The joy of making the invisible visual by utilising the hand

Article  /  History   Artists
Published: 13.06.2006
The joy of making the invisible visual by utilising the hand.
Liesbeth den Besten
Edited by:
Craft in Dialogue
Edited at:
Stockholm: Craft in Dialogue, 2005

(...) And what about a young jeweller like Suska Mackert who hardly makes any jewellery at all, and still considers herself a jeweller? (...)

In 1997 the North American jeweller Bruce Metcalf wrote in an article about Craft and art, culture and biology : “But craft is not infinite mutable; it cannot take the form of the spoken word alone, text alone, performance alone (…). While art has dissolved most of its identities, craft must retain several limitations. Craft cannot be dematerialised: it must first and foremost remain a physical object.” This view is typical of what most people think about craft: craft is the hand made aesthetic object, the fruit of a thorough knowledge of materials and techniques. However, this conception of craft is under pressure today: crafts people are experimenting and researching, boarders are blurring, the concept or the story that a craft object is telling us becomes more important than the technique.
As early as 1973 the Dutch jeweller Gijs Bakker made a very thin golden thread to be put on your upper arm as tight as possible. The effect was that the bracelet almost disappeared in the flesh of the arm, only an indication remained. This so called ‘Shadow bracelet’ - sold in a classical jewel case on a green velvet cushion - must be one of the first ‘conceptual jewels’ in the world. And recently the Swiss couple André Schweiger (jeweller) and Raoul Schweizer (graphic designer) designed a clinical styled showcase, where capsules of digestible gold were displayed under the title of “Goldschluck, das designte Ritual der Zukunft” (Gold swallow, the designed ritual of the future). What do these works tell us and is it jewellery? It is clear that the ideas come from jewellers, that they are reflecting on the world of jewellery and that they represent a new attitude in craft. It is time to try and redefine the definition of craft. After all, it is too easy to just declare that objects and projects like these, through their autonomous character, belong to the realm of the arts, or that they should belong to the realm of design because of their designed appearance. And what about a young jeweller like Suska Mackert (1969) who hardly makes any jewellery at all, and still considers herself a jeweller?

This German jeweller came to study at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam in 1994 and extended her studies at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam for a Masters degree. Her decision to come to Amsterdam had to do with her desire to explore the phenomenon of jewellery. Here she found the cultural climate that she needed to pursue her own course. Her graduation in 1998 showed a combination of work on paper and some jewellery, carefully arranged in the academies directors office. It was clear that her motives were quite different from those of her colleague jewellers, but one feature was akin and that was the meticulous dedication to the realization with a sharp eye for details. She showed a specially designed small table, the tabletop composed like a coffer, displaying a parure, a set of jewellery consisting of a necklace, bracelet, earrings and brooch, all made in grey silicone. This jewellery was completely ‘stripped of’: everything which makes an ornament, its costly material, colour, and shine were taken away. As ghost ornaments they had lost there tempting character. They went very well with a small white brochure, of 12 pages, which only showed legends from an auction catalogue, the descriptions of pictures left out. The lines “A JADE BROOCH set with an oval carved plaque of pale green jade carved with lotus flowers mounted in silver” or “A CARVED TOURMALINE PENDANT with a carved purple and yellow tourmaline in gold and enamel floral motif mount set with circular-cut diamonds suspended from a twisted rope-style chain”, in all their bareness, reveal a world of luxury and abundance: you can actually hear the teaspoon in the teacup, the civilised conversation in the tea circle, or the rustle of ball dresses, the excited buzzing, the music. The artist wants to attract our attention to the importance of jewellery in our lives, by taking them away visually. Leaving out is a method that proved to be worthwhile. A few years later, in 1999/2000 she made a series of five posters, showing blown up newspaper photo’s of international known politicians. Each image depicted the moment of a famous man being decorated by another famous man, by touching up the decoration the image was alienated – this effect being intensified by the blown up character of the poster-size print. Through the absence of the decoration, the symbol of power, the ritual in the picture became grotesque. What remained was an image of a powerful man touching another man, on his breast or in the neck, just like that and without any reason, a touch without code. Our eyes are trained in deciphering codes, are used to the codes of power. If these codes are disturbed you become aware of their importance.
In the same period Suska Mackert attracted our attention to the importance of jewellery by reproducing texts, names and logo’s found on the shop-windows in three narrow streets in the centre of Amsterdam housing many small jewellery shops, studio’s, tattoo-shops, a diamond point and even a centuries old pawnshop. She reproduced them by hand with graphite on the inner walls of an annex of Hans Appenzeller’s jewellery store in one of the streets. The positioning of the texts, the size and even the thickness of the letters matching exactly with their model – the whole presenting a walk along the shop-windows. One could sense what was going on behind the text: the luxury, the modesty, or the trendsetting image. She created a world of jewellery, without any further references, without any jewel.
In Plüschow (Germany) she did quite the opposite last year. In the framework of an exhibition she gilded the letters of the name Plüschow on the façade of the former railway station of the village. To mark the letters in gold was like stressing the importance of the discarded building: a last revival before falling into oblivion. The inhabitants of the village, especially the former stationmaster and his wife, were touched by this simple though clear artistic intervention.
It is clear that Suska Mackert’s work cannot be called ‘conceptual’ as such. In conceptual art the idea is more important than the realisation. The craft-like side of the artistic calling and the technical skills are of no importance. As the American artist Sol LeWitt once put it: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Her work cannot be called ‘dematerialised’ or ‘immaterial’ either, although some of her works have a temporary character or have an ‘dematerialized’ element (the jewel set of grey silicone). The reason for this is that she takes great pains in the realization her work. The process of making is part of the work. Her work has its roots in jewellery, and is made in accordance with the craft. Yet it is not made for the gallery. Suska seems more and more at ease ‘in situ’, when she has a room inside or some space outside where she can make a work - specially made for that occasion, though always dealing with the question how to draw our attention to jewellery, its ritual meaning, traditions, power politics, its shine and beauty. Talking about the pure, yellow gold jewels of a German jeweller, Suska declared in a private conversation that she would love to have a jewel like that: so pure, so gold. This amazed me a lot and I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. Suska Mackert loves jewels from the bottom of her heart. Why isn’t she making jewellery, and what drives her to do the things she is doing?

