April 13, 2010: Day One

At last, after a lot of planning, the Gray Area symposium opened at the Biblioteca de Mexico in Mexico City. For those of you who don’t know, the Gray Area is an ambitious project organized by the Amsterdam-based Otro Diseno Foundation for Cultural Cooperation and Development. As the program notes make clear, ‘Gray Area started as an urgent need: to diversify the international landscape of contemporary jewellery. Which turned into an idea: that of bringing enthusiastic jewellery devotees together in an unfamiliar, yet exciting place.' Taking place over five days, the symposium brings together speakers from Europe and Latin America (with a sprinkling of other countries) in what is effectively an attempt at cultural mediation – to insert Latin American jewelry into a European and then global jewelry discussion.

The first day of the symposium was dedicated to a fairly straightforward question: ‘What Does It Mean To Us? Jewellery, Identity and Communication.' It won’t surprise you to learn that the answers proved not to be straightforward at all, as the various presentations and panel discussions raised a number of important issues that are currently impacting on contemporary jewelry practice around the world.

Dutch jeweler Manon van Kouswijk opened with a paper called ‘Gray Matter: No Brain, No Gain.' Beginning with a whimsical reflection on her present position as head of jewelry at the Rietveld Academy in a building that is painted Rietveld grey, van Kouswijk effectively asked a series of questions that were designed to introduce the theme. What is the grey area? The space between commercial and art jewelry? Between craft and production? Between the head and the heart, the head and the hands? It was a nicely positioned talk in terms of the larger cultural dynamic of the conference, with van Kouswijk speculating on how a European can take part in a discussion located in a part of the world about which they know very little and asking what is left to exchange in a mediated environment when nearly everything is available in books or on the internet. Speaking in front of a steady stream of images pulled from different times and places, van Kouswijk’s paper was a plea for a subtly located making – quite different to her deterritorialized slide show, in which objects and images flowed together without regard for cultural and historical specificity.

Caroline Broadhead, a British jeweler who is head of the jewelry department at Central Saint Martins in London, was up next with a paper titled ‘Ways of Seeing: The Body as an Area for Experimentation; Interaction Between Jewel, Wearer and Viewer.' She spoke about vision, about ways of seeing and not seeing, particularly from the perspective of the viewer, who relies primarily on looking in order to encounter the jewelry – unlike the wearer, who has access to various bodily and sensory information in their encounter with the work. The value of Broadhead’s presentation was as an introduction to a variety of contemporary practices more or less familiar to the audience, which had the encouraging effect of demonstrating how rich and critically engaged contemporary jewelry can be. She also played the potentially risky game of positioning contemporary jewelry alongside contemporary fine art and asking it to stand or fall on its merits. The conclusion seemed to be that the best contemporary jewelry can indeed play with the big boys (and girls) of the art world and that it has something notable to say about both the body and vision. It was also notable to see the role of photography in experimental contemporary jewelry, a means of fixing temporary effects or staged tableaux and a reminder of how ubiquitous photography is in our experience of work, shaping how and what we see in the absence of the actual object.

The third talk of the morning, by Colombian archaeologist Clemencia Plazas, was called ‘American Cosmovision Through Metals,', and turned back in time to the history of metals and technologies of pre-conquest Latin America. Her paper was a classic display of archaeology, coming with x-rays of objects, for example, so we could establish precisely how they were constructed and offering a series of close readings of objects in terms of manufacture and then the social or cultural uses to which these objects were put. Plazas discussed the symbolic potential of metals, such as gold and platinum, the ways in which these metals were worked and the types of jewelry or body adornment that were popular. Nose rings, for example, were close to breath, which means life. A spiral nose ring represented energy that penetrates and at the same time leaves the body and different forms of nose rings had aesthetic potential, disguising or obscuring the face in quite different ways.

After lunch Plazas gave another paper in a session called ‘The Use and Meaning of Materials for Different Cultures,' expanding on the cosmological implications of metal and the way such materials as gold and silver mediated between the three realms of life in the Americas: the superworld above, our world in the middle and the intraworld below. The superworld is the place of sunlight, associated with white or yellow and thus gold. This is the male domain, the rational world and a place of linear thought. The intraworld is its opposite, the place of darkness, represented by black or blue. This is the world of the feminine, a space of rebirth, of intuitive and circular thinking. The human world, the place of sky, water and land, requires all the cosmological forces in balance to guarantee fertility. Materials like gold and silver were used symbolically in objects designed to achieve balance. Plazas made the very interesting point that the development of metallurgy in Latin America was linked to ritual and the cosmos, whereas in Europe metallurgy was closely tied to the practical world, to technology and economics.

