Christoph Zellweger interviewed by Ana Campos

Published: 13.02.2017
Ana Campos Ana Campos
Ana Campos
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Interview part of the thesis Contemporary Jewelery as Art: A Philosophical Study by Ana Campos.

The PhD thesis was presented as a philosophy of contemporary jewellery. I analyse it as a world of reasons that are historically and contextually made possible. It proposes a specific identification regime that articulates ways of thinking and doing. It is a type of jewellery that distinguishes itself from other forms of art and other things.

This is the second interview of 3 conducted between 2011 and 2012 by Ana Campos. The other interviews are: Ted Noten and Ramon Puig Cuyàs.


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A first topic for discussion on creative aspects: tell me about your personal motivations for choosing jewellery and not another art form.

It wasn’t a direct choice: I couldn’t think of alternatives that made me start an apprenticeship as a goldsmith. I come from a family of goldsmiths, silversmiths and watchmakers. My mother was working in the field. She inherited a fine jewellery shop of her parents in the north of Germany. She has always been very open and took chances when for example introducing Scandinavian jewellery and silverwork to her clients in the 1970s. This was quite avant-guard at the time. She still enjoys wearing jewellery, she knows about how jewellery relates to the owners personality and status, she deeply understands the impact jewellery can have. My father is a Swiss/Austrian silversmith, he is 78 now, has been an excellent craftsman and still works on new ideas. He designs silver vessels, plates, beakers, water-jugs etc and still runs his own gallery. A true Bauhaus-man, much concerned with function and form, he worked a lot for churches. So that’s how I got introduced to design and to the applied arts. Contemporary art became my own discovery.

Did you also study in a school?
I did my apprenticeship with a master goldsmith from Vienna who worked for my father before he started his own business in Germany. His name is Wilhelm Reindl, he is still working, now back in Vienna. He has always been an excellent craftsman, also studied with Fritz Maierhofer who has been influential in the contemporary jewellery field. My apprenticeship was tough but also good fun, it I profited from a very good training and of course all what we did was commercial. After completing the apprenticeship I went to work in Switzerland, in Geneva. I wanted to learn to make very fine jewellery work, complex stuff, pieces you spend a month on using only gold and platinum, pieces of much refinement and value. At that time my challenge was to be able to do things well. Of course at some point I realized that there is more to consider and more to discover beyond economic value or skilful making.

And afterwards, did you find an art college?
Not right away. In Zurich, I found a job in a jewellery company who was producing for retail. My boss, Fritz Suter, pushed me to do more then just executing pieces others had drawn on paper. Mr Suter, who was already in his 60th, tought me to design and have ideas. He supported me in following up my own ideas. He made me become head of workshop and made me look after the apprentices. He gave me responsibility, made me design and develop the prototypes for many of the collections, which then were produced by my colleagues. He made me deal with people, coordinate and manage production. Without him I wouldn’t be where I am now. I kept in good contact with him until he died some years ago. When I stopped working for that company, I started thinking: what else can I do in jewellery that has more substance? There were so many issues beyond jewellery, ideas that can’t be addressed in commercial work. I was politically and socially quite engaged at the time.

So it may have been by then that there was a turn in your work…

Well, there definitely was a crisis, what do I really really want? How can I deal with my irritations? finally I started to work more experimental on my own, beside becoming a bicycle repair to get the cash in. At least I was doing something useful. I slowly built up a collection and when an art gallerist (pure chance) offered me a show, all fell in place. That was in 1989, about 70 % of works in that exhibition sold. All works were made from recycled rusty iron, found material and sometimes I used bits of gold. The show was a real success! but… I then thought… if this was successful, I probably didn’t push boundaries. Again, I entered a critical state. I was still working within expectations, not pushing aesthetic experiences.  I felt the need to push further and take more risk.

By then you probably started considering the meaning of your jewellery…
I remember that at that time I wrote a sentence on the gallery door: Not all jewellery needs to be comfortable, best friends never are. I mean, usually the best friends aren’t the easiest, because they push you, they sharpen you and make you become better. And that’s what’s interesting me! People that offer resistance, are the ones who interest me, niceness alone doesn’t. And the same I feel about jewellery. The work that resists easy access and offers new ways of seeing things is precious to me. Objects can make you revisit things. They invite you to revise and look at things with fresh eyes.