An interview:

LdB: You studied jewellery in Neugablonz (a Polytechnic), and you had you own studio in Berlin for two years. What made you decide to come to the Rietveld Academy?

SM: I felt professionally deformed. I couldn’t leave things as they were, everything ought to be polished and made beautiful. I felt inhibited by my professional training. Having my own studio in Berlin, I stumbled over it. I thought ‘here I am making jewellery and I don’t even know what jewellery is about’. I wanted to learn more about jewellery. After seeing an exhibition with jewellery of the three jewellery schools from Munich, Amsterdam and Tokyo, which happened to be running in Munich at that time, I decided to go to Amsterdam, to the Gerrit Rietveld Academie which was more experimental, and pushing back frontiers. I started in the basic course, which is a general course, and I liked it very much because it opened up my mind. It was super. Than I studied for three years at the jewellery department, with Ruudt Peters and Joke Brakman.

LdB: Why did you want to study jewellery, before going to Neugablonz, you studied philosophy and theatre studies?

SM: I had to wait for one year before I could enter the school in Neugablonz. This year was very fruitful, it gave me time to really think about it. I wanted to learn silversmithing or goldsmithing. I loved the craft of the silversmith, though after seeing a huge jewellery exhibition in the Haus der Kunst in Munich I knew I wanted to learn jewellery.

LdB: You hardly seem to make jewellery today. Can you explain me what is the importance of the craft in your work today?

SM: The process of making, the craft is very important, otherwise the work would be dead. Many people say I am a conceptual artist, and in a way they are right because I work with concepts. On the other hand I am not a conceptual artist in the sense of Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt, although also in Judd’s work you can see an enormous skill, and craft. For me a concept is also emotional. I never think something up. A concept grows and it is hard working to find the precise form.

LdB: One of your recent works is a work on the wall, called ‘Ce souvenir sera toujours mon guide’. The letters of the text are covered by a sort of a cloud of hundreds of small metal medallions, all sawed and treated by hand. We, in Holland, call this labour-intensive process a ‘monk’s labour’, why did you do it like that?

SM: First I tried to do it mechanically, by punching them. But it wasn’t right. I think the metaphor is that you need time to create the image. The thinking process and the making process are slow and that gives the image its power.

LdB: In the museum in Göteborg you will show the impressive ‘Ce souvenir . . . ’ which is quite a recent work, together with a much older work, the small white brochures made for your graduation. Why did you make this choice?