Spanish jeweler Ramon Puig Cuyas, who is head of jewelry at the Escola Massana, talked about the importance of materials to jewelry practice, suggesting that materials are critical to jewelry in a way that they are not for other fine art practices, like sculpture. The issue is not which materials, but that materials are the starting point – meaning that you cannot speak about jewelry without the language of materials. Jewelry has always been a vehicle for extraordinary symbolism, which is why humans have always looked for extraordinary materials to use for it. And he suggested that the dialogue of materials is what links contemporary jewelry to its past, to its jewelry traditions, even as it moves into the fine art world. As the scientist explores the nature of the materials of the universe to unlock secrets and knowledge of the world we live in, so the jeweler explores their materials in a similar way, with the same experimental intention and opportunity for discovery.

The final session of the day was a round-table discussion, returning to the theme of ‘What Does It Mean To Us?’ The participants were Liesbeth den Besten, an art historian from the Netherlands, French jeweler Benjamin Lignel, Mexican jeweler Jorge Manilla, who is a professor at the St Niklaas Academy in Belgium, Peruvian jeweler Ximena Briseno, who is currently studying in Australia, Mexican art critic Jose Manuel Springer, and myself (Damian Skinner). Everyone began by discussing the practice of contemporary jewelry in their country of origin and addressed, if only briefly, some of their questions and perspectives on the meaning of contemporary jewelry. Den Besten spoke about her notion of contemporary jewelry as a kind of faith, demanding belief and commitment, as opposed to design’s interest in seduction without commitment. Lignel talked about his background as a designer, his challenge to the doctrine of originality within contemporary jewelry and his belief that there is no requirement for him to make or fabricate his work. Manilla spoke about the importance of honesty and integrity in contemporary jewelry, which will guarantee the value of any given work. Briseno asked about the way in which contemporary jewelry in Latin America is engaging with jewelry practices from Europe and North America and whether this is a relationship of servitude, of unhealthy emulation. And Springer spoke about the personal potential of jewelry in constructing identity and the self and concluded that the value of contemporary jewelry is in its lack of easy classification, its liminal or intermediate role. This, he noted, is contemporary jewelry’s best quality, its most productive characteristic.

These presentations were followed by a period of robust discussion and questions from the floor, which debated the differences between contemporary jewelry and design (and the issue of how an object addresses needs and desires) the relation of art and craft (and the potential of jewelry in a time when fine art is seeking to become more relational, to move away from its autonomous status) and the double nature of jewelry as objects to wear and display.

April 14, 2010: Day Two

The second day of the Gray Area symposium saw a few conference attendees looking worse for wear after a late night partying in Mexico City. The theme for the day was ‘Two Sides of the Same Coin: The State of Contemporary Jewellery' and much of the day was given over to artist talks. Ruudt Peters (The Netherlands), Manon van Kouswijk (The Netherlands), Jorge Manilla (Mexico-Belgium), Martha Hryc (Poland-Mexico), Beate Eismann (Germany), Mirla Fernandes (Brazil) and Jiro Kamata (Japan-Germany) all presented their jewelry practices in talks that ranged from the serious to the side-splittingly funny. (Single biggest laugh: a video of Jiro Kamata in action making his rings of gold and sellotape marked with lipstick kisses.)

While the jewelry was quite different, the presentations followed a general pattern: a cute baby photo, a brief biography, a precocious encounter with adornment in which the speaker’s future as a jeweler is revealed and finally descriptions of their work and practice. In a few cases the talks were about history that flowed over and around the jewelry, setting the scene but refusing to explain the work. Some thoughts: in the east they give things to objects, in the west we take things away from objects (Ruudt Peters); standardized objects such as wedding rings are deeply personal and individualized, a contradiction that feeds investigation (Manon van Kouswijk); jewelry opens the wearer’s heart and reveals it to others (Jiro Kamata). There were others, but some of the ideas were (literally) lost in translation, the Spanish to English interpreters doing a good job but sometimes introducing a poetry that, on top of unfamiliar histories and practices, made it difficult to keep up.

