Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).
For me, Otto Künzli’s work is the most perfect exemplar of the critical and conceptual nature of contemporary jewelry—what I would call its self-reflexive quality. By this I mean the way contemporary jewelry objects and practices are intended to actively grapple with the conditions and circumstances in which contemporary jewelry takes place. In general, contemporary jewelers work in a critical or conscious relationship to the history of the practice and to the wider field of jewelry and adornment. Recently, when I was thinking about how to define contemporary jewelry in a text, it became obvious that Künzli’s work was the perfect choice through which I could clearly articulate this self-reflexive tendency.
For someone who is so well known (professor at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts, perhaps the most prestigious jewelry course in the world; widely cited by other jewelers and writers as a key figure in contemporary jewelry; frequent international traveler, instructor, and lecturer, etc.), it is curiously hard to get a fix on Künzli’s body of work. He turns up in lots of books, but it is always a partial representation and usually tied to the period of the late 1970s and early 1980s when, if you’re writing a history, the conceptual trend in contemporary jewelry really takes off. So, my interest in this exhibition is partly about my desire to see a lot of Künzli’s work and get an impression of his practice over four decades, and partly because I am deeply interested to see how his jewelry is tied to this moment. Now that the desire to see contemporary jewelry as a form of art (all about the maker and the object) is being seriously challenged by theoretical frameworks that put the emphasis on the wearer/user (the kind of arguments found in critical design, for example), what does Künzli’s jewelry have to tell us? To state it baldly, I want to know if this exhibition will give us a Künzli for our time or a Künzli oriented to the heyday of conceptual and expressionist art jewelry.
The at-once plainly and portentously named Otto Künzli. The Exhibition is located in the temporary space of Die Neue Sammlung, a concrete-floored, plywood-walled rectangular box with heating ducts and fluorescent lights on the ceiling. The work is displayed in custom board vitrines with clear acrylic tops. Each vitrine is identified by a stenciled number on the front that corresponds to the list of works on the handout you collect by the door. The effect is elegantly industrial. Everyday materials are immaculately assembled with the rigor Künzli applies to his jewelry and are perfectly in keeping with the character of the gallery space. Some cases have acrylic cubes that rise above the plinth so jewelry can be suspended from or placed on top of the box underneath, and the plinths/vitrines are also in different sizes. They cluster in the space, forming aisles that allow you to perambulate through the gallery, view the work from different sides, and most commonly, look down on objects located in shallow cavities in the vitrines.
Outside the cases, framed photographs of the Beauty Gallery series (1984) hang along one wall, and The New Flag (1992), a fabric banner with the “mutant Mickey Mouse” logo hangs on the opposite wall. Repeated on the end wall, in large black letters on white, is the phrase “Otto Künzli. Die Austellung.” Once I added together the lack of wall text and caption labels (apart from what is on the handout) and the framed exhibition posters (I assume) available for sale near the door, I found myself thinking that the overall impression is curiously more like a luxury goods concept store than a museum gallery. (I’ll return to this observation later.)
While this is a retrospective exhibition, it isn’t structured by chronology. Instead—and I had to guess this in the absence of any curatorial guidance via wall texts or thematic titles—it seems that objects and projects are clustered together because they have some kind of sympathy or relationship according to Künzli, their maker, now, in the moment of assembling the exhibition. Objects from different periods jostle against each other, and new relationships are established. It’s by no means a bad strategy and can promise to reveal new dimensions of old favorites, but it tends to work best when these new narratives overlay existing ones. And, this exhibition seems almost hostile to the idea that viewers should be able to treat these objects art historically, by which I mean to understand when they were made and how they relate to each other as a series of investigations unfolding within the framework of a single maker’s work.
Here’s my first gripe about the labels and wall texts in this exhibition. One group of vitrines is labeled 70, 59, 21, and 3. Why, then, does the handout organize the captions in numerical sequence from 1 to 80? You have to actively search the list to find 3, then 21, then on the other side of the handout, 59 and 70. Why not use a method of organization that would place this information next to each other, and make it easy for the viewer to use? Sure, I can appreciate that as someone writing a review, my desire for names and dates and materials might be greater than many other viewers, but I can’t imagine I am the only person who would be interested to know when something was made, what it is made of, or how Künzli decided to name it.
And here’s my second gripe, which I think is the more important. At no point are we told anything about what this exhibition is intended to do, or what the curator(s) find most interesting about Künzli’s work, and thus what they want this exhibition to emphasize or explore. We’re not even told if there is a curator. (A cryptic statement in the handout says the exhibition “is being realized in close cooperation with the artist.” Later, I hear from a colleague that in Otto Künzli. The Book, the artist is mentioned as the author of the exhibition’s concept, and thus presumably the curator.) There is no wall text in the gallery. This statement from the exhibition handout is the closest thing I could find to some kind of guide to what the show is up to:
Otto Künzli’s works are based on complex reflection, (and) conceptual and visual imagination. The result: objects with a clear, minimalist appearance, captivatingly crafted to perfection, and highly visible— jewelry that adorns and at the same time possesses an autonomous aesthetic status of its own.