SM: Well I didn’t do it alone, I did it together with the organiser, but I like it because these works are so far apart, in time and idea. I will make the booklet with descriptions of the auction catalogue once again. I do it all by myself, the printing, and the binding because it has to be very precise. There will be a pile of those. Actually it is my dream to make a real book once. A book is a beautiful medium, you can take it in your hand, have a look whenever and wherever you want, no matter the context. ‘Ce souvenir . . . ‘ was made for an exhibition in Amsterdam at the end of 2004. This work deals with Catholicism, with pilgrimage. Everyone who goes on a pilgrimage receives, when he reaches the place, a medallion. At one side the name of the place is found, on the other side it is Maria. You take it home as a souvenir. Children receive medallions for their first Communion. I collect medallions at flea-markets for many years. In France I once found a specimen with this sentence which I liked very much. ‘Ce souvenir . . . ‘ has to do with a previous work with a Madonna. I had some postcards of the so called ‘Schmuck Madonna’ (jewellery Madonna) or ‘Gnaden Madonna’ (Madonna of Mercy) from Cologne. This is a statue of the Madonna, loaded with jewellery. Unfortunately just recently, they have taken away the worldly chains and jewels – it’s a pity. I had punched medallions out of one card and provided these together with a simple golden chain, wrapped in special paper as a product to be sold. The paper is special because it is used by dealers in stones to wrap the minerals. They fold the paper in a special way and I did it the same. In jewellery there are tools and materials which are specific for the discipline. They have a certain refinement that you won’t find anywhere else. This is very important to me, although I don’t file and polish anymore, I want to spend the same attention to other materials and techniques, I want to perfect them the same way.
When I began working on ‘Ce souvenir . . . ‘ I started punching medallions from hand coloured postcards of Lourdes, but I didn’t like it, it was too limited. Now it has a sort of abstraction which I like, something graphical. There are almost thousand medallions in it and eventually I asked a colleague to assist me, because it drove me crazy.

LdB: Where do you start working, how does a concept originate?

SM: It comes intuitively, although there is an idea or a concept. I don’t know what comes first: the concept or intuition. I have a chronological collection of photo’s from a German newspaper – it is growing constantly and is a rich source. The photo’s have to appeal to me: it is about a gesture, a pose, codes, power. And it is also about viewing, in an analytical way. When I made the first posters of politicians being decorated, I wanted to investigate what these rituals were about. I painted the photo’s by hand to retouch the decorations - they are not digitally manipulated and I think one can see the difference. I am constantly busy collecting information about rituals and jewels, for instance recently with the death of the pope. The story about his ring being demolished after his death is something that intrigues me. I finally found a small article about it on the Internet. I want to make a new work about this.

LdB: How do you see your work yourself, is it art, craft?

SM: I don’t want to fit in this old hierarchy. I see there are differences between design or craft and art. I don’t consider myself a designer, I prefer to consider myself a jeweller. I use jewellery as a source, but what I make is in a sense autonomous, although it is linked to something which is not autonomous – there is the confusion. People who see my work in a jewellery gallery are often confused. I may be radical, what I do goes too far for many people in the field of jewellery. Therefore I have to create my own context again and again. I think it is important for people to know what my background is, although some of my works will communicate without knowing this and actually I prefer that.
It is so strange, I wanted to know more about jewellery, I was trying to approach it, however in doing this I have become a long way away from jewellery – people think. Someone once said to me that I am cynical, but that is absolutely not true. On the contrary: I enjoy jewellery, the craft, the power as well as the intimacy. I am an addict, I love it, to be honest I really love valuable, old and pretentious jewellery. I think, when I would start making jewellery, that it may be very classical.

( Craft in Dialogue, exhibition catalogue REAL Rhösska Museet, Göteborg )

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Real Craft in Dialogue
Magazine in 3 volumes (A, B, C)
24 pages

The magazine widens the concept of craft and design and its connection with the social dimension that Craft in Dialogue showed at Röhsska museet, Gothenburg under the same title.

Texts by: Zandra Ahl, Ana Betancour, Liesbeth den Besten, Päivi Ernqvist, Magnus Haglund, petra Hampe, Jobim Jochimsen, Mikael Nanfeldt, Angela Mc Robbie.

From the exhibition REAL Craft in Dialogue, Röhsska Museet, Gothenburg
3 September – 16 October 2005