In this sense, your work argues about daily aesthetics, about the human body changes.  I would like to hear you about this issue.
My polystyrene works (body pieces from 1996) was already about creating fictive body parts. In some body pieces I incorporated industrial references like numeric codes etc.. I think that the human body has always been used as a canvas and it has always been formed to become a cultured body. De-forming heads or feet, lengthening necks or ears, adding scars or engraving into the skin is nothing new. The human body is all the individual has and therefor we enjoy shaping and aesthetising it. The boundaries between natural and cultured body aren’t easy distinguishable. However, what we do to our bodies tells us a lot about us, our culture, underlying gender issues, material culture and the economic frame, the idea of luxury and subversion, power structures and hierarchies. What we do to our bodies is always cultural, always political. I think I make references to all that in my works and I hope that people can get some of this. The way modern societies use medical advancements and surgery to challenge their looks may just be a beginning. In 1997 I ran a workshop at ArCo in Lisbon about ‘Enhancing Jewellery and Mr Vacanti’. This workshop was all about the achievement of Dr. Vacanti (the scientists who placed the ear on that little mouse) which was a provocation at the time … and a great jewellery for a mouse (laughs). Much more has been technically possible since.

Are you concerned with perception? Do you create a first layer connected to currently known subjects, which precedes deeper questions?
Yes, I suppose changing perceptions (one’s own and/or that of others) is what lays at the heart of most artists desire to do. When I came up with the installation Ossarium Rosé for the Natural History Museum in Lisbon, I went through a long process of challenging my own perception on what I consider to be repulsive; how do I feel about the mutilated body? What scares me? What attracts me and how does this relate to death. The many pieces in the shape of bones on display where covered with flock, a soft velvety pinkish surface, but the colour was just not that nice of a pink, there was also a reference to mould or dead flesh. I like when things don’t appear that simple and there is opportunity for multiple readings.  The same happens with other materials that I used before, like polystyrene or rusty steel. If you challenge the material, you also challenge the understanding of it.  For my latest work in 2012 I learned to blow glass to deliberately reference the medical as well as the organic and of course with such material like glass it is ever so easy to make nice looking stuff - staying away from the predictable is one of the actual challenges.

As we are talking among your exhibition - here, at Galerie Louise Smit - I would like to say that the exhibition title is very interesting: Excessories - let’s talk about Fat.

Excessories links the word excess with the word accessoire. Excessories introduces the notion of excess, which in my eyes best defines today’s social habits of consumption. 'Excess' lays at the etymological core of the word luxury, a fact that puzzles and interests me. Jewellery is often coded. It is an appendage and can be a surplus too. So jewellery / accessories can be seen as a specific cultural tool. They are applied to the body, worn on the body…
When thinking about the body as the original place where a person’s identity naturally manifests itself, then fat plays an important role too. I assume that in most cultures fat had been a sign of good living, a sign of status for a very very long time. Only now, in an amazingly successful decade where almost one third of the world population has access to ‘far too much’ food and goods of all kind, fat has been identified as a social stigma and is fought against with many (some of them questionable) means. My latest work ‘Excessories’ is reflecting on the wide spread phenomena of fat management activities through plastic aesthetic surgery and places these activities in proximity to jewellery as a body related aesthetic practice.

I propose to go back to aesthetics, as relevant subject. On the one hand, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy. On the other hand, aesthetics is a word that is getting popular. Trough this last meaning it concerns beautification, among others, body beautification. Through medical interventions people can make body changes, and in so doing they try to beautify themselves. I think that in your work you deal with both of these issues.  How would you comment this?
Let me refer to the philosopher Wolfgang Welsch who makes a connection between the words aesthetics, anaesthetics and anaesthesia. I think the word anaesthesia is interesting in connection with aesthetics as there is a kind of numbness when everything around us has been ‘designed’. I am particularly interested in the distinction between ‘natural object’ (as ‘authentic object’ of ‘prime source’) and the objects ‘man’ creates, which we also generally understand as ‘artefacts’. In the past years I have identified the human body itself as one of the last ‘prime sources’ we are in the process of aestheticising in such ways, that we should start talking about Corporeal Design (a term I first coined on a conference in 2010) as a new category of an aesthetic practice.