The artist talks bracketed Monica Gaspar’s ‘Versions of Contemporary Jewellery: Differences, Affinities, and Influences Between Europe and Latin America,' a talk delivered by teleconference. Gaspar’s paper was wide-ranging and provocative, addressing many of issues that structure a complicated project like Gray Area with its attempt at cultural mediation between Latin America and Europe. Gaspar began by quoting an art historical study of Spanish jewelry from 1500-1800, which suggested that the European discovery of the New World not only initiated a new period of globalization, but inspired European jewelry practices. Motifs from Aztec art, for example, began to turn up in Spanish jewelry and objects engaging with the art of Latin America made it as far as the Medici in Italy. In other words, the evolution of jewelry in Europe can be linked to the encounter with Latin America.

Gaspar talked about the politics of centre and periphery, of being at the centre and being at the edge and the series of questions that come with this hierarchy: where is the idea of contemporary jewelry produced and managed and for whom? As she pointed out, these issues are not a problem for a European/Latin American encounter, but play a role in her experience as a writer and curator from southern Europe (Spain) traveling to central Europe (Germany, for example) where jewelry is dominant. As she tellingly suggested, when she visited the Schmuck exhibition in Munich in 1997 for the first time, she felt exotic, even though Barcelona had been a centre of contemporary jewelry since the 1950s. While she didn’t talk about this, the fact that she was curator of Schmuck 2010 must have been on people’s minds as one example of outsider successfully transforming their status into an insider – and a promising sign that the premise of the Gray Area project might be successfully realized.

One of the best aspects of Gaspar’s talk was the way she analyzed the Gray Area blog – the place where interaction between European and Latin American jewelers in the Gray Area exhibition took place – as a kind of fictional cartography, an imaginary space of encounter created out of various narratives (personal stories, stories of the workshop, stories of self and other, and stories of misunderstandings and mistranslations). While Gaspar was not insensitive to the politics of North/South interaction, with Europeans coming from an undoubted position of dominance, she also argued that the conditions of the interaction (such as the blog, the time zone differences, the use of English as a global language) have created a particular space in which the Gray Area takes place. This is not a space like the ones we each inhabit, but a new space/place brought into being by the conditions of the project. And these conditions are the causal factors for a new geography in which interesting things can take place. What was so exciting about this is that Gaspar provided a way to escape the conclusions of centre and periphery power relations, without acting like this dynamic isn’t a real problem. She provided, in other words, an agency for the Gray Area, an ability to act and to engage which was still informed and political and grounded in the real world.

Xavier Andrade, an anthropologist from Ecuador, gave a paper called ‘Jewellery in Ecuador: Practices, Dialogues, Flux.' He focused on the work of Santiago Ayala, a traditional healer who makes commercial jewelry to fund his more experimental pieces and whose work deals with his experiences as a healer; and Hugo Celi, a shaman who studied anthropology and then jewelry and whose work is concerned with recovering old practices, often through the use of found photographs. Andrade’s talk was a glimpse of a kind of jewelry that sits outside or apart from contemporary jewelry and yet speaks directly to the conditions, practices and functions of jewelry in Latin America. It was excellent to escape the small and sometimes claustrophobic world of contemporary jewelry and to have a new set of dynamics introduced into the conversation. Andrade also offered an anthropological critique of concepts like culture and identity and made the point that such terms are often bandied about in a simplistic manner. Culture, he said, is a process not a thing and contemporary art (understood in its widest sense) often talks about identity in an essentialist and stereotypical way. My feeling is that because we want to believe that contemporary jewelry is a powerful agent that transforms social relationships, we tend to think about concepts like culture and identity in an active way, but it was nice to be kept on our toes.

The final session of the day was a round-table dealing with ‘The Role of Art and Design Academies in the Encouragement of Formal and Conceptual Experimentation in Jewellery.' There were six participants: Ramon Puig Cuyas, from the Escola Massana in Spain, Marlen Piloto, from the Academy of Fine Art in Cuba, Andres Fonseca, from UNAM in Mexico, Manon van Kouswijk, from the Rietveld Academy in The Netherlands, Iker Otriz, from the Centro Diseno in Mexico and Ana Paula de Campos from a Brazilian university (a late addition, and not listed in the program). Each person gave a short introduction about their particular ideas regarding the role of education in contemporary jewelry and then the session was opened to questions from the audience.

