Iris Eichenberg in Conversation

After graduating from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam in 1994, Iris Eichenberg worked as an independent artist and art educator, as well as a part-time curator. She began teaching jewelry in 1996 at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and has given numerous workshops at various art academies in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Eichenberg became Head of the Jewelry Department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in 2000, a position she held until accepting an appointment as Artist in Residence and Head of the Metalsmithing Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 2007. Eichenberg has received numerous awards including the Artist Stimulation Award from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts in 2000, the Herbert Hofmann Prize (Schmuckszene Munich, 1999) the Gerrit Rietveld Academy Award (1994) and residencies at The European Ceramic Center in Den Bosch, the Netherlands, in 1999 and 2001.

Gabriel Craig: I was wondering if I might start by laying out the premise for this interview. In my perception, European jewelry is pretty prevalent in the United States now and its influence on art jewelry practice continues to grow. So for myself, as an American maker and writer, trained in America, and falling in a lineage of quintessentially American metalsmiths I find myself frequently grappling with issues of identity, nationalism and authenticity. Beyond my own interests though, there’s much to gain from a trans-Atlantic dialogue between America and Europe. Valeria Vallarta Siemelink and the Grey Area Symposium in 2010 is proof of that. I think that dialogue is relevant not only to makers, but also to collectors and the critical discourse of the field in general (not to mention AJF). This is where you come in. As an incredibly respected maker internationally, who has spent time making and teaching in both America and Europe, I’m hoping to wheedle some insights from you about some of the differences you perceive, but also some of the similarities. And maybe how you view the exchange that’s happening now and the nature of that exchange. I don’t know exactly where to start, but that is the premise.

Iris Eichenberg: I don’t know where to start either but we’ll figure it out. I think when that whole discussion started, or from what I can see in the five years that I have been here, there is a sort of strange change that has taken place, where it is not just the interest of Americans in European jewelry – in Dutch and German jewelry basically – but I see more and more an interest the other way around. I spoke with some students about it and took them to the Netherlands. They stayed for three weeks and they had, I think, twenty studio visits.

These were students from Cranbrook?

Students from Cranbrook who basically met all of my colleagues in Amsterdam. And the interesting thing was that they said that they had a certain idea of what Dutch jewelry was and it looked like one big forest, all the same. By meeting all these individuals and being more invested in different pieces of work – or different bodies of work – it was apparent, they said, ‘oh my god, it’s all so different.’ But from a distance it’s like how long do you need to stand in a forest before you understand that there are very different trees? You have to invest in standing there and looking. But, I think that the crossover in that traveling has created interest. I mean I have a waiting list of people who want to come to Cranbrook as visitors because they are interested in how American students think and work. The experience they [the European students and makers] have with people who have, like you, a really solid undergrad in metals, I wish it could be like both of those worlds. I think Americans are very verbal in talking about their work and Europeans are not good at talking about their work, but I find their work often more interesting, it speaks without explaining itself. I wish that in Europe people would have more of a technical foundation in undergrad because I love the fact that a lot of people here have unbelievable expertise and really solid foundations.

That’s not the case in Europe?

At the Rietveld Academy where students come in and have no technical background, they learn while they go along. I think you learn techniques differently because you need them and then the investment in learning them is very different. But it’s always this thing, do you think through techniques or do you have a concept and you make use of the technique? To balance that out is a constant dance. I wish students here would have learned to abstract things, to translate their ideas. They can be so literal in their work it is often an illustration instead of conveying a hidden narrative, or using a narrative as a guideline but not illustrating it and taking the risk of being misunderstood. I think that if you’re always afraid of being misunderstood your work is so unbelievably clear that there’s nothing left for imagination.

Is that reflective of American culture? I think that directness is something that I see as an attribute of American culture.

No, that’s the opposite because American culture is so polite and far more indirect in saying things, while Dutch people especially are really sort of straightforward and direct in things.