This last is a philosophic point of view. But daily life aesthetics are connected to beauty. Doesn’t medical aesthetics contribute to it?
Of course aesthetic surgeons are aiming to improve peoples looks and deal with their patients often negative perception about themselves in a creative way. While they are responding to normative ideas about beauty they are also stimulating new desires. That’s where in my view the body becomes a commodity, a place to be improved and optimised, not only aesthetically but also in its ability to function. This new body of work is concerned with this social phenomena and changing perceptions on this issue. But I am not saying this is bad or good. It is just part of the reality I see, yes, it bothers me and I reflect on it through my work.
When you look at one of these new piece of jewellery, I like when the first impression of the work is seducing and comforts the onlooker. But the second closer look at the work should provide a challenge or even a slight irritation. If people first consider: this is interesting! And on closer inspection they say: Oh! Uh! Mh and wow and how and why and why not, etc etc ! That is what I aim for. I think that a true aesthetic experience somehow needs both elements; seduction and repulsion.

I think that that’s right like you just said. In this exhibition opening I saw people having such kind of reactions - surprise and repulsion - concerning a photo of a medical intervention to a women’ breast.
Well I think it needs this photo, which I took when being in the operation theatre to observe the surgeons at work, in this exhibition. The image provides a context for reading the other work on display. Of course it also irritates certain visitors who are entering the gallery in the mood of consuming, this exhibition should also make people work a little. On each ‘excess’-piece you can see some letters and numbers too, printed on the glass. Some visitors may ask what these figures are about. For me these elements are crucial, conceptually and aesthetically, and make the piece resist easy consumption. I had to overcome great technical difficulties to be able to print on a domed glass surface. 

That’s so. I also asked myself the same. What does it mean?

For example an “R” indicates a right breast, an “L” refers to the left. Each artefact is also marked with a weight reference coming from operation protocols I was interested in reading. These figures report on the diverse fates of fat of past operations and I think they now became metaphors for absence and loss.
So these pieces are about individual bodies, real men and women’s bodies and their concerns with controlling or altering their weight and appearance. All these figures talk about taking away and adding material to the body. Obviously I am engaged with this because I am puzzled about societies obsession with weight control, with customising, with optimising and aesthetisising the body.
I am perfectly happy with my own imperfect body which I learned to live with over the years and exactly because of this I now wonder where this is all leading to. I see the benefits but also a lot of suffering and an amazing amount of additional problems accuring because of the availability of these new medical possibilities. Are they sustainable? Are we consciously or subconsciously improving our specie?

We now arrive at another stage. The way you just used the word aesthetic refers its common and daily meaning. I consider that your approach to jewellery includes questioning, as philosophic aesthetic statements. On the other hand, through this reflexive issues, you also comment daily aesthetization and volunteer aesthetic control, through body changes.
I am questioning myself about what I find it ethically and aesthetically acceptable when it comes to deliberately altering the body. We can make it beautiful or deliberately ugly. Who actually trusts the cliché of beauty? Wouldn’t it be more intriguing to customise the body outside norms and outside mainstream social rules? At least no artist would believe that aesthetics has anything to do with making things nice or beautiful. A work of art needs to offer an experience and therefor provides its audience with a challenge. So there will be another Orlan, another Jocelyn Wildenstein or a new Oscar Pistorius, who challenges the idea of the human body and what we as individuals are prepared to do with it. And of course there will be resistance by the establishment, there will be controversies about what is ugly and therefor sad or simply desirable.
Delacroix was expelled by the academy because he took pure paint and joined dots of different colours together, side-by-side to draw highly realistic drops of water. But not mixing the paint before applying it onto a canvas did not fit into current codes of practice! His work wasn’t considered art for some time… .

Yes, and time went on and other rules and borders where eroded, like with Pop artists. Other contemporary ones go on challenging art and also life it self.  Anyway we expect the unexpected much more then before.
But  everything vaguely interesting is captured by a photo-camera now, or it is simply recorded on CCTV or by someone using a handy. We are also depriving ourselves from certain prime experiences by avoiding making mistakes.

