Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of AJF and California College of the Arts.
Conferences are strange creatures. They lure you into the depths and then drown you in overstimulation. And this conference had all of the allure – the presence of some of the best thinkers in the field – and all of the overstimulation, tempered somewhat by a farmyard location and a leisurely pace. I have complained about the location of conferences in the past and as I arrived in Zimmerhof for Zimmerhof 2012: The Public and Private Lives of Jewellery (June 7-10, 2012) I wondered if a barn with a courtyard was really the appropriate place to discuss contemporary jewelry. Would this site somehow diminish the importance of the subject matter? Well, it turns out that while it did take place in a barn, the barn belonged to a castle, a fact that added a certain aristocratic charm and legitimacy to the event. Plus, I have to say that sitting around picnic tables chatting and moving at the pace of the farmyard, especially over lunch and dinner, really helped to digest the talks. Now I am convinced that this is a wonderful place to hold a conference.
Zimmerhof is a tiny town along the train line between Stuttgart and Mannheim in Germany. Yvonne von Rachnitz, along with Ulrich Haass and Ursula Woerner, runs the 44-year-old Zimmerhof organization that puts on this annual conference. Yvonne’s family owns the castle, mentioned earlier and the barn where the event takes place. Before this year I had not heard of Zimmerhof because it mainly served the German community and was conducted in German. But a year or so ago the organizers decided to change the language, first to a combination of German and English and then this year, to do the entire conference in English. This created certain problems for many of the speakers and those of the audience who were not native English speakers and even I had a hard time understanding some of them. However, the change of language and the addition of an international audience probably breathed some new life into the event.
Each year someone new is asked to arrange the content of the conference and this year La Garantie volunteered. La Garantie is a French non-profit organization. According to their website, their mission ‘is to promote jewelry outside its primary audience of specialists. We aim to increase its visibility, and encourage confrontations with amateurs and specialists alike, to reflect and compare the different “types” of jewellery, from the traditional to the post-disciplinary through various approaches: historical contextualisation, the confrontation of current practices, the promotion and critical analysis of contemporary trends.’ They also want to compile an archive of texts on jewelry and have participated in a number of projects to further this goal. Zimmerhof gave them the opportunity to do this again and in time the texts from the conference will be available. La Garantie has initiated a number of projects but probably the best-known of them is a traveling exhibition of contemporary French jewelers called Also Known As Jewellery*. It was organized by Benjamin Lignel and Christian Alandete and presented in Paris, London, Rome, San Francisco and Munich, as well as in Idar-Oberstein, Germany and Falkenberg, Sweden. It was accompanied by a bilingual catalog. (You can read a review of this publication on the AJF website.)
Benjamin Lignel was the MC for the conference and in his new bearded guise he set just the right tone and did a wonderful job. Brune Boyer and Emmanuel Lacoste worked with Lignel to organize the content of the conference and it was very well conceived. The title was ‘The public and private lives of jewellery’ and the program investigated the many places where jewelry lives. Their hope was to tease out the challenges and issues that have come up around jewelry practices and especially those that deal with the conflicts raised between the private and the public. The first full day was spent on the different public spaces – the museum, the street, the pages of the book, collector wearing jewelry and so on – and the last full day on private or intimate places – the tattoo, pilgrim badges, collectors drawers and so on. By having the lecturers describe the various ways in which we encounter jewelry the program questioned assumptions and clarified answers.
The highlight of the conference for me was the talk by Christoph Zellweger, a Swiss artist, called ‘Bodies as Jewels.’ His presentation took place on the day dedicated to the public lives of jewelry, but he seemed to best address the overall theme of issues raised between the public and intimate spaces. I had seen his work but didn’t really know anything about the ideas behind it. His jewelry practice includes studying with a cosmetic surgeon and questioning the ways in which medical alterations affect identity. In the end, he wondered if the medical interventions would one day replace the concept of jewelry as a way to improve our appearance. After all, now there are more people having plastic surgery than buying contemporary jewelry. He was impressive in his thinking and funny in his delivery but the most interesting aspect for me was his confidence to investigate issues and find a variety of ways to express his answers. He had studied as a goldsmith and learned his craft well and then went out of the contemporary jewelry circle and engaged with the practice of plastic surgery and ideas of designing the body. This connects jewelry with another field of practice and helps to place it in a worldly context. He also doesn’t restrict his practice to making jewelry but allows himself to do installations and objects as well. In addition he is very clear that each of these needs to be shown in different locations – a jewelry gallery, a museum and an independent space. Altogether he is an enlightened jewelry being.
Other fascinating talks were by two lecturers who were not jewelers. One was Cecile Bulte, an art historian who described the uses of late medieval pilgrim badges and house ornaments with sexual imagery. I am still somewhat unclear about why they carried sexually explicit images. However it was a fascinating notion to consider. The church making sex badges . . . what the heck? I guess the phallus still carried a strong protective vibe that kept the pilgrims safe on their journey. I have to admit though, that I was a bit disappointed that there was a lack of an explanation about why the practice of wearing the sex badges stopped around the time that the sexually explicit images were found on houses. Perhaps only a jeweler would be interested in these questions. The other lecturer was Philippe Liotard, a sociologist. His description of the cultural implications of body modification and the ethical choices and politics of choosing to tattoo, pierce and implant the body were fascinating. Here is a group of people who make public displays of their bodies through a very intimate act. It takes radical rage and concentrates it into the one thing we all have ultimate control over — our bodies. Very powerful. No wonder the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such a big hit. How did does body modification relate to contemporary art jewelry? I don’t know if it does, except as an example of an extreme. It was refreshing to have information from these two fields relating to the topic of jewelry. Both lecturers spoke on the day reserved for intimate discussions.
Of the twelve speakers — Namita Wiggers (United States), Cristina Filipe (Portugal), Christoph Zellweger (Switzerland), Susan Pietzsch (Germany), Alena Alexandrova (Netherlands), Christian Hoedl (Germany), Carole Deltenre (France), Cecile Bulte (France), Pascale Gallien (France), Alexandre Bardin (France), Philippe Liotard (France) and Emmanuel Lacoste (France) — half were French. It was a rare opportunity to hear from this country in more depth, which I enjoyed, but it also showed certain cultural inclinations. There was a definite drift towards numerous discussions related to the body and sex. All of the lectures, except the one by the collector Pascale Gallien, dealt with jewelry with a sexual focus: casting brooches from a vulva, wearing pilgrim sex badges, transgender film making, body modification and a live tattoo performance. It seems the French really do concentrate on sex!
The conference overlooked the opportunity for a very important inquiry in the public realm. No one from the marketplace participated: no dealer gallery and no representative of Internet marketing or sales were presenters. The field seems to be baffled by the lack of marketplace success and this would have been an opportunity to discuss it in the context of the other ways we bump into jewelry in public. It could have been informative to examine the ways in which jewelry is displayed and discussed in every space, from the small clothing store array to the museum shop to the full-on sparse white cube gallery send-up. These places are where jewelry is most often encountered in the everyday real world. Also, it is probably even more likely to be seen in a virtual space in a photographed format on the Internet. Since these two public spaces are so obvious, perhaps the planners decided to move on to more academically satisfying topics. But I think it would have grounded the conference in one of the most pressing and least understood realms of the field.
My lasting memories about the conference will probably revolve around the courtyard and the vegetarian meals served by the students from the Pforzheim culinary academy. The food and the setting were simple. The conversations were interwoven with thoughts of table companions and lecturers (often the same person). I will remember meeting some excellent people whom I hope I will see again. I was lured in by the program, but I was seduced by the people.