Big Dreams in Small Packages. An interview with Kadri Mälk and Tanel Veenre

Interview  /  Artists   Exhibiting   Galleries   History
Published: 24.10.2016
Kadri Mälk & Tanel Veenre Kadri Mälk & Tanel Veenre
Una Meistere
Edited by:
Putti Art Gallery
Edited at:
Edited on:
Kadri Mälk. Brooch: Duende 1, 2016. Painted cibatool, silver, pleonast.. Kadri Mälk
Brooch: Duende 1, 2016
Painted cibatool, silver, pleonast.
© By the author. Read Copyright.

From 28 October to 14 November, the art gallery Putti will be presenting the group exhibition Castle In the Air. Pastaiga Magazine would like to introduce you to the group’s core: the union’s conceptual creator, the well-known Estonian jewellery designer Kadri Mälk; and Tanel Veenre, the most active member of the group and an advocate of Estonian contemporary jewellery.
Big Dreams in Small Packages.
In a sense, the group of Estonian contemporary jewellery designers known as Castle In the Air is to jewellery as the legendary Antwerp Six were to fashion. They have managed to create their own language, and through it, they now present themselves and Estonian jewellery design to the world. However, unlike the Antwerp Six, Castle In the Air has not dissolved, nor has it been flattened by the stamp of commercialism. It is a castle without boundaries, at the same time strong and ethereal, and under the roof of which all physical and metaphysical attributes of the human race cohabit. Jewellery serves only as a key to ever deeper journeys within the labyrinths of one’s own experience and consciousness.

Castle In the Air was established in 1999 by the coming together of six graduates of the Estonian Academy of Arts: Piret Hirv, Kristiina Laurits, Kadri Mälk, Eve Margus-Villems, Villu Plink, and Tanel Veenre. They have no charter; it is rather a group of individuals whose religion is to dream big dreams in small packages, challenging fantasy to become reality.

Energy from stone, Kadri Mälk.
Deemed the grand dame of Estonian jewellery, Kadri Mälk is one of the most respected and internationally well-known Estonian jewellery artists of today. Her jewellery exhibits poetics ingrained with melancholia, as well as a distinct spirituality. At first she studied fine-art painting, but in time she understood that, in terms of dimensions and physicality, it wasn’t the right medium for her. Jewellery is more intimate, closer to the soul. Nevertheless, a painterly aspect can still be seen in Mälk’s work since, at times, her jewellery is quite reminiscent of abstract expressionist miniatures. Mälk paints with the colour black - in all of its possible tonalities. And also with stones - she has studied gemmology in St. Petersburg; at the Lahti Institute of Design in Finland; and at the famous Bernd Munsteiner jewellery atelier in Germany. Since 1996 she has been a professor in the Department of Jewellery at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

Kadri Mälk: Angel in Quandary , 2015, brooch, painted cibatool, silver, gold, black raw tourmaline, prasiolite.

In the 1960s, a sharp “no” in terms of gems and precious metals was one of the core tenets of the most radical of the conceptual jewellery artists. Even today, many contemporary jewellery designers shy away from those two words, both in their work and in conversation. You, however, have always been linked with gemstones. Why is that?
Yes, they are viewed as so superficial and thoroughly suspicious, but regardless, I like stones. Especially their painterliness. Looking at them through a microscope, you can see whole landscapes within them. They are like canyons. So saturated, so deep, so colourful. And it’s not just a story about their numbers in terms of clarity, purity, and so on, which are, of course, important if we’re talking about gemstone certification. But I like going deep into them. And if, on top of that, you know how to cut and polish them, then that just doubles this fascination. For several years I worked as an assistant to a Saudi gemstone dealer, and there I met all of these people - they’re basically a gemstone family. They are real fanatics; their eyes light up when they see something very special.

Each stone surely has its own character, and a different relationship develops with each one.
Of course, there are physical characteristics. Some stones are harder, some are more fragile, some are, for instance, very gentle - like tourmaline, which I’m very fond of. Tourmaline has various types. It tends to have little pieces of other materials in it, which creates physical barriers - one needs to know how to cut it properly, otherwise it can crumble. For instance, black tourmaline, which is my favourite, has lots of graphite in it.

However, a stone’s metaphysical aspect engages me more than its physical features. A lot depends on the person who works the stone. When the energy of the stone meets your energy, anything can happen; it’s indescribable.

So, stories about the energies of stones aren’t just esoteric fairy tales?
No; a stone’s energy can be felt. When I have come into new stones that I plan on using for jewellery, I first spend the night with them. In the purest sense of the word - I sleep with them by placing them on my body. When asleep, your consciousness works differently, and it tells you the truth. That is my test. The night test.

When a piece of jewellery is finished, have you added your own energy to that of the stone?
Of course. It’s a complex combination of energies consisting of the stone itself, the jewellery designer who has worked with it, and the person whose hands the piece ends up in.