You are talking about the body through jewellery, which is usually supposed to be worn on the body. Are you using jewellery to talk about jewellery and the body? Or about what jewellery can be?
There are several layers. I still wonder what exactly jewellery is and what it can be. And, at the same time, I see a movement in society towards looking at the body itself as a kind of jewel. The body has become something precious to improve and fine-tune rather then something god-given that one has to live with. Now, we are sculpting body parts, changing genetic codes too. All this has an unseen dimension and intensity and the incredible technical possibilities that exist now reach beyond what one could have thought of just forty years ago. It is amazing what kind of accidents and surgical performances humans do survive, what we can technically do stuns me and has opened up all these possibilities. Flesh, bone, fat and skin somehow became new materials doctors now work with. Surgeons are able to make fundamental changes to the body. Possibly some surgeons do the work that the very best jewellers, medicine men or shamans would have done in the past; they work on and fine-tune the individuality of a person, sharpen its image, position it recognisably, help a person to be successful and become who he/she wishes to be.

(Not so long ago) in many societies this was also part of the work done by shamans. They performed using their own bodies, were able to make objects and to empower these objects. They painted, tattooed, scared and ritualistically worked with the body, they empowered the body and were often healing holistically body and mind. I have thought much about the traditional position and role of the shaman, the medicine man and that of the artists in modern societies. I identified that some jewellery artists could work like shamans and occupy territory by sharing the same skills. Often they deal with perception of identity, individuality and distinction and the position the individual holds in society.

I am far off promoting plastic surgery but I recognise that these invasive techniques will change the way people choose to alter their looks and optimise their physical presences. This phenomenon can’t be ignored and that this will also have an impact in the field of contemporary jewellery is likely. I imagine the medical industry will further increase the acceptance of their business models and promote their services as a fashionable and safe tool for creating physical distinctions and prolong the aging process. An averagely vain 65 year old with a double chin but the financial means to invest in surgery will not hesitate of making herself look more elegant or younger if all her friends have also undergone moderate beauty treatments.  

This is beautification to be accepted by society. Isn’t it? And meanwhile your work doesn’t have to do with beautification of the body. It has deeper concerns, through which you drive away from medical interventions.
I like to do this work and be in a process of thinking through making, which to a certain degree is a rather non-intellectual and intuitive activity. But I also like to develop conceptual frames within these I can work freely.

You re not making adornments. Your pieces contain meanings. There should be a connection not just with a shape that you can wear, but an understanding of this meaning. Isn’t it?

Well, I think my latest works the ‘excess’-pieces are quite wearable, they are interesting to have and can be worn with some care. But beyond their wearability, of course there is some meaning and they refer to jewellery and can be seen as comments on the field I work in for over thirty years. I think these pieces have some integrity and power. Owning a piece means to also enjoy the various ideas which the viewer is able to associate with that piece. If somebody wears one of those pieces, he /she most probably knows about its content. But they probably interpret it in their own way, and I like that someone wears a piece with confidence and imagine conversations about it’s meaning with others.

So would you like people to cross subjects, art, jewellery and medicine?
I do think interdisciplinary, this openness is important to me, staying strictly within a discipline was once interesting to me but I now need to cross over and opt out. Exciting things happen at the edges.

So you would like people to live aesthetical experiences that lead them to understand jewellery as a communicative vehicle of meaning?
Yes, but I don’t think that it is that important if people are touched or impressed by the work as jewellery works or by the installation. Important is that they feel something, that the work doesn’t leave you indifferent. 

To feel or to think?
Thinking and feeling are closely linked to each other. Initially I prefer people to emotionally react and feel something in confrontation with my work. The first experience is an emotional one, the second is about contextualising the work, the third is often the most reflective that ideally becomes an intellectual discovery. Martin Seel, a German philosopher talks about the nature of an art experience. He said that art has the capacity to function as an utopian regulative. Art allows people to have an experience with the experience of the artist, which allows the viewer to find his own position and reflect on his own experience of the world. I like this as it matches my own experiences I had with artworks that left lasting impressions on me.

