How Many Is One. Interview with Deganit Stern Schocken

Published: 28.12.2021
Deganit Stern Schocken Deganit Stern Schocken
Chenni Sheng
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Deganit Stern Schocken. Object: News from the Permain, 2013. Silver, stainless steel, plastic, newspaper, petrified wood.. 28 x 25 cm. Deganit Stern Schocken
Object: News from the Permain, 2013
Silver, stainless steel, plastic, newspaper, petrified wood.
28 x 25 cm
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Artists are supposed to respond to what is happening around them. Sometimes the response is blatant or superficial; sometimes its political aspect is implied. Living in Israel, it is impossible to disregard the fact that a high wall called the Separation Wall passes through this small country, that there are military checkpoints, that there is a reality of occupation going on for decades. My response is to indicate this, without shouting; to protest and influence in my own way.

Interview with Deganit Stern Schocken (*1947) who ranks among the most distinguished positions in contemporary art jewellery in Israel, around her recently published book How Many is One by Arnoldsche Art Publishers.
Congratulations on your success of the new book How Many Is One!
This book as a monograph includes your artistic production from the past fifty years.  As we know, you started your artistic creation as an architect, what made you walk towards the path of jewellery?
Often, significant things in life follow rather prosaic events. In the early 1970s, after graduating from the Department of Industrial Design and Architecture at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, a friend told me I should go into the field of jewelry. Her comment stuck with me and I was tempted to look into it. In retrospect, I realized that practical processes in architecture and industrial design are long and tedious, and it takes forever until you see real results, whereas the products of art are quite immediate. These were the days before the cutting-edge technologies, which changed this practice profoundly in every respect. Handicrafts still occupied a central place, especially in jewelry making.
I fell in love with the language of jewelry making. I regard jewelry and jewelry design as a creative language in every respect. Therefore, shortly after graduation, I borrowed the language of jewelry design to define what architecture was for me. I gave myself exercises that delved into function, space, and matter. Initially, I was interested in how to hang an object on the fabric, when the mechanism (whose components determine the wearing of the brooch) is not hidden behind an "image"; its functional parts are exposed and present, and they transform into the object's message and aesthetics through movement. It is no longer a mere "decoration," but a "structure," namely an object analogous to a house in both the aesthetic and the functional sense. It is a metaphorical process of miniaturizing architecture, a process that allows for both reflection and conceptual displacement, with openness to change. This play on proportions may be compared to what Jonathan Swift does in Gulliver's Travels, when he alternately enlarges and shrinks his object (man, the city of London). I also started with miniaturization, creating a kind of "mini-architecture."
Deganit Stern Schocken. Brooch:  Fibula, 1987. Silver, gold (18k). 8.5 x 17 cm.

Deganit Stern Schocken. Brooch:  Fibula, 1987. Silver, copper. 13.5 x 16 cm. Part of Metropolitan Museum of art, New York, NY, USA collection.

Later, in individual works (e.g. the Pools), and especially in the installations, I examined the effect of magnification. These actions, which are not just schematic, make for defamiliarization, enabling the discovery of new aspects and insights about the object. This process was inspired by modernism in architecture, and the Bauhaus in particular. I was occupied with this subject for several years, during which I tested, built, and undermined all the various mechanisms of jewelry. I regard this period in my work as an introspective perusal of the characteristics of the jewelry design medium and an exploration of the language of jewelry making. This research soon spread and took over the entire body. The body became a "city," with brooches as buildings, long works as streets, and works that spread over the whole body as an expression of an environmental occurrence, of an architectural plan, of a place. This is at the level of the image. The tension between "body" and "city," between the individual and society, however, clearly has implications on social and political aspects. A dialogue is created between the body and the city. In this analytical and metaphorical process, the body itself was also perceived in architectural terms in my early brooches (the fibulae), as a structure and an "apparatus." The brooch's elements are moved in the same way as we move the body's functional parts. In this context, these brooches may be likened to little people with idiosyncratic gestures, who have different parts. Through the study of size analogies, particularly miniaturization, I noticed that in many cases, the jewel placed on the body is not perceived in its entirety, but rather as a dynamic series of events. As in the city, our gaze always originates in a certain moment, place, and angle, so that we see only fragments and what lies between them. Therefore, the gap leaves room for the imagination. This fact has to do with the human condition—the inability to see everything at once; the sense that something is missing, hence the vital need to seek and discover.