It was interesting to have the opportunity to learn more about the various institutions in Latin America that teach contemporary jewelry and it was also notable how similar the philosophies of education were. The round table, then, was partly an introduction to the infrastructure of jewelry education in Latin America and partly a commentary about how contemporary jewelry should be taught, the issues that are impacting on education. It was less about how teaching institutions encourage formal and conceptual experimentation. One conclusion was that schools should be in advance of society, creating students for what the world will need in the future, not what is taking place now. And there was general agreement that trying to create contemporary jewelry specialists in three years is not going to work very well.

April 15, 2010: Day Three

The third day of the Gray Area symposium had a late start, giving people time to recover after a late night learning to dance Mexican style. The theme, ‘Two Sides of the Same Coin: The State of Contemporary Jewellery’ was a continuation of day two and most of the presentations were artist talks. Claudia Betancourt and Ricardo Pulgar from Walka Studio in Chile kicked off with an interesting discussion of their practice and in particular their engagement with what people in Chile call ‘chilentity’ – and the materials that might help articulate an identity that is sometimes subconscious. Migration, they concluded, is being transformed and their story involved a change of scene to Melbourne and a cultural investigation informed by the dynamic of living away from home.

Sara O'Hana Sarah O’Hana, from the University of Manchester in England, was up next with a talk called ‘Crossing Boundaries,' in which she explored her decision to negotiate the frontier between engineering and contemporary jewelry and in particular her use of laser technology to create color effects on metal. While she presented an interesting tale of science and art – and, as a colleague noted, she managed to tame technology, avoiding the aesthetic trap that technical experimentation offers to the undisciplined jeweler – her session was missing a companion talk by Raul Ybarra on pre-Colombian metalsmithing techniques. This meant that a certain amount of context was missing and it was hard to see how her paper (quite technical, and a border crossing of art and science) linked to the larger themes of the conference.

Felieke van der Leest  Dutch jeweler Felieke van der Leest was a complete hit with her talk called ‘The Zoo of Life.' The story of her life and jewelry practice and notably her fascination with animals and the use of crochet techniques, elicited a number of spontaneous emotions from the audience: clapping when van der Leest showed her camouflaged deer, and 'ohhing' and 'ahhing' when she showed her pregnant polar bear with baby.

Nanna Melland Nanna Melland from Norway also gave an informative presentation of her work, not only in terms of explaining her practice, but also in terms of her transformation from traditional goldsmith to contemporary jewelry. Particularly impressive was how clearly she articulated the relationship between the conceptual scope of her pieces and the process of their manufacture. This, and her willingness to present ambivalent pieces of dubious beauty – ‘that force the viewer to contemplate matter that is neither social nor pleasing’ – drew strong positive reactions from the crowd.

Francisca Kweitel from Argentina and Estela Saez Vilanova from Spain and the Netherlands staged a dialogue that was in perfect keeping with the conference’s agenda as a kind of cultural mediation and encounter between Europe and Latin America. Sitting at the front of the stage, they took turns introducing themselves and their countries and cultures of origin. It was a great gimmick, perfectly tuned. Not only was it a great demonstration of the dynamic of exchange that underpins the Gray Area, but there was beautiful warmth generated by knowingly trading cultural stereotypes, of playing off against each other’s presentation. For example, Argentineans love to touch but only kiss on the cheek once, whereas the Dutch are much more physically reserved but they kiss on the cheek three times. There are 50 years of contemporary jewelry in the Netherlands, but in Argentina it is a much more recent tradition. In the Netherlands there is lots of government support, a major educational institution and a number of galleries that exhibit and sell contemporary jewelry, but in Argentina there is really nothing equivalent in the way of infrastructure.

Nuria Carulia, a pioneering contemporary jeweler from Colombia, gave a paper called ‘In Search of Identity: Contemporary Jewellery in Colombia and Its Contribution to the Craft Field,' in which she surveyed the state of the field and gave an important insight to the infrastructure – or more precisely, its lack – that supports contemporary jewelry in many Latin American countries. One of the most interesting things she talked about was Colombian contemporary jewelry’s responsibility to cultural preservation and regeneration. She was not the first person to talk about this responsibility that contemporary jewelry seems to assume in Latin America and it was fascinating to see such a distinctive difference between contemporary jewelry in Europe and this part of the world.

