This essay was originally written for the catalog of Nuda Vita, an exhibition curated by Ilaria Ruggiero and presented March 13–17, 2019, at ABC Westside Gallery in Munich, Germany. The exhibition showcased work by 13 jewelry artists of different nationalities who were invited to work on the idea of the political, public, and collective body. You can view the full exhibition catalog, with more essays and images of the artists’ work, in AJF’s Library. This particular essay will be of interest to AJF readers because it examines the implications of wearing jewelry created from a personal and political space.
The most liberating realization I had as an arts graduate student was how important individual experience is in the process of creating. That crazy idea that starts the long process of creating a piece can only originate in the brain of that particular artist. The idea is informed by the artist’s lived experience, determined by the accumulation and/or acceptance of hyphenated identities, governed by the vagaries of birth, the moments of pivot, whether planned or not, that redirect an artist’s life. These all combine to allow the artist to create from a place of singular perspective.
We who make art look within ourselves, take our experiences, enrich them by filling their cracks with memories and emotions, and channel them into art. By exposing ourselves, by excavating our experiences, we attempt to understand complex ideas, concepts of cause and effect, and provide others with the opportunity to see inside our minds. When we make a piece, we create something that didn’t exist before, whether it’s a black square on a canvas, the stacking of chairs between buildings, or a laptop on a string. Through this process of excavation and exposure, art connects people, bringing understanding and perspectives that have the potential to challenge norms and expectations.
Making art is personal and unique. The permutations of ideas are endless. To add to this, a mix of influences determines how the viewer understands and interprets art. These include cultural norms, socio-economics, geographic place, and personal experience—the external framework for understanding our experiences. Just as the individual experience is important to the process of creating, so is the individual experience of viewers as they see, understand, and make sense of the piece.
The pieces in the exhibition Nuda Vita are the work of a diverse cast of international artists looking at topics of cultural and political relevance. Curator Ilaria Ruggiero begins with the idea of an unattainable pure state of being, unconnected to cultural or political identity: the philosopher Walter Benjamin refers to this idealized state as nuda vita. No one is born wearing a national flag, a religious symbol, or a socially constructed identity. We all come into life nude and, hopefully, screaming. However, as we move through life, we’re affected by the culture we live in, the politics of our time and place, and the way we move through the world in reaction to these powerful forces. With such a broad topical and geographic survey, the exhibition provides an opportunity for the diverse experiences of its participants to be understood through their personal, cultural, and experiential lens, looking in this case at ideas of beauty, religion, queerness, oppression, and disability.
This exploration of politicized and culturally significant themes through the medium of jewelry adds another layer to the interpretative work to be done: wearers, one hopes, will at some stage move through the public sphere with a statement on their body, not just only a decorative object. Jewelry includes an additional level of intimacy as an object to be worn by someone else. Wearing art takes a certain kind of person, someone willing to act as a living, active, and engaged vehicle for another’s creation, held physically on their body by a chain or a pin. Like all art, a beautiful moment of connection may take place when the subject and the way it’s expressed resonates with the viewer. A worn piece of jewelry literally carries its maker’s experiences, memories, and emotions into the wearer’s life.
Of course, the artist isn’t the only one influenced by the world they move through; viewers are also seeing the work through their personal lens. An exhibition of jewelry addressing politicized ideas of identity and culture invites the viewer to actively participate in the endorsement of the statement by becoming a wearer. The potential for these pieces to enter the world as objects that carry the experiences of the artists outside the gallery, to be shared by the wearer with their community, is part of the beauty of the portability of jewelry.
In the jewelry world, a statement piece is often an oversized piece of jewelry that stands out. In this exhibition, the pieces make a statement about the way the world can be interpreted and experienced. While the transition away from the idealized state of nuda vita isn’t a choice, choosing what you put on your body is an intimate choice and, in the case of this exhibition, an endorsement of the artists’ points of view. Wearing jewelry that makes a statement, as opposed to being a statement, is a powerful choice, and this exhibition provides us with an impressive array of unique perspectives to consider.