How do you account for that flip-flop in the work, where European work might be lighter and less direct and American work might be really direct?

I don’t think that European work is lighter. I think that it is much heavier in terms of content or subject matter, but maybe that’s something I would like to think of or talk about. How do you learn to trust a subconscious guideline? What kind of experiences do you have that help you develop and learn to trust your intuition? What goes into that? And that is something that I try to teach students; to get inside in their intuition, to trust it, but to have a check and balance system, so that they can say, ‘okay, my intuition is this, this is what I actually want to convey, is it getting close to that or not?’ and not hide behind technical solutions and the safety of them.

It’s always the safety of the what and how instead of the why. I dream about how it would be if people who are very skilled could just let go. At the Reitveld there was an interesting thing when I studied there. Fifty percent of the people went to Schoonhoven – which is a really solid technical education. I mean, as solid as in America. And the other fifty percent had never experienced a technical education. It took them an equal amount of time – two to three years – to untrain, to decondition. All of these people with a technical background, who were making a piece about a relationship let’s say, thought immediately of hinges and they had ten different ways of illustrating that relationship. People who didn’t have the technical background had clear ideas, but struggled with the realization of their ideas. So they were both handicapped, but in different ways. Learning is dealing with the handicap. Either you are too informed or not informed at all. When is there ever the right balance of informedness? I am sometimes astonished with students here, how young people make work as if they’re sixty-five!

Unpack that for me. What does that mean?

If you look at it, it looks as if they’ve stolen it from a museum.

They’re almost too dependent on existing influences? Or there is not the vitality you would expect of a young person?

I wish they would look around more. There is a nostalgic way of making things. And my work looks as if it is from the last century, but...

Some pieces more than others. The practice of metalsmithing and jewelry making is a romantic thing.

Yeah, but I can’t accept that. It must be possible to make work as a blacksmith which goes beyond guns, roses and doodles. You can make any form, so why is it that makers get sucked into a certain language

What role does lineage play then? Should people see themselves in a continuum, or should they free themselves from that? Or try to ignore their lineage even?

I don’t think you could ever free yourself completely. I’ve discussed it so often with people who say, ‘Oh my god, if everyone does that metal is dead!’ or ‘No techniques, nobody works with gold anymore!’ You know what, let’s just everyone work with plastic and the consequence will be that people run and work with gold again because it works in circles. You should never be afraid that something is dead. It will be revived – for different reasons – but the expertise should somehow stay in the world. I think that is something you have to guide.

With the proliferation of knowledge through the internet and books, no technique is going to die the same way that it did in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Now it is all committed to paper and very freely available.

Even then you had an oral culture and people would talk about things in a different way. The speed with which things changed is about one percent of how fast things change now. Things go so fast. I think there was more protection of knowledge then – passing things onto a son – it was more of an oral culture.

So much less freedom, I think, in terms of the acceptable outcomes in a master- apprentice or oral tradition.

Having a good enemy also works very well. In Germany, you learn a profession by working for somebody for a few years, then you can get your master. There is always a struggle in deciding how long should you stay with a teacher. There is a moment where you need to move on.

I think it depends very much on the person and what their interests are. We have in America the entire commercial jewelry industry . . .

Gabriel, tell me – ‘we in America’ – 380 million people!

In America – forget we – there is a commercial jewelry industry. And there still are those lineages of oral tradition – of things being passed from master to apprentice. There are still those pockets of knowledge that exist and are transmitted in that way.

But why are you so interested in it? What is your sentimental notion about that? Because you are a very romantic guy.

Yeah, that’s true. What is my interest in what exactly?

The crafts, the rituals going along with it, the cult. You’re nearly protecting a sort of cult. Is that for the sake of the cult or the sake of the work?

I think my interest is in understanding my place in the world and understanding the community that I am part of, or a sense of belonging.

But you also create that community. So what is your responsibility to that?

I am not sure I follow.