Carulia talked about the importance of filigree in Colombian jewelry and its transformation from an import of Spanish colonization to an important expression of Colombian culture and identity. This theme was picked up in Ximena Briceno’s talk, titled ‘A Trans-Pacific Technique: Filigree in Australia.' A two-part presentation in which Briceno discussed the history of filigree as an expression of complex cultural relations and trade and then her reinterpretation of filigree in her own jewelry in terms of her Australian context, Briceno’s talk was a good example of adornment’s complexity, of jewelry’s rich analytical possibilities, its historical importance.

Miquel Luciano Miguel Luciano, a Puerto Rican artist living in America, paralleled the complexity of Briceno’s historical presentation with a recent project he completed that drew on jewelry forms to unpack the flows and eddies of cultural identity and politics of being Puerto Rican. Pure Plantainum is a plantain coated with platinum, the fruit inside rotting while the thin skin of metal remains unblemished. Transformed into bling and modeled with attitude by a young Puerto Rican man, the photograph has achieved an iconic status. Luciano spun a smart story of the plantain’s cultural dimensions, and its implication for narratives of racism and narratives of cultural survival within Puerto Rican society.

The afternoon concluded with a roundtable tackling the ‘Management and Promotion of Contemporary Jewellery in Latin America.' Featuring Marina Malinelli Wells (Argentina), Ofelia Murrieta (Mexico), Mirla Fernandes (Brazil), Monica Benitez (Mexico) and Carolina Rojo (Spain), the session struck an odd note with its focus on silver jewelry that seemed to be aligned much more with mass production and conventional design. This was not contemporary jewelry in the sense that this term has been used during the rest of the Gray Area conference. I found myself wondering if I wasn’t experiencing a potential misunderstanding that is growing as the conference progresses. If this is considered contemporary jewelry in Latin America, then we are talking about a very different kind of practice to what is meant by that term in Europe and other parts of the world. (E.g. the work that the speakers presented in this round table would never be accepted for the Schmuck exhibition.) This would suggest that those of us not from this part of the world require more history in order to understand correctly, since the notion of contemporary jewelry we import with us is clearly inadequate as a framework to understand contemporary jewelry from Latin America. And if this isn’t contemporary jewelry, then I am left wondering why the round-table didn’t address the subject of how contemporary jewelry is presented and promoted in this part of the world – an important issue if we are to map the potential of the Gray Area as a moment of dialog and transformation.

April 17, 2010: Day Four

The final day of the Gray Area symposium kicked off with a talk by Jurgen Eickhoff from Galerie Spektrum in Munich. Titled ‘The Jewellery – The Gallery – The Future,' Eickhoff’s presentation was partly a history of the gallery he co-founded in 1981, an analysis of the problems and opportunities facing the dealer gallery system and in turn the infrastructure of contemporary jewelry. Dealer galleries, he noted, are a conduit between jeweler and audience and they support makers, develop audiences and provide connections to public galleries. Overall, Eickhoff’s prognosis was negative – or perhaps melancholic is a better description. While he described a definite growth in the quality (and quantity) of contemporary jewelry being produced, he also noted the aging population of both gallery owners and contemporary jewelry collectors and talked about a reduction in the applied arts programs and general commitment towards contemporary jewelry, on the part of museums and galleries.

Next up was Dutch art historian Liesbeth den Besten, who talked about ‘Private Passion: The Art of Collecting Wearable Art.' Explaining at the beginning that she hated the term ‘wearable art,' never used it, but this time fell under the spell of the rhythms of language, den Besten went on to give a wide-ranging presentation about the history and issues of collecting contemporary jewelry. Art jewelry, she said, is made by artists who use jewelry as a medium for artistic expression. It bears the signature of an individual maker and it liberates jewelry from private sentiment and ritual significance. Contemporary jewelry is a single aesthetic unity and this stops it from being able to be recycled or reset – as frequently happens with conventional or precious materials jewelry – since to do so would be to destroy an art work, to ruin an artistic statement. The rest of den Besten’s talk was a survey of different collectors and collecting institutions – including AJF, which, in her opinion, helps to link collectors with makers and to restore a dynamic to the contemporary jewelry scene that is much closer to the way it used to be in the pioneering days of collectors, such as AJF member Helen Drutt.