Do you believe in the healing properties of stones?
Yes. For instance, shungite, which can be found in its purest form in Karelia, in a deposit near Shunga village. It was used for healing by the Russian Imperial family beginning with Catherine II. Peter the Great used it to purify water for the Russian army. Today you can also find shungite in apothecaries. More than 98 percent of it is made from tiny graphite molecules - coal, really - and it contains many fullerenes. All the same, I usually refrain from speaking about this subject because the esoteric aspect is rather controversial.

Since ancient times stones have had their own hierarchy. What determines their worth? Why, for instance, are diamonds considered more valuable than moonstones?
I, for one, have never been enamoured with diamonds; except in instances when they are dark. Black. How does one select a stone? The same way one selects a lover. By feeling.
Have you experimented with other materials, such as paper, rubber, plastic, etc.?
Rarely. But I do use mole fur in my jewellery. It’s an old story. My studio was broken into, and shortly thereafter, as I was reorganising things, I found my grandmother’s fur coat. It was made before the war, but it was so fine, so delicate, so saturated with black - almost like silk. And at the same time, it had a very powerful character. A mole is blind, but it’s a very special animal; I’ve spent much time studying how it moves. It moves forwards and backwards just as gracefully. The animal instinct in it is very pronounced, and I still feel it in its fur. Time does not degrade its quality or sheen. I’ve been cutting small pieces from it for more than twenty years, and through the jewellery, it’s been scattered throughout the world.

From a conceptual point of view, what is your opinion - if something is called jewellery, must it always be wearable?
It can also be unwearable. In my opinion, the fact that it exists is reason enough. What is important is how it was made. You can use it without wearing it. It can simply be in your proximity, in your pocket, or in your mind. It’s a kind of metaphysical approach to the concept of wearing jewellery. You carry it in your mind, and you know it’s there.

How would you characterize the new generation of jewellery artists? How adventurous and different are they compared to previous generations?
The difference is very great. The young ones know the field; they know how to do the work and how to speak about it. Remembering my college years, we had a professor whose methodology would be hard to call pedagogical. She literally locked us in, making us remove ourselves from all sources of information coming from the outside world - the cinema, theatre, magazines, etc. That was her concept - we must concentrate and focus only on working, and we must live through this process because that is the only way to achieve anything. Someone asked - What’s going to happen when I finish school, will I find myself? And she answered - Don’t think about that, do the work, concentrate. She wanted us to attain the maximum. That was her approach.

Is your approach as an educator different?
Yes, but looking back, I really appreciated hers. Today, first-year students already want to create a portfolio, have a solo show, a webpage, etc. But at the same time, they don’t have anything to show.
One thing is jewellery’s physical quality; the second is its mental aspect. If a piece of jewellery is simply being produced, it doesn’t have a soul. And then there’s all this Esperanto of the art of jewellery-making, which comes along with the opening up of the world. This horrible diminishing: you go to Amsterdam, Stockholm, Milan - everywhere you see one and the same thing. That’s what I’m afraid of, and that’s why I so highly appreciate my former professor’s principled ignorance of the outside world. The way in which she consciously held us in a sort of blindness, forcing us to go deeper and deeper within ourselves and into our work. I don’t think there was a connection to the specific time and the possibility of surviving it; it’s also a kind of mental approach - we have so many temptations around us today that if you begin chasing after all of them, you’ll end up lost.

Can you name a designer whose thinking, in terms of jewellery, has surprised you lately?
Last year I was giving lectures at the Art Academy Munich. There was a man there, no longer young (a bit over 30), a German. His name was Merlin Klein. He made jewellery from ashes. People would bring no-longer-useful things - jewellery, love letters, clothing, absolutely anything - and he would burn them, then mix the ashes with other ingredients and create the most diverse shapes. Very simple and minimalist. He lived in a trailer with a dog, burned things, and created. It seems like something completely impossible these days, but what he did was unbelievably beautiful.

It’s impossible to steal emotions, Tanel Veenre.
Veenre graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts Department of Blacksmithing, and then continued his studies under the highly-regarded Professor Ruudt Peters at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Currently, Veenre is a professor in the Department of Design at the Estonian Academy of Arts, a photographer, a lecturer, and a participant in many international exhibitions - his works can be found in Europe’s most notable contemporary jewellery galleries, as well as in a number of private collections. Tanel Veenre’s jewellery has no definite boundaries in terms of genre and physicality. His starting material can be anything - an oyster shell, wood, sap, seahorses, ebony, etc.; his jewellery is a medium that, through its touch, allows one to continue to independently develop an ongoing relationship with time and one’s self. Alongside his highly-valued artistic works, Veenre has also created a commercial line of design jewellery, TVJ, which has been highly successful in Estonia.

When working, you, of course, want to be in some way in dialog with eternity. To survive time, to survive through today. I am very ambivalent in this sense. I really like today. Today is the best day in the world, says Tanel.

Tanel Veenre: Book of 19th Century Sentiment, neckpiece+pin, 2016, camel bone, aquamarine, reconstructed mother   of pearl, horse hair, white gold

How would you describe today in terms of jewellery art?
I am very positive in my attitude of the world. My mind cordons itself off from garbage. I realize that I can’t lose a second of my life worrying or complaining about it. When I see something fascinating, that fills my heart and mind. These sorts of things can still be found, and that’s enough for me.