The Middle East conflict is one of the main topics of your artwork. What kind of response do you expect from the world when you appeal peace and cooperation through your art? Are you satisfied so far with your contribution?
Art is created in a space that is political in the broadest sense. The political system is inherent in it and is manifested in all aspects: in the area, details, and values. We have witnessed socialist architecture, fascist architecture, and now—corporate architecture. The political is also manifested in aesthetic norms; in what is acceptable or not acceptable to write or paint. A novel such as Madame Bovary, or paintings like Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe or Olympia, were also, at one point, subversive, and had political overtones. Artists are supposed to respond to what is happening around them. Sometimes the response is blatant or superficial; sometimes its political aspect is implied. Living in Israel, it is impossible to disregard the fact that a high wall called the Separation Wall passes through this small country, that there are military checkpoints, that there is a reality of occupation going on for decades. My response is to indicate this, without shouting; to protest and influence in my own way. When I pick up beverage cans with Arabic inscriptions, crushed (by tanks and cars), near the checkpoint at the border crossing between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the works attest to the situation in which the rights of millions of Palestinians are being crushed. In the studio, these crushed cans become raw materials for a work of art. I set diamonds in them to connect two cans and transform the object into a wearable piece of jewelry. Out of the same consciousness and perception of reality, I take interest in cheap plastic boards with images and short sentences, used in schools to teach the Arabic language. These boards are to be used as part of a work, which will also incorporate pieces made of gold and precious stones. Thus, both the subject and the material makeup (high and low) contain political evidence of the situation and conceal a message, which demands dialogue and a willingness to accept the other. As mentioned earlier, the materials themselves (gold, silver, iron, tin) are charged with meaning, and traditionally (starting with Hesiod's myth of the ages of man) represent value and status, and so do the choice of objects and their aesthetic design. The question of value in jewelry has been an ever-present concern throughout history and has mostly been addressed in the previous century. In my works, even perishable materials, water, text, and the void have the status of a precious stone.

In the aforementioned works, I addressed the political aspect more directly. Today, however, I realize that it was no coincidence that at the outset of my career I worked on a simple object, such as the "safety pin" (fibula), which is typical of the kibbutz culture into which I was born. I internalized the social values, whereby "safety" and "security," in the most elementary socio-political sense—namely, concern for the basic needs of the general public—were top priority. These values are once again topical and relevant today with regard to social and ecological issues. So this was the cultural background for the design choices and modus operandi of those early works. They reflected social values prevalent in my country at the time: simplicity, a matter of factness (in the spirit of "New Objectivity" [Neue Sachlichkeit]), and cooperativeness. Emphasis on action and (creative) work (as opposed to mundane labor, according to the distinction formulated by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition).
Deganit Stern Schocken. Neckpiece: Kalandia Checkpoint, Smashed Cans, 2009. Ready-made objects, silver, diamonds. 14.5 x 18.5 cm.
Deganit Stern Schocken. Installation: This is My Wall and It Is Cancelled, 2004.

Your work doesn’t have a clear-cut character, they are “elusive, fluid, and human” and they “don’t fit in any category”, as Liesbeth den Besten comments in the book. How do you see it?
The answer to your question is in the title of the book whose publication is the pretext for our conversation: How Many Is One, and specifically in the work by that name which was first exhibited at Tel Aviv museum, 2003. (By the way, the book is divided into four main chapters: "How," "Many," "Is," and "One," each discussing a different period of my oeuvre). If there is one category that suits my work, it is the openness to what recurs and is always heterogeneous—similar and different. Every work (e.g. a brooch) contains both repetition and variation, which are well thought out, representing a different option.