And in fact that is what you do. Through your work you argue about questions of today’s world. Then you offer to the public questions to think about.
Yes, probably that’s what I do and like doing. I am curious and I have the desire to make sense of the world around me. Already in my iron-works I was reflecting on the industrial age, irritated and concerned with my own definition of what I believe ‘nature’ is. I think I am still deeply concerned with this question. We can now change genetic codes. We can fight diseases and prolong our lives. We are still mortal and we are still part of nature. But in fact, we are also trying to further distinguish ourselves from nature. So, much of my work is about the ephemeral, about mortality, like all works with bones or my works in wax. Even when I am going to watch operations I am interested in the fragility of life, curious about what happens to the body, worried about the integrity of the individual, the natural body which I probably deeply cherish.

Did you talk to people that were operated?
Yes. It seems to be painful when one wakes up after an operation. But even knowing that there will be pain, people volunteer and cue up for surgery in order to change the body they inherit with the hope to improve their lives or at least their perception of it.

Do you think that people go through operations such as these to later be included in certain social patterns? To beautify themselves after a pattern it is not the same as having a breast implant due to a cancer.
People hope to move up the social ladder if they look and feel better. There are expectations attached to plastic aesthetic surgery as there are expectations attached when you see beauty or when someone wears diamonds or the right high-end watch. But this isn’t all, I think the endeavour of modifying your body through surgery marks also a kind of ‘rite of passage’, a way of becoming. So there is a side to it that may have been dismissed in the wider public discourse on plastic aesthetic surgery. There is a spiritual site to the phenomena and the trauma of physical pain we know is part of all religious settings. Believers like pilgrims are aware of this before they depart onto their journeys. They want to go through it. Tattooing is often painful too and I wouldn’t be surprised if overcoming the fear of pain is a major part of its success in the past decades. Being able to stand pain means grown up, it means becoming an adult, a complete person. Overcoming fear and pain is part of life. At least in most western societies we do not suffer much physically, we aren’t hungry anymore. But at the same time we are starving for real experiences and are not satisfied with the second-hand experiences offered by reality shows on TV. The physical experiences people engage in are predominantly ‘made safe’ experiences. Designers are increasingly asked to design these experiences. As a teacher on a MA in Product Design I am constantly confronted with the students desires to design experiences and imulate ‘real life’. We now plan and design ritualistic behaviours on mobile phones etc. They want to make people engage in sense-making activities like urban gardening or sleeping in the open even in the city. We design for interaction or do not complete a product so that people profit from the feel-good factor that comes with the achievement of completing a real task. Completely designing and making a piece of jewellery is also an experience and a guarantee for an attachment between the piece and its owner. Wearing a piece of contemporary jewellery needs openness for an engagement and often involves some kind of a ritual. Jewellery is a lot about rituals.

Why do you consider it a ritual?
Jewellery makers as well as jewellery owners and wearers know a lot about rituals. These small-scale objects offer opportunity for people to connect meaningful activities with objects and there is a chance to integrate these activities in daily life. I think that people with an animistic instinct are specifically drawn towards contemporary jewellery, I mean the more artistic jewellery which attracts specific people.

Ritual is an anthropological concept. In the past like now, it concerns communities and their lived experiences. At certain moments a group follows practices that – being aware of it or not - unifies the community, consolidates their identity and each one role. At times, kinds of transitions are faced too. Others, it includes dealing with other communities or facing and deciding about new coming things. In all cases, a ritual is revitalizing and makes the community stronger. Isn’t it so?
Not sure if I understand you correctly but just think about how upset people are for example when their house has been broken in to. People are not so worried about their wallets or the new TV or their cameras, but they are highly upset when their jewellery is gone.

It probably happens because those jewels have to do with memories.

Yes, it is convenient to empower small objects like jewellery with our memories as we can carry these objects with us. The wearers own body also plays a significant role as a physical experience leaves permanent marks. There are various social networks and movements where people are engaging in mutilating and customising their bodies outside the operation theatre. For instance, scars can become jewels, strong aesthetic signs, powerful visual landmarks for an individual. A scar is a significant point of reference for someone who has gone through a certain process. I’m interested in the idea of self-realization. Surgery as well as jewellery can have a lot to do with self-realization. You become who you want to become and you show who you are by leaving signs and marks on your own body.

