Wearing Ideas. Political Comments on our Society through Contemporary Jewellery. Spotlight Artworks by Klimt02

Article  /  CriticalThinking   History   Collecting
Published: 16.02.2024
Wearing Ideas. Political Comments on our Society through Contemporary Jewellery. Spotlight Artworks by Klimt02.
Klimt02, Cécile Maes
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Photo by Diana Walker, 1999.
Photo by Diana Walker, 1999

© By the author. Read Copyright.

Many contemporary artists have created wearable pieces of art that remind us of the capacity of jewellery to be a vehicle for strong ideas and political attitudes.

In this brief, we present you a short selection of relevant pieces, each marked by a critical stance on today's society through artists' personal visions. The featured artworks are to be understood as reactions to the evolving role of jewellery, serving as a comment on societal dysfunctions.
I've always been fascinated by the rich history of jewellery as one of humanity's earliest forms of expression, transcending the necessities of everyday life or survival. These artefacts, remnants left by our ancestors, once served as tools for communication, differentiating between groups and expressing individuality through a visual language.
This tradition of identification and distinction resonates throughout human history, making jewellery an integral aspect of societal structures. Today, the selection and wearing of jewellery belong to a private commitment. However, when exhibited in public spaces, its essence transforms from individual to communal. It becomes a sign, a medium that activates various narratives read and interpreted by others.

In the 1960s-1970s, the visual arts underwent a profound transformation influenced by protest movements and the political engagement of the younger generation, leaving an indelible mark on daily life. Wearable artworks displayed and worn in the streets became elements that serve as conduits for discourse intertwined with human relationships. A fusion of art and life encapsulated in objects.

On December 20, 1981, Otto Künzli staged a performance at the Künstlerwerkstatt gallery in Munich, challenging the boundaries between genres and enacting the destruction of established conventions.
An elegantly dressed man and a woman are situated in a display resembling a tableau frame. They sip champagne without attempting visual contact with the public, suggesting a conversation about the observers. They represent the icons of our world, carrying the weight and meaning of cultural and practical value. Each element of this work is both symbolic and critical.

The brooch worn by the man is a gold bar made from Swiss chocolate packaging. The woman wears a necklace devoid of intrinsic value, composed of two hundred hole-punched 1 Mark coins. On one side, the value is artificial; on the other, it is destroyed. The audience observes the scene, reciprocated by the painting. The device, including jewellery, ascends to a complete work of art through diverse interpretations. Through the presentation and representation of societal icons within an art gallery, Otto Kunzli sought to deconstruct conventions, prompting spectators to question the essence of value in life, contemporary art, and jewellery.

Left: Robert mit Schweizer Gold. Brooch. 1983. Paper, acrylic, Stell.
Right: Gabi mit Die Deutsche Mark. Necklace. 1983. 200 1-DM-Münzen, Gewicht 1,2 kg.

Emerging in the late 19th century and evolving into a potent political messenger by the 1970s, the badge, a small button temporarily affixed to clothing, stands as a powerful tool for promoting slogans and statements on societal questions. It has become a crucial reference point in the realm of contemporary jewellery, overtly proclaiming artists' opinions.
Consider the provocative work of Benjamin Lignel titled Manifest (thank god). The piece adopts the same characteristics as the classic badge. Composed of words, the text is printed in white on white. Despite its ironic and darkly humorous undertones, this piece exudes a danger that the final intention of the phrase may be misunderstood.

In The Jewellery Box by Jorunn Veiteberg, the author recontextualises the political situation that influenced the creation of this piece. Dating back to 2008, this work is a commentary on Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
For many, the colour of his skin raised questions about his ability to hold this office. On the badge, Lignel places particular importance on the word "God," emphasising the connection between religion, race, and how whites claim God to their advantage.
While the objective is to provoke debate, some find the text shocking, even offensive. The question then arises: when is it acceptable to play on such sentiments? What message are we sending by deploying a slogan that reinforces white supremacy, creating a potentially racist object? Accordingly, Lignel decided not to exhibit this piece anymore in 2019 and wrote a text explaining it.

Benjamin Lignel: Manifest (thank god), 2008. Screenprinting on paper and acetate, stainless steel, gold plating
Photo by Enrico Bartolucci

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In 2017, Lin Cheung materialised her personal reflection on her mixed feelings about the EU Referendum vote and the state of the United Kingdom in European politics. 

Unlike badges, quickly produced, easily disposable and used solely to convey a message, the artist sculpted them in stone. Adopting the same template as the classic badge, we can see a smiley, one of the symbols of our contemporary society, slowly disintegrating. They become lasting testimonials of disruption to established agreements, capturing a sentiment, belief, or event, signifying that once expressed, certain things cannot be undone.

The following year, the Delayed Reaction Series was honoured with the Herbert Hofmann Prize, recognising the artist's work as a 'political statement, exemplary for the issues of today and the relationship to their values.'