Christina Filipe Christina Filipe from Portugal introduced the history and activities of PIN, which was established in 2004, to promote contemporary jewelry. PIN is the Portuguese Association of Contemporary Jewelry and it is involved with promotion, training, educational events and residencies at both a national and international level. Filipe’s talk confirmed one of the big themes of day four: the feeling that taking action and working hard is the best way to address the relationship between Latin American and European jewelry. And it was inspiring to see how actively and enthusiastically organizations such as PIN and others tackle issues like the lack of infrastructure or the paucity of contact between their local jewelry communities and the rest of the world, often with very few resources. It is clear that you can achieve a great deal if you set up an organization and create events and Portuguese contemporary jewelry is more widely recognized because of PIN’s activities. It isn’t necessarily clear what difference such activities make in the long term (PIN has only been going for six years) but it certainly can’t but help by opening up channels of communication between Portugal and the rest of the world.

Jose Manuel Springer, Andres Fonseca, Andrea Wagner, Valeria Vallarta The round-table, titled ‘Dialogues of the Gray Area,’ included Valeria Vallarta (one of the conference organizers and co-curator of the Walking the Gray Area exhibition), Jose Manuel Springer (Mexico), Andrea Wagner (The Netherlands, and co-curator of the Walking the Gray Area exhibition), Carolina Hornauer (Chile), Hanna Hedman (Sweden), Andrés Fonseca (Mexico-Colombia), Ineke Herkens (The Netherlands) and Miguel Luciano (Puerto Rico). The purpose of the session was to explore the dynamics of cultural mediation and exchange that informed the Walking the Gray Area exhibition, in which Latin American and European jewelers were paired and asked to dialogue with each other on the Gray Area blog. Like most of the round tables, the opportunity was lost under a series of too-long presentations that swallowed up the time available for actual dialogue. This was more bitter than usual because the interactions that were in some cases presented in painstaking detail were available for reading/viewing on the blog and the audience received information and images that they were going to see again that evening at the opening of the exhibition. Still, it was interesting to hear of both successful and unsuccessful interactions between artists and to get a greater sense of the project from the perspective of the curators.

Ricardo Domingo ‘In Search of the Missing DNA: From Contemporaneity to Commercialization’ was a talk given by Ricardo Domingo, a jewelry maker and marketer from Spain. This was a bemusing and entertaining talk, with Domingo being an enthusiastic presenter (as one colleague noted to me afterwards, it was as though he was dancing) and offering a useful reminder that branding is a critical aspect of success for any jeweler – whether in the world of design or conventional jewelry, or at the high end of the contemporary jewelry scene. The almost audible groans of the audience as Domingo trotted out some pretty crass examples of design and marketing at the beginning of his talk gave way to (a grudging?) respect as he began to speak about contemporary jewelry and even though some of his suggestions of branding techniques would not work for contemporary jewelry, it did provocatively suggest that marketing strategies might be able to bring contemporary jewelry into better contact with its audience and left me wondering why we don’t act more like marketers in how we approach our field. Probably the most profound piece of advice came from Domingo’s father, who told him: 'Do whatever you want, but be a man of your time.'

Ricardo Pulgar, Benjamin Lignel, Martha Camargo Lawrance, Christina Filipe The final session was another round table, called ‘The Positioning of Jewellery in a Truly Global Context.' The audience, thinned by the attrition of conference fatigue, were treated to a discussion between five panelists: Christina Filipe (Portugal) Benjamin Lignel (France) Ricardo Pulgar (Chile) Mirla Fernandez (Brazil) and Damian Skinner (myself). The session was thrown open to questions from the audience and the result was an interesting grappling with the larger themes of the Gray Area conference. How do you address the imbalance of power between Europe and Latin America? Who defines what contemporary jewelry is? What is the difference between an individual experience and a national experience in terms of globalization? What is required to ensure Latin America is represented at a global level? Sometimes spirited, always passionate and warm, it was a suitable ending to four days of intense encounters and stimulating exchange.

New York, New York! SOFA NY 2010
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