In the series How Many Is One, in which the works were industrially cast, the variation in repetition was underlain by openness to chance and error as an element that is also immanent to creation. Industry's goal is to produce multiple and identical, whereas I take deviations and excess into consideration and highlight them, thus spawning "one of a kind" objects through the industrial process. This process somewhat echoes open architecture that embraces the heterogeneous, such as that of Rem Koolhaas, who refers to systems like the city, challenging such notions as "images," "laws," "assembly," and "hierarchy." "New urbanism," he believes, is not based on hierarchy, but on uncertainty; not on the assembly of fixed components, but on territories with maximum potential, maximum difference. It is anti-utopian urbanism, which is not "done," but "happens." This view applies to the project How Many Is One in terms of its practical essence as well as its conceptual and ethical essence. This project's products stem from a reality of change, weakness of material, separation, and accelerated movement. It is a structure of ramifications—a bifurcating, decentralized structure, where there is no super-system or centralized infrastructure, except the mold within which everything takes place.

There is often a deliberate transition between categories in my work; a blending or pushing of something we identify from one place, which slips into a place where it supposedly does not belong, thereby expanding it. For example, the transition from an image of the city and its signifiers, or from a blueprint of a building, from the physical territory in which we live, to the body and to jewelry, gives rise to a new language, with a structure all its own; a language that introduces extra-territorial subjects into a vocabulary quintessentially identified with jewelry, thus calling for interrelations between jewelry design and social-political content. Constant identification with one category may be restrictive. I regard my work as research. This may be due to my being a teacher, having worked over the years in a manner that requires constant renewal and invention, concurrent with being an active practitioner in the field. Just as I conceive of new topics for my students' projects each time, so I strive to answer different and diverse questions that I raise as part of my own creative work. Each answer seems to raise a new question, begging for an answer. For me, it is the breaching of category boundaries that is the lifeblood of the work.
Deganit Stern Schocken. Object/necklace: HMIO,  2003. Silver, cubic zircons,  paint. 8.5 x 7 cm.
Deganit Stern Schocken. Set of objects: HMIO,  2003.

How do you concern about the relationship between your artwork and the wearer or the viewer?
Unlike painting, jewelry making always entails personal involvement. The wearer's body is not a wall. It is three-dimensional, alive, and in changing, relational, and interpersonal motion. The body of the wearer, the body of the viewer, and the body of the artist are all partners in the work, each in a unique way. Jewelry making, in general, may be linked to the artistic genre of performance. Both the viewer and the wearer are in constant motion, and everything takes place in a space of active reference.
In my installations, the viewer has a special role. The gaze is always the focal point. The small individual elements in the sequence (whether on the wall or on a conveyor belt) outline a space and are set at the height of the gaze of a person standing or sitting. The human element is an integral part of the installation.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that I do not ignore the traditional function of jewelry, which is to adorn people. (In my works, I take all the aspects of wearing into consideration). In my opinion, however, when you explore the medium from different directions and realize its power and potential, you discover diverse aspects. While researching and working, the concept of decoration is expanded, acquiring an ethical sense.

Deganit Stern Schocken. Installation: Ants, 2009. Silver, wax, newspaper, cubic zircons, paint, stamps, holes in the wall.

 Inner pages of "How Many Is One", featuring Deganit Stern Schocken's Body-piece, 1993.

You must witness a great development of contemporary jewellery in Israel. Could you tell us any notable experiences?
The field of jewelry and jewelry design in Israel has developed tremendously in the past twenty years. It is small, but it is gradually establishing itself as significant. This has happened since we set up the Department of Jewelry Design at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art. Until then, there was such a department only at Bezalel.
A significant move for me was the establishment of the jeweler group INYANIM (Heb. matters) in 2009, spanning alumni of the two main schools of art and design in Israel, Shenkar and Bezalel. Group members work and exhibit in Israel and abroad with the intention of creating a platform for personal creation. We examine the place of design in a broader social and political context, through the specific and unique medium of jewelry design.
Global processes naturally play a big part in changing the status of the field. Thanks to the blurring of boundaries between disciplines, the scope of action are vast, and the weight of consumerism (over-consumption), which characterizes contemporary capitalism, is also evident.
As part of the culture, the field of jewelry design has traditionally played a role. Jewelry is a language for expression, for making a statement, and at the same time, it has a practical aspect, providing people with a livelihood.