Lin Cheung: Confused, Speechless, Fallen from Delayed Reactions Series, 2017. Lapis lazuli, gold

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By collecting pieces of fences and metal objects bombed by the army attacking her country, the series Russian Friendship by the Ukrainian artist Tetiana Chorna evokes the fundamental ideological principles of the former Soviet Union, which advocated brotherly relations, close cooperation, and mutual assistance among the nations forming the union. However, this promise proved to be betrayed, torn apart, revealed as nothing more than a fabric of lies, leaving behind a trail of blood, fear, and fire.

Tetiana Chorna: Russian Friendship, 2022. Zinc, coated steel.

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Artists frequently embrace the use of symbols from consumer society to convey messages, invoking collective memories. A relevant illustration is found in Nanna Melland's work titled Ring of Ignorance, which refers to an American company inserting a million copies of bomb-shaped rings into one million cereal boxes just two years after the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

When the artist saw the original ring, The Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb ring, in the exhibition Take Me to Your Leader at the Oslo Contemporary Museum in 2011, she decided to make a tin replica. The final edition of the ring is one million, aiming to place the symbol within a contemporary historical and political context.

The subsequent war between Russia and Ukraine tragically underscored the actual danger of nuclear conflict, further emphasising the continued relevance of the ring. Transformed from an emblem of destruction hidden in children's food into a relic made of tin, it serves as a poignant reminder today of the human ignorance that characterises the ongoing existential crisis of the Anthropocene era.

Nanna Melland: Ring of Ignorance, 2022. Tin. 

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In the style of Damien Hirst, the Dutch artist Ted Noten encapsulates everyday objects in resin. Symbolically, the lethal weapon, removed from its context, becomes useless and laid bare to all through acrylic transparency, thereby stamping the spoof of society with objects of shifting meanings.
Noten's series, The Pistol Saints, is part of the Design Against Crime project. When questioning individuals about the rationale behind carrying a weapon, they responded that it made them feel safer, even though most had never used it. The series is composed of twelve golden brooches bearing imprints from various parts of a gun.
This creation gained attention during the Geel metalliek: Goud voor Robert Smit exhibition in 2004 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Noten wanted to display the golden brooches alongside the gun used in the making process. As he didn't have a firearms license, the police confiscated and destroyed the gun, contributing to the enriched symbolic dimension of the artwork, leaving only the brooches with the imprints of the lethal weapon.

Ted Noten: Pistol Saints, 2004. 24K gold

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Timothy Information Limited is one of the most socially conscious jewellery artists my culture knows. Across his entire artistic repertoire, he communicates through a lucid visual language, presenting what seems to be a readily identifiable image at first glance.
Employing symbols from the capitalist world, often coupled with impactful phrases, the artist conveys a socio-critical and disruptive message that insists on swift comprehension by the observer.
His work underscores the urgent necessity to contemplate our society and challenge established norms.

Timothy Information Limited: Watch the Birdie, 2013. 
White metal, brass, powder coat, traffolyte, stainless steel. 

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In Shengyi Chen's exhibition Contemporary Comedy at Hannah Gallery, the jewellery pieces act as powerful conduits for expressing impactful ideas and political viewpoints.
By employing humour akin to cartoons, Shengyi infuses symbols of everyday life with a sarcastic edge, slicing through society like a sharp knife. Positioned as an anatomist thirsting for truth, he scrutinises society's inner workings and surroundings.
Inspired by the 2017 political landscape and the Trump election, Shengyi transforms political events into dark comedic reflections. His collection delves into the socio-political issues during Donald Trump’s presidency, questioning the validity and integrity of his leadership.

While his pieces exude allure with their impeccable craftsmanship, seductive aesthetics, and glossy appeal, the subjects they tackle challenge our perceptions of the less amusing realities that unfolded during that tumultuous year.

 Shengyi Chen. Hush!, 2018. White resin, silk.

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The artistic practice of Tarjaa Tuupanen primarily focuses on using stone, whether in its natural state or industrially manufactured. By exploring the material's characteristics and cultural connotations, she raises questions about material value and the skills required to shape it.

In her series Made in Taiwan, the Finnish artist underscores the debate on material origins, particularly regarding marble. By employing tableware made from industrial marble likely originating from Taiwan, she emphasises that a material considered precious in the collective unconscious, disseminated globally through Western colonisation, is often excessively extracted, leading to environmental and humanitarian issues associated with consumer society.

Tarja Tuupanen. Made In Taiwan II, 2017.
Readymade marble tableware, brass. Photo by Lassi Rinno

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   >> Discover other Political pieces at Klimt02   


About the author

Cécile Maes graduated from ENSA Limoges in design, specialising in Contemporary Jewellery. Her interest in jewellery grows from the human relationships games it involves. Social object, jewellery creates narratives and becomes a sign. Investigating classical typologies, her work is a re-interpretation where historical references and everyday exploration connect ideas to speak about jewellery, the reasons why we wear it and the meanings we give to it.

Instagram: cilce_maes