What’s missing here is Otto Künzli. The Labels & Wall Text.
(I’m conscious of the fact that this exhibition is framed by the presence of Otto Künzli. The Book, the hefty black volume published by Arnoldsche and launched at the same time. And yet, while these two things are both intended to present Künzli’s jewelry, they aren’t related in any immediate way. The book, in other words, is not a catalogue for the exhibition or a form of wall text and labels, and looking around, it isn’t used in that fashion by any of the audience. There isn’t even a copy you can flick through in the gallery space. As a result, the book has no impact on the exhibition experience, apart from the fact that I imagine many visitors purchasing the book in anticipation of encountering Künzli’s jewelry in this different format.)
At this point, I want to split this review into two, one part focusing on the work itself, and the other on the exhibition, as this is what I found myself doing as I moved through the space. I want to do it, also, because I don’t feel the same about both things. And what I learned from the jewelry itself has implications for what I think about the exhibition. As a result, it makes sense to take them one at a time.
Let’s start with the work. I am extremely pleased I made the pilgrimage to Munich during Schmuck week to see these objects gathered in one place. I knew Künzli was good, but I didn’t count on the knockout effect of seeing his practice as a coherent project and being able to take the measure of it. What is consistent across all his work is the willingness to follow the concept into whatever territory is required to fully realize the idea. Here you can see why Künzli is, I think rightly, regarded as one of the best contemporary jewelers, period. He is absolutely rigorous and uncompromising in his process and absolutely committed to pushing ideas well past the point where many of us would stop. For example, there is a sequence of slides created in 1985 that relate to the Gold Makes Blind bangle (1980). A photograph of the piece kicks off a sequence that dematerializes the work into the realm of image and idea, and then rematerializes it by making one of the slides from gold. The questions of value and substitutions of the original Gold Makes Blind find witty and sophisticated expression in a different format that amplifies and extends the first work. Künzli uses real gold because that is what is required, and he pushes the idea, reworking the territory until something new emerges. While this commitment and rigor doesn’t mean that everything he makes is equally good or equally significant (the jeweler can’t control many of the factors that result in such judgments), Künzli is never willing to accept anything less than total fidelity to the concept and its realization as a material object.
Before I saw the exhibition, a colleague told me that he thought Künzli was actually a 2D artist working in 3D. I think there is something really interesting in that observation. It captures the way Künzli is able to work the territory of the symbol as an icon, effectively a kind of graphic symbol realized in three dimensions. This is why the exhibition poster is so excellent. The red mutant Mickey Mouse glares at us like a malevolent vision of the future, a sign of protest or danger or rebellion, with its roots in graphic agitation. (You can imagine it as a stencil left on the streets at night with an unsettling ambiguity of meaning.) This is an effect intensified by the display of the exhibition, which flattens everything behind acrylic so we look down on the work, in plan, as though it has already been transformed into an image.
Künzli’s The Big American Neckpiece (1986) is made of signs or commodity icons, cut out of steel, turned into a necklace by being strung on a cord, and then made image again through the vitrine display. In UFO (Unidentified Found Objects) (1992), the artist creates an American flag from rusty iron fragments. It is unclear to me if UFO is made from found pieces Künzli has managed to assemble into its suggestive configuration or if he has intervened, but the result is both beautiful and meaningful and so nicely contextualized as “potential pendants.” Engagement with the United States, often referred to as a society of signs, in a number of these works is obviously an incredibly fertile moment for Künzli. Sensitive to the flows of culture and the ambiguous politics of social signs, he demonstrates the ways that a jeweler, with high seriousness, can create jewels that resist easy stereotyping as to sentiment.
At its best, Künzli’s work slips through cracks, finds ways to lever open both our understanding and expectations of jewelry and of social and cultural formations. It is a investigative practice in two senses: in terms of Künzli’s willingness to put into question the conditions of possibility in which contemporary jewelry exists; and through his engagement with history, the body, society, politics, and the world beyond jewelry. This jewelry seeks to get involved and grapple with dynamics or subjects that matter. Change (2003 onwards) is a series of pendants made from silver and gold coins that have been filed down so they become plain, unadorned disks. A hole drilled in the top makes them pendants. Each is stamped or engraved with the number 8. (In Italian, eight is otto, and so Künzli uses this number as a signature.) Eradicating the evidence of their past life, of the marks that make them valuable or functional within a system of exchange, is so simple, and yet smart in that it makes these pendants vibrate between use and non-use and two different worlds of value and meaning—while they are now void money, they have become real contemporary jewelry. In a witty gesture that is typical of Künzli, it is a number (8 as Künzli’s signature) that continues to indicate and guarantee their status as currency.
