Tanel Veenre interviewed by Margherita Potenza

Interview  /  Artists   BehindTheScenes
Published: 08.04.2018
Tanel Veenre, photo by Daniele de Carolis. Tanel Veenre, photo by Daniele de Carolis.
Margherita Potenza
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Tanel Veenre studio attic, photo by Daniele de Carolis..
Tanel Veenre studio attic, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

Tanel Veenre is one of contemporary jewellery’s most dynamic personalities. Divided between fashion, photography, theatre and contemporary crafts, Tanel seems to be able to navigate every corner of the creative spectrum. During a trip to Tallinn, we asked this jewellery icon for an interview.
We met Tanel on a gloomy afternoon in the medieval center of the Estonian capital. His studio is located in the infamous Hobuspea 2 complex, a XIX century building that hosts most of the city’s jewellery makers. The studio spaces are distributed into maze-­‐like corridors running around a dark central yard, and we could only find Tanel’s after a couple of empty spins. He welcomed us with a cup of tea in a small room, where his assistant was working on a batch of brightly coloured wooden pieces. We moved upstairs where Tanel has a second workshop and here, in this witchy attic, the conversation started.

 The exterior of the studio building, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

 The interior of the studio building, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

MP Looking at your studio the first thing I notice is your library. Knowing your work and the many publications that documented it, I have the impression that books play an important role in your practice. In general, a piece of jewellery hides behind itself many layers of content and it is often hard to communicate them. Books then become a helpful tool to complement the jewellery object itself.
TV Yes, it's true. If you think about it, books and jewellery share similar qualities: they both revolve around storytelling and are both very intimate objects, so they are an appropriate medium to talk about jewellery.

MP Can you tell me more about your ‘book’ pieces made in jet, In the beginning was the Word?
TV The project stemmed from the belief that ideas are jewels. A starting point was to wear on my body the books that influenced me the most, as a performative act. This thought stuck with me for a while, and I picked it up again. I was intrigued by the idea of wearing a book, both physically and conceptually -­‐ when you read a book you carry its content in your mind forever. I made some pieces in stabilized wood, as I was also interested in the act of burning and at the same time preserving books -­‐ like in Umberto Eco's novel, The name of the rose1.

In the beginning was the word, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

MP It's interesting because there is a feeling of softness in their texture, some of them look like pillows. It makes me think that I used to sleep with my favorite books as a kid.
TV get the knowledge!

Studio corner, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

MP Your work strongly evokes a sense of preciousness in its use of materials and its craftsmanship. Although your most recent pieces seem to stand closer to sculpture than jewellery. Are you still interested in making wearable objects?
TV In my recent work the relationship with the body has become very loose, my jewellery has become sculpture really. For my carvings, I was inspired by medieval sculptures, where you see the draping of gowns and clothes very meticulously reproduced on the body to hide its shapes, its nude form. So the body is still present, but in a different way, more as a reference than as an active element of the design. These pieces are made to evoke the body rather than being worn on the body. I know that there is a controversial aspect about this, but at the same time I don't really want to bother defining my position -­‐ fine arts, design, jewellery... I think these kinds of questions don't lead us very far. I remember being in the Netherlands while an exhibition titled Why Not Jewellery2 came out, and I really love this quote. Why not?

Globus Gruciger by Tanel Veenre.

MP I think jewellery is its own niche anyway, its own world. It molds to the frame of other systems, but it still exists by itself.
TV Absolutely, but I don't see this as a problem. There are so much animosity and discussion on this matter! Damian Skinner3, who is probably one of the smartest people in the field, was visiting Estonia last summer and we had a really intense discussion about this. He told me he is looking forward to some sort of cataclysmic event to shake up the field, but I mean...
What would this change? Would it start a new discourse about humans and their objects? I don't see the urgency in such a big shift in what contemporary jewellery is about, mainly because the subjects I engage with are more personal, more spiritual. I don't bother much thinking about the art world. Of course, I am aware of it and I work with galleries and museums, but I do think there are much more important questions, like the meaning of things. Is there a major force behind the reality that organizes it? Are we leaning toward entropy or toward harmony? What is love? These are the things that I consider relevant to me.

MP Are these questions relevant to your making?
TV It's relevant to my being, and being is very relevant to making. I guess mine is an idealistic way of being and creating. I wouldn't say I am a very dramatic maker. Kadri Mälk4, for example, makes very dramatic work, where personal messages and meanings are layered together. In my case, there is always an awareness in making, but also an element of play. Even the term 'work' feels strange. I never feel like I'm working. There is no sacrifice in it, it's my pleasure, it's magic to me.

Tanel Veenre in his studio, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

MP Can you tell us more about the collective you and Kadri are part of, Ohuloss? It seems to be a very special group of people as it brings together your mentor, your colleagues and your students. Aside from the professional and academic context, the ties that hold the collective together seem to go far deeper.
TV Ohuloss was initiated by Kadri some sixteen years ago. You know, it's good to trust someone. I think trust is the biggest currency in the world. It makes things easy for us. Teamwork is often a challenge for artists, but in our case, it turned into a strength. Kadri has a major influence on all of us. She has been my teacher and the teacher of every jewellery artist who studied in Estonia in the past twenty years. She established a special tone in the jewellery department we all studied at, which is very intimate, personal, caring. This made us think of our art practice as a form of continuity with other human beings.