Do you remember a text based on an interview to you, which was written in 1999 by Manuel Castro Caldas? It was an interesting and rare approach of an art critic. The title was Jewellery, once you say so. He had been questioning you if your work is jewellery, art, or whatever. At this stage, how would you comment this? Are your pieces jewels because one can wear them?
They are jewellery because I said so… I still stand behind this sentence. Wearability is one reason that makes an object become a jewel but there are many more. In 2006, I showed work at the Natural History Museum in Lisbon, an installation entitled Ossarium Rosé. The pieces I showed there as an installation where not jewels - yet.  There were no chains or pins attached to the artefacts in that large old showcase. These pieces where presented as museum artefacts or ‘relics’ inside a museum. A year later I presented the same artefacts, the same pieces in a domestic setting of a private house in Belgium at Gallery Villa de Bond. Here many of these pieces I showed before NOT as jewellery in Lisbon now had chains or pins attached to them and were therefor clearly defined as jewels. The same artefact can but doesn’t have to be a jewel. If someone wants to wear one of the artefacts, an intention or a will is needed. I sometimes think that people are too easy when choosing their jewellery. Maybe this Ossarium Rosé – Relic Rosé work was also about that, to become conscience of what makes a jewel a jewel and look at the intention it needs for making that definition.

I occasionally also think there is a misunderstanding. Some jewellers make artefacts that just become jewellery because they think that because they are jewellers they have to make jewellery. But many pieces lack that clarity and are often good objects, good artefact, but not necessary good jewels. Are they really thinking why a piece is to be worn on a body? I like to claim that I do think about that a lot and therefor often do not present all objects I make as jewellery. Often I am also an object maker, in a free way - that of any other artist; then this work relates to an idea that occupies another space, not necessary the body.
It feels very short sighted and narrow that some jewellery makers get very irritated about colleagues that feel free to do other works too, independent works next to their jewellery. I try to look beyond my own field and aim to be precise about being ‘in between’ when I find this enriching. 

Yesterday, at the opening was a very interesting woman who told me that she intends to have her breast reduced in size. She is waiting for an operation and looks forward to that. She was very intrigued by my concept and would like to have one of my excess-pieces to commemorate that operation, an operation that seems significant to her. She also considers to somehow commission me to make a very specific piece relating to exactly her own case, a kind of commission.

Will you work with her directly? Could you do that?
Usually I don’t take commissions but in this case it is highly interesting and her openness and attitude challenges me. We also talked about documenting parts of the operation or her thoughts and feelings before and after the operation. She does understand jewellery as an art form and seems really open.

Doctors are prepared to deal directly with patients. Maybe artists are not able to deal with somebody’s individual life or health problem.
I would feel confident. Having talked to surgeons and patients I do not see much evidence that doctors are taught about the complexity of a person beyond medical necessities. Often artists do have specific insights when it comes to understanding the ‘human condition’. It is part of becoming an artist to study one’s own complexity and to reflect on how life is experienced. I believe that at the core of making jewellery also lays an interest in creating objects which ‘support a persons ability to express itself’ and to support a way of ‘sense making’.

If I am commissioned to make weeding rings, I need to have an idea of what the ritual of a wedding signifies. Personally (for example) I have always been deeply interested in understanding what holds couples together. How did they get together? What do they expect, what do they share and how can a piece of jewellery still work for them as an important ‘point of reference’ in thirty years?  These questions are (to me) the initial questions I have when I start designing wedding rings. Without my clients noticing I will get them to offer me a starting point from which I can develop an idea for that ring.

I like to come back to the Ossarium Rosé installation. Those bones where they real ones? I heared that a lady in Lisbon offered you her own bones…
Well, this I never heard about but I like the story, great myth. It is true that I am often asked if beneath the pink velvety surface are ‘real’ bones, even human bones. Officially I always say that they aren’t real bones, as it isn’t allowed to use real human bones and to make these commercially available. As my work is for sale I have to be careful. However, part of this work is making people curious about this central question. If underneath the velvet are real bones… how does this change the reception of the work? Some of the forms are easy to identify as bones, some aren’t or seem ‘mutilated’. In a time where everything can be reproduced (these pieces could also be cast or made in plastic by a machine) what would change? I like people to think about this, I like them to speculate and ask these questions.

