disorganised, it is not part of an ordained theme like everyday affairs. Boekhoudt formed a language surface that challenges jewellery itself, although he argues about it to reconcile it with what we generally consider to be decorations or body adornments.

1. ZOMEREN, Koos van, 1996, “Captured by Circles”, in Onno Boekhoudt: Why not jewellery? Groningen, Groninger Museum: 15.
2. DUCHAMP, Marcel, 1968
Entrevew by Joan Bakewell, London, BBC, Studies Online Journal: []
3. SANOUILLET, Michel y PETERSON, Elmer (Ed.), 1973, The writings of Marcel Duchamp, New York, Oxford University: 123.
4. DUCHAMP, Marcel, 1968, Op. Cit.
5. CODA, Apeldoorn, Onno Boekhoudt archive n. 80: 1998-1999.
6. CODA, Apeldoorn, Onno Boekhoudt archive n. 159.
7. CODA, Apeldoorn, Onno Boekhoudt archive n. 159: 1994-2002.
8. ZOMEREN, Koos van, 1996, “Captured by circles”, in Why not Jewellery?, Groninger, Groninger museum: 12.
9. SANOUILLET, Michel y PETERSON, Elmer (Ed.), 1973, Op. Cit.: 6

About the author

Ana Campos was born in Porto, Portugal, 1953. She is a jewellery designer, lecturer and was the coordinator of the Jewellery Art BA course and of the Post Graduation course at ESAD - Academy of Art and Design, in Matosinhos, Portugal (1995-2013).

She graduated in Communication Design at Fine Art Faculty, Porto University. She studied jewellery design at Ar.Co in Lisbon, and later post-graduated at the Massana School in Barcelona, with a scholarship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Her post-graduate studies in Intercultural Relations at the Open University in Porto led to a Masters Degree in Visual Anthropology. Following this last, her Master dissertation, presented in 2000, is entitled Sky and Sea: Ramón Puig, actor in a new jewellery scenario. The anthropologist José Ribero supervised it.
In November 2014, she presented her PhD studies in philosophy at UAB, Barcelona Autonomous University. The philosopher Gerard Vilar supervised it. This thesis is entitled Contemporary jewellery as art: a philosophical study. In both her Master and PhD studies, she received the highest possible mark, concerning the mentioned universities: Master – Very Good; PhD – Excellent.

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