MP Being Tallinn such a small and yet vibrant city, I can imagine you often find your practice to cross paths with that of friends in the wider artistic field. How would you describe the cultural life in Tallinn, what is its peculiarity?

TV Yes, Tallinn is a very lively place in terms of contemporary culture, very up-­‐to-­‐date. Contemporary dance and theatre have a special place in the local scene. A lot of my friends are actors or musicians. In general, Tallinn has just half a million inhabitants, so the cultural crowd is very reachable. There isn't a particular accent on hierarchy. I have the First Lady's phone number or the Prime Minister comes around to buy cufflinks, but it's really not a big deal! The Estonian society is very easy to navigate, networks are very easy to build up. If you knock the door, usually you get in.

Working table at Tanel Veenre's workshop, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

MP Collaborations can also be a way to get around the rules of this system of ours. Through collaborations, you get to show a kind of work that would maybe be overlooked in the contemporary jewellery world.
TV Yes, absolutely. I think it would be painful for me to merely stick to contemporary jewellery. I am too restless in one hand, and in the other too idealistic: art jewellery inner elitism makes me feel guilty. Even though it's true that you cannot please everyone, I do want my work to be democratic, which is why I also produce fashion pieces that cost less than fifty euros, so pretty much anyone can buy that. I believe there is something very valuable in the simple pleasure of wearing jewellery, and it makes me grateful to see how everyone reacts to that instantaneously. Vanity is very archaic! Then with art jewellery, I can deal with the big questions: the presence of the body, its erotic aspect… The questions that interest me as an intellectual being. Through making you meet like-­-minded people, but this field is very small, so working outside of it allows me not feel claustrophobic.

MP The idea of a careful use of precious materials that you mentioned before seems to resonate with your students at EKA’s Jewellery department. Looking at their work they seem to shy away from ‘shininess’ and focus on a more conceptual research.
TV It is a matter of fact that Estonian jewellery has a very particular approach to materials. For what concerns students and their work, surely Kadri does promote a more existential perspective on jewellery making. In the department everything starts from contemplation: you first look inside to get something to come out on the outside. It takes a lot of patience but the first thing for the students is to understand themselves as human beings. What is your strength? What makes you unique? What upsets you? Once you've understood these basics you're able to form a purer and more honest voice, and that can lead you very far. That's something no one can ever steal from you. Look at Nils Hint5, he made some great work but it's pretty rough stuff, you see very clearly the influence of the Blacksmithing department. It's brutal but it's honest.

An iconic element used regularly by Tanel.

MP I believe it is a bold statement to openly focus on the human dimension, while the rest of the world is running after the digital age. Contemporary art seems to have put its eyes on cyborgs, but in jewellery, we go completely the other way. Not to follow this shift almost seems a statement. If you think of the New York Times producing VR documentaries, design brands launching special pads to make the Oculus Rift more comfortable, Google Glasses...
These are products of the cultural realm, but they affect society in many different aspects. So there is almost something rebel in saying that what lays behind the digital revolution, the substance beneath it, is still human. And that's a unique trait of contemporary jewellery, to keep facing that.

TV I think so. I personally follow with great interest everything that has to with material innovation and technology development, but at the end of the day we still shit and make love. And as I said before, the urge and pleasure that comes from jewellery are truly timeless. We'll still be wearing jewellery even on Mars.

MP I think a reason for this is to be found in the act of making. When you make objects you understand better that behind an iPhone there is a pair of hands soldering the chips together, or that what the internet is made isn't just the Matrix, but mainly servers in Singapore. And thinking about it, this understanding gives us quite an interesting perspective on the economics of the digital age.
TV Yes. Tactility is, in fact, something that I am very intrigued by. I made a photographic project about hands, hands as people's tools and knowledge, a connection that is still particularly true in jewellery, as it is such a hands-on practice. But at the same time, nowadays every part of the body is replaceable, so what we have always considered as a human-­-based skill can easily be turned into a robot-­-based one, without losing any of its delicacy and sensitivity. It's a very intriguing issue.

Heart VIII by Tanel Veenre, photo by Daniele de Carolis.

Read more about Tanel Veenre:

1. Umberto Eco, The name of the rose, Vintage Books, New York, 2008.
2. No further information could be found about this exhibition. 
3. Damien Skinner is an art historian and curator from New Zealand.
4. Kadri Mälk
jewellery artist and Head of the Jewellery department at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn.
5. A young artist who recently graduated from EKA.

About the author

Margherita Potenza
I am a maker with an interest for site-specific works and body-related objects.
I come from an applied arts background and recently graduated from the Jewellery & Metal department at Royal College of Art, London. My practice spans from jewellery making to product design, art installations and freelance writing. My recent projects include the participation to Stichting Françoise van den Bosch's 2017 AiR programme, the launch of a bespoken jewellery collection, and a series of interviews to artists, makers and designers in collaboration with photographer Daniele de Carolis.


Daniele de Carolis
I am a photographer based in Milan - where I was born and raised - and Amsterdam. Since I first approached photography I developped a style characterised by the use of special effects and unusual contexts: these are tools that I employ in order to surprise the viewers and trigger their curiosity. The process behind my work is defined both by a substantial background research and a ready implementation of ideas; this allows the visual outcome to be fresh and clear, while maintaining a solid conceptual basis. My work was featured on publications such as Wallpaper, Icon Design and Elle Decor.