In these pieces, why do you use that pink velvet flock? What is your intention?
Bones are very seductive objects children immediately want to touch when they get hold of them. Children don’t have preconceived idea about death but grownups have, rightly so. For many grownups bones are nasty, dirty, even ugly, which is perfectly understandable as we learn to fear death with time and bones are ultimate symbols and reminders of death. However, I feel that we (in western societies) don’t have a healthy relationship with death. We have made death become very clinical and detached from life. Probably that is why I like to deal with bones, I like to touch them and like when people loose their inhibition to touch - death. Unless you are a medic or a pathologist, you don’t get the chance to touch bones these days.  But when a bone like shape is covered in a velvety pink surface then it may work. Velvet and pink are both very seductive. Wearing these objects as jewels works too. I always like the idea that any surface works as a ‘portal to a hidden world’ (a quote by artist Toni Cragg).
Once I talked to a woman in a small village in Ecuador and we somehow touched upon the topic of death and bones. Next day she came to show me a little match-box with a bone inside, a bone that she believed to have belonged to her father. She found that bone after an El Niño related- flooding, near her fathers grave which was washed away at night. To her that bone was the only remains of her father and she keept it highly precious as a relic. She was almost in tears when talking and holding that little bone in her hand. This encounter touched me. Some days later the incident inspired me to start carving bones by hand out of the local tagua-nuts (a plant material also called the ivory of South America) as it looks like bone or ivory. On some of these bones I added small round elements that obviously won’t belong to real bones. Any child could understand that, however, one still can’t resist to think if the rest of the bone is natural or not. Where do these shapes come from? What do they say about their supposed function. When an artefact can trigger off these questions, this is exactly where I like my audience to be.

Nice story. Can I come back to the Relic Rosé work. Is the flock a first skin?
You can call it surface or skin. I choose a specific pink for the flock that isn’t too pinkish (which would make it too artificial and trivial) but the pink I choose gets closest to the veins that one can see underneath the transparency of the skin. So your remark is correct, the flock can be seen as a kind of skin.

Some Relic Rosé pieces include chains, or pearls. Why? Again, what was your intention?
The silver chains reference classic or baroque jewellery, some of them are draped around the ‘relic’ in layers. Other chains are blackened so there is a reference to ‘moaning jewellery’ too. I imagine that these relics could have been found on display for public viewing in catholic churches.

I also understand that to you it is important that people wear your jewels. Some jewellers are not concerned with wearability.
I am concerned with wearability. As a trained goldsmith this is second nature to me. If the piece should work as a jewel it has to be functional. However, not all pieces have to work on a daily use level. The flock for example is delicate but wearing it on a special occasion, for example in combination with a classic evening gown, would support the idea behind the piece and would surely look provocatively good. I have photographed a large relic-piece worn by a woman in an elegant Chanel-type shoulder free dress.

I think that to you colour has a meaning too. Is it so? Before we talked about the reasons for pink, and now these nipple-pieces are black.
Yes, also colour has a meaning. These pieces are rubber coated. It is a soft surface it feels nice when you touch them. These are pieces from the Incredibles series. There is also a reference to fetishes, the black rubber surface resonates this association.

Why hooks? They also have relations to bones shapes.
The hook is a metaphor. Literally speaking, I think that people are hooked on the idea of transforming and customising their bodies. This is indeed incredible that this is technically possible now to that extend. In the case of these hooks which reference bones again, they can also be phallic. There are operations now where body extensions are made. So some of these pieces also associate themselves with Design. Some larger wall-pieces appear fully functional. They clearly refer to ‘design’, they can be mistaken for ‘designer’-furniture pieces. I like to create this irritation. 

Yes, people can get taller then they where.
You can lengthen bones up to four centimetres in a few months, but this involves operations and costs money. In China, limb lengthening became quite popular but there are also surgeons in Europe who provide these ‘services’. The Incredibles series in black rubber focused on this contemporary obsession and the fetischisation of altering certain body parts. It is also about choice, we now design the body and this way build new identities. There was also a wall-piece in the London show that included several differently shaped black rubber coated nipples. Visitors could take single pieces off the wall and it was possible to wear these individual pieces as jewellery. They could be fixed with magnets to the garment. Choice became a metaphor.
In 2010 in an off-space run by Gallery ViceVersa in Lausanne I used stainless-steel catering-trolleys and industrial kitchen furniture to show my works. Some works in this exhibition showed recognizable body parts with refined detailed solutions in cool white porcelain, like the oversized arms with just three fingers, capturing precise movements connected to routine postures, like scrolling on a touch pad. Entitled ‘Plug-ins and Add-ons’, these works referred to the often clichéd but nevertheless on-going discourse about wearable computing – the interface between body and technology. I think that ideas about enhancing the performance of the body are challenging us. These developments will have an effect on the constitution of an individual’s identity and the definition of self.
This is another meaning for applied-art.
Nice observation. Yes, we are playing with the word applying. We can now apply new functions to someone’s body like adding bigger breasts or (if you wish) a larger nose or connecting a limb with a sexy prosthesis or insert a microchip in an arm which allows you to open doors. Adding function by applying objects to the body is what wearing applied art pieces like jewellery has always been about.