People have always been and will continue to be attached to the objects around them, especially to those that touch their bodies and environment. It is unlikely that craftsmanship and the joy of manual creation will be abandoned. It is true, however, that the reality of 'non-objects' quickly takes its place, replacing the object in its former incarnations. This confronts us with such concepts as "new craft" and "post design". The cutting-edge technologies, whose speed of development surpasses all imagination, obviously also change the essence of the object.
In recent years, however, we are witnessing a relinquishment of the ego as a basic and primary point of departure, and a tendency to turn the work into more social and political directions. I see it in Shenkar. More and more projects address social issues, and new means are being conceived. There is more attentiveness, work in think tanks, educated use of state-of-the-art technologies, and their integration with the past. These allow for a broader view and search for solutions that are beyond mere form and beauty.
In the current social and ecological crisis, it is likely that we will have to reduce waste and introduce art and design adapted to the green economy and a more cooperative and egalitarian social order. All of these are as true for Israel as for the rest of the world, especially the Western world.
 Inner page of "How Many Is One", featuring Deganit Stern Schocken's 3 neckpieces: Figure of Speech, words from Paul Celan's Peoems, 2009.

Deganit Stern Schocken with students. Photos courtesy of Deganit Stern Schocken.

How do you assign your time to different roles? Could you share with us the current focus of your work?
The structure of my work comes down to juggling several balls in the air at once. After several years of working in the studio, I started teaching, and then also headed programs and curated exhibitions in the field. On the one hand, I was (and still am) very involved in Shenkar's life as a lecturer and active member at the institution, and on the other hand, I make sure to be an active artist, devoting time to creation. It is not an easy task to combine the two fields of this occupation, but I believe the effort is worth it because a teacher who is also an exhibiting artist naturally becomes a better teacher and has a greater chance of continuing to be relevant in his art.
Between the end of my term as Head of the Jewelry Design Department at Shenkar and my appointment as Head of the Master's Design Program (opened in 2012), I taught in three departments, I traveled the world to teach workshops and to lecture, and as an artist, I also staged several solo exhibitions and participated in many group exhibitions. Today I am semi-retired, but always busy. I still teach at Shenkar, still exhibit my work, and I am also a mother and a grandmother...

Photo credit: Uri Grun, Uri Gershuni, Oded Lebel, Ran Erde, Moshe Cain, Ilit Azoulay.


About the Interviewee

Prof. Deganit Stern Schocken b. 1947, Kibbutz Amir, lives in Israel. Deganit Stern Schocken is a jeweler, designer, artist, teacher, and curator. Founder and head of the Jewelry Design Department in Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art (1998 – 2007). She was the Chair of the Master in Design (M.Des) program in Shenkar (2012 –2016). Today she is a senior lecturer at the M.Des program and at the Jewelry Design Department.

Deganit Stern Schocken graduated from the Department of Industrial Design and Environmental Design in Bezalel Academy of Art (Jerusalem, IL) and has an MA in Arts from Middlesex University (London, UK). She has extensive experience in short and long-term workshops at schools and conferences in Israel, Europe, and elsewhere.
Stern Schocken's solo exhibition "How Many Is One" opened at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2003 and she has participated in many other solo and group exhibitions in Israel and abroad. In 2005, she curated the Israeli Jewelry Biennial 'Beaten Gold' at the Eretz Israel Museum (Tel Aviv, IL) and is currently involved in curating more group exhibitions.

In 2009, Stern Schocken founded "Inyanim", a group of ten Israeli jewelers whose debut exhibition "No Problem (?)" opened in 2010 at Gallery Loupe in New Jersey, USA. Since then the group showed in many other venues. Winner of several prizes, her works are included in museum collections and private collections worldwide. In 2013, Stern Schocken was named one of "Haaretz" Magazine's 100 most influential people in Israeli culture.

About the author

Chenni Sheng, Klimt02 website content and social media manager since 2020, currently works and lives in Hangzhou, China.

She was trained in silversmith during her BA course of Fashion Accessory Design at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, China. After graduating in 2017, she continued to study jewellery design and achieve MFA degree at Manchester School of Art in the UK.