Of course, quite a lot of references can be seen in the work of younger artists. However, we’ve all been brought into this world at a specific time and in a specific cultural context, and we’re not Mowglis. It’s 2016; we read, we meet other people. We use a specific language that is already recognizable. Not like Mowgli, who tried to come up with his own animal voice with which to describe his feelings. We don’t invent anything anymore; all of the words are already there; we just steal them. Constantly. In fashion, in food, in art, everywhere.

Does that mean that we’re living in an era of stealing?
The history of mankind is the history of stealing. It’s always been so.

Except today it takes place much quicker. One used to have to dig through a mountain of books; today you just pick up a smartphone and google it.
Yes. I’ve thought a lot about the copying and borrowing of ideas. I think that the greatest advantage of art is that it’s not possible to borrow (steal) emotions. In the field of design, one can, of course, borrow form and techniques, and produce copies. That’s not possible in art. The investment of one’s personality, it’s presence in the work, is so large that it is impossible to steal it. No one can copy a personal story. Someone can, of course, create a piece of jewellery that is identical to mine, and produce thousands of them in some factory in China; but they will be different, nevertheless.

It wasn’t too long ago that conceptual jewellery artists were heatedly lamenting the fact that the contemporary jewellery niche is very narrow - compared to the one that caters to people who prefer precious pieces or classic costume jewellery. What’s your take on the current situation?
I don’t know what is small or big. It’s all so conditional. If a person was born in a small house, then at first, even a village will seem big to them. And then they go to New York or Tokyo, live there for a year, and then the big city also seems small to them. It’s the same people, the same routes and ideas, the same social network. In the end, the whole globe becomes small.

I know a prominent Brazilian gallerist who, up to now, had only specialized in contemporary art, but just recently he opened a jewellery gallery. That’s pretty courageous for Brazil, where there isn’t a tradition in this field. He has an excellent sense of intuition, and he predicted that art collectors would, sooner or later, discover the jewellery niche because compared to sculpture, it’s much cheaper, but at the same time, its content is very powerful. He even estimated that this would happen quite soon. In Estonia, the design market is very strong, and the so-called design-jewellery niche, in which prices don’t go above 200-500 euros, has many new clients.

Perhaps this is just my subjective perception, but isn’t it true that after experimenting with plastic, rubber, fiber, etc., conceptual jewellery is again returning to precious metals and gemstones? Also because, unlike plastic, which tends to change in colour after time, these materials are enduring?
That’s a big question. Musems are also grappling with this because conceptually, as institutions, they have been created to be permanent. How to preserve plastic - it’s still an unsolved problem. Also in the sense of design classics. On the other hand, so much energy is being devoted to how we’re going to look at these things after 100 years, but we are here and now. I appreciate honesty in terms of time, and the people who are able to appreciate it as collectors.

When it comes to jewellery, Americans have this great label - conversation piece. Maybe at the relevant moment, a large paper necklace is the most suitable - as a kind of statement at a specific time and day. Food for thought. Each work has it’s own showtime. Why do we think that things have to be everlasting? Perhaps it is much more ecological if they disappear. Maybe then our world won’t be so overpopulated. In addition, not only is museum space limited, but so is our planet’s space. That’s a very controversial issue, and it truly intrigues me.
Our time on this planet is very short. And also, our whole culture is actually nothing. I really don’t know what could be everlasting.

Is your jewellery a conversation piece?
No, I think it’s more like a container - of ideas, of emotions. My current challenge is to go back to even smaller forms. I would like it if, when looking at it, you feel these compressed meanings, its essence. That they are heavy not in terms of weight, but in terms of layers of content.

Can you name a jewellery artist who has surprised you lately?
I’d have to think. Of course, jewellery must be original, but perhaps originality or newness is not the content that I’m looking for. When I was at the Venice Biennale last summer, at the Polish pavilion I saw the video work of C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W; it was inspired by the distinctly peculiar 1982 film by Werner Herzog, Fizkaraldo, about an eccentric who wants to build an opera house in the jungle. Somehow this really grabbed me, and I thought that perhaps realness is much more important than newness. I don’t really know what it is, but it’s a feeling that I want to embody in my jewellery. In my opinion, that’s also the main quality that I’m looking for, because the opposite case is construed things that have been created for the system. You make things because that’s the way you’ve been taught, and you just continue doing that and repeating it. Conversely, realness is a kind of personal essence, your soul.

Of course, there is a format and context that one cannot escape from, but as an artist, you create not only things, but you also stimulate communication around them. We live in a time of entertainment, and an artist is, in a way, an entertainer. In a positive sense. The Swedish gallerist Sofia Björkman (Galleri Platina) once explained how she gauges an exhibition’s success. And it’s not by the number of sold works or reviews; she said that she notes how much time people spend looking at the exhibition. Five minutes, fifteen, or half an hour. And only half an hour means that the exhibition is a success.

About the author

Una Meistere is an editor of the magazine 'Arterritory Conversations with Collectors' and director of the art and culture website Arterritory, which focuses on Baltic, Scandinavian, and Russian art.