Can we talk now about other recent projects? In fact there are several artists working with scientists from different fields. But the approaches are different in between artists and scientists. Isn’t it so?
I have a tendency to focus on the commonalities scientists and artists share and I am keen on making clear that artists are contributing to the development of new insights and knowledge. In the past years artists gained confidence and recognise their unique methods of conducting their research. I like my work at the University and for years I also talk to audiences far outside my own field. I am asked to talk on medical and design conferences in front of scientists and researchers in medicine, psychology, product design or engineering or I talk to Master or PhD students in fine art. I find this very enriching and I am often so surprise how much respect I get for the way I conduct my research. They find validity in my approach.
Corporeal Design has been an on-going enquiry of mine. It aims to pave the ground for a possible design theory concerning the human body. This goes far beyond jewellery but it started off with thinking about jewellery and extending the definition of jewellery. Corporeal Design may start with body shaping and contouring activities or the design of surfaces in order to investigate the relationship between the body and larger ideological forces. If creating 'the new' is always a political process, then every new construction of the body means its cultural re-imagination. It is therefore a matter of Design.

We are all discussing the pro’s and con’s of altering, of re-designing body parts and they further engage in experimenting with new technologies and procedures, genetic or medical, supported by expanding industries. For parts of society the human body needs upgrading. For many the body has now become a luxury item and a commodity to be optimised and aestheticised using increasingly sophisticated implants and prostheses and the professional help of plastic surgeons, psychologists and also trainers. But I ask myself if these agents are engaging in Design (or Art) practices? What actually qualifies a designer of implants, what does a Corporeal Designer do?

Under the heading of Corporeal Design I hope it is possible to address and assess relevant cultural, social and political metamorphosis happening skin deep.

The role of the designer is that of an author, the body is a site layered with meaning and emotion and design a critical, transformative and speculative tool.

The discussion has been placed in the context of critical practices and positions, that explore the blurred territories between art, design and all sciences. They are responding to the current phenomena of de-territorialisation and de-hierarchisation of aesthetic practices.
The interdisciplinary nature of this on-going investigation aims to bring together creative stakeholders from various fields like jewellery and medicine, psychology and politics, where issues about the body, its functioning, psychological, ethical, socio-political and technical issues etc are addressed. Through artwork, through seminars, lectures and publications issues of identity, body image and different narratives around the body are addressed. The development of a trans/interdisciplinary research group where medic's work alongside sociologists, artists or policy makers could become a necessity in order to give visibility and provide a critical base in sight of these emerging developments. This is a project I am currently trying to set up.
In your opinion, why do jewellers keep themselves in there own circuits, staying away from art in general, willing and, in simultaneous, not wishing to be included in common processes, in a common universe? Do you think that there are functional reasons, like for instance power plays or defence of a group identity?
I am not sure, but I also don’t think too much about that. I just like to get on with my own investigations. I probably understand myself as someone who thinks like an artist and searcher, but I also enjoy applying certain ideas to reality so they occasionally also manifest themselves in the field of design. But who cares about categories… I still do also enjoy working in the field of jewellery. It is a specific area and there are interesting statements to make.

Amsterdam, Galerie Louise Smit, 2012 July 9.

>> Read the complete thesis (Spanish)

PhD Doctoral Thesis: Contemporary Jewelery as Art: A Philosophical Study
Doctoral Student: Ana Maria Cabral Almeida Campos
Thesis Director:  PHD Doctor Gerard Vilar Roca
Language: Spanish

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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