And now to the exhibition, which in direct contrast to what I think of the work, is quite disappointing. As a viewer with a couple of purposes—to educate myself and to review the exhibition for AJF—I find the lack of text, and through this, the lack of curatorial guidance to significantly undermine everything that seems most important about the work. The problem here is that this exhibition puts all the weight onto what the handout calls the “autonomous aesthetic status” of Künzli’s jewelry, and it underplays these objects as an investigation of value or of jewelry’s place in a wider system of signs. Sure, some of this is because the objects are sealed off by the vitrine, but it’s also because they are sealed off by Künzli’s own arrangement of his body of work according to formal and conceptual typologies that remain opaque to viewers, or at least to this viewer. What makes these objects and practices live in the culture is denied here. In this context, gold becomes a material he uses sometimes, in various ways and combinations, rather than a sign of jewelry’s historical origins or as a way to push the critique of preciousness or as the key to Künzli’s investigation of systems of value precisely because it is a material with economic and political implications in the world beyond the gallery space.
Framed by the wrong notion that objects can speak for themselves, Künzli’s jewelry, which is so alert to subtleties and nuances of wider cultural flows, becomes strangely inert. One example is my encounter with Necklace (1985–86) made from 48 used wedding rings. This work has assumed such significant dimensions in the rhetoric and narratives of the field. I remember a jeweler telling me that she could never wear such a necklace, as it is so loaded by the tragic origins and sadness of people’s failed relationships. And indeed, Necklace is hardly ever reproduced as an image, but it is passed on by word of mouth and hearsay, like legends around the contemporary jewelry campfire. It is hard to imagine a better example of the self-reflexive practice of the contemporary jeweler. Playing in the realm of other jewelry, Künzli performs a kind of alchemy, turning something stereotyped into something profound. And yet, apart from the slightest information in the materials section of the handout—that the work is made of 48 used wedding rings (and admittedly, “used” is a punchy adjective)— we are told nothing about the circumstances of the work that are so critical to its meaning. Unless you pay close attention and are previously informed, Necklace is just a chain of gold rings of different sizes. How much more profound this work becomes when the viewer is allowed into the circumstances of production, the way Künzli acquired these rings, and the shreds of narrative and emotion that came with them.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed that this exhibition doesn’t have the same ambition and rigor as the work that is its subject. And that, I think, is a real missed opportunity, especially in a moment when some really interesting discussions are taking place about what contemporary jewelry is going to become, and particularly, what options are available to move beyond putting all the emphasis on contemporary jewelry as autonomous objects of artistic expression. Künzli: the curator. serves up an installation rather than a critical and expansive retrospective exhibition that would engage with his production over the past four decades and be informed by the particular opportunities and challenges of curating contemporary craft or design rather than contemporary art.
I can see different ways to argue this. After all, Künzli is a professor at an art academy, and his work fits quite readily into the framework of fine art in many ways. But I think this self-referencing or instrospective approach is, in this instance, a negative factor. To return to my comment earlier about the effect of the exhibition being somewhat like a high-end concept store for luxury goods, the show has the effect of playing up the hermetic and too-slick potential of Künzli’s work with icons. Stripped of their worldly connections—precisely what the awkward presence of the wearer or user could offer access to—Künzli’s signs run the risk of becoming a brand: perfect, sophisticated, and ultimately safe. And then there is the exhibition’s location at Schmuck and presence within the field of contemporary jewelry. Both circumstances have, not unfairly, attracted the criticism of being insular and self-referencing, hermetically sealed from anything that matters beyond what contemporary jewelry sees as business as usual. It concerns me that players of this caliber—a jeweler at the top of his game; an institution that sees itself as a world leader—can’t seem to escape the pull of the values and beliefs that hold contemporary jewelry in thrall. It worries me that the curatorial responsibilities of the museum don’t seem to have been taken seriously, a decision that, in this instance, has significant consequences.
After seeing this show, I’d say the answer to my question about Künzli and his time is that his work is both “contemporary” and “jewelry.” As well as being a most perfect model of conceptual jewelry and thus a great definition of what makes contemporary jewelry a unique kind of visual art practice, the exhibition makes me realize how engaged Künzli’s work is, and how it can be an inspiring model for questions around the jewelry side of the equation. But, this is wrong— the work reveals this to me, but the exhibition does not. And so, while Künzli’s practice answers my question, this exhibition, this event, emphasizes all the wrong things. It places all the emphasis on Künzli as an artist and not on the issues of engagement that would make him the jeweler for our times that he should be