Look, there is also a community, and if you feed into a certain kind of nostalgia and if you maintain a certain discourse you also have a responsibility for that field to transition into the twenty-first century without insulating it in a layer of nostalgia.

Feel free to disagree, but I think that the nostalgia helps craft relate to a broader audience.

That’s going on your knees for a broader audience. Even without nostalgia, the physicality of craft or the way it connects to the body takes care of that broader audience itself. You don’t need to romanticize it.

That’s true, but also trying to understand craft as a counterculture movement that resists mass production or overconsumption, the nostalgia provides a bridge and an appeal to people who don’t want to participate in consumerism.

You would call it a bridge? I would call it mayonnaise and ketchup dip. It’s as if you put a sauce on the work, but it can take care of itself. I am so fed up with this minority complex. And always people start talking about craft from a perspective of excusing themselves, making use of nostalgia is part of that. If you want to be engaged in community you don’t play the nostalgia card.

I see where you’re coming from and I appreciate it, but . . .

There is also a way of making use of craft and design and implementing it in society without nostalgia. There are a lot of daily, very down-to-earth things that can be addressed with craft. And there is no, NO nostalgia necessary

I agree. In my recent work Forging Fanfare, I think I set out to recognize that nostalgia and call it nostalgia, and say, ‘this kind of nostalgia is bogus, but it is part of my identity.’ Owning that allows you to move past it. I think maybe your objection is that it handicaps. But I think that there is a way to use anything . . .

Embrace it, hug it, then move on.

I think I’m onboard with that. If you can’t get past any specific attribute then it becomes a problem.

As I say embrace it, use it, be aware of it and know how to direct it.

Maybe it’s that awareness that allows you to manipulate it.

And that’s what I think, because there are so many things in American craft that, I just think, take themselves too seriously. To be precise, I mean the protectiveness of technical solutions which have lost relevance, context or else their voice in a changing world.

Does that nostalgia exist in European craft and jewelry?

That’s so strange because Europe is the old world where things are old, very old. So why is it that America is so invested in nostalgia when nothing gets older than twenty years?

We’re self- conscious? (laughing) We want people to like us!

Maybe it’s also a way of shaping an identity. The Germans here are more German than in Germany. The way people have invested in craft here – those techniques come from Europe. It’s a sort of a time capsule.

I’ve always thought that – and please dispel this if it’s a myth – the break from a really traditional goldsmithing education and the rigidity of that system started a completely new tradition where that nostalgia wasn’t important. Very intentionally it was disowned and a new lineage and tradition was started. Could that explain why nostalgia isn’t as important in Europe as it is in America?

It is important. Of course it is important, but it comes differently into practice. People are very precise about guarding certain qualities and hierarchies. Maybe it’s not nostalgia, but sentimentality. Just before the interview we were talking about how much my taste has changed after living in America for five years, how differently I see certain things. Now I can fall in love with things that a few years ago I would’ve kicked out of the house. Now I’m invested in something for what it is in a certain context. It makes my world larger to be able to see things differently. If I guest-teach at another institution I will sometimes ask students, ‘what’s the first thing you want people to think when they first encounter your work?’ Students still say, ‘I want them to go, WOW! How is this made?’ And it should not stop there.

Do you think that students outgrow that at a certain point in their career though? What you’re describing is a reaction that reflects where they’re at. That’s what they would want to know when they saw a piece – how is that made? Maybe in ten or fifteen years that question won’t be so important.

Some. Some will move on and some will always be interested in having mastered a piece technically, but will never be able to figure it out – and I think you can make really good work if you are really, really skilled. You can create a beauty which indeed leaves people in awe, but that’s an event. That is something that happens to you as a viewer.

I love that, ‘that’s an event.’ That’s a really great way to describe that phenomenon.

It’s not that you think, ‘what is that?’ and you pull it apart and you analyze it. You own it and you open a drawer and you put it in, you put it away. Is it something that will challenge you each day? No. Then again non-technically focused work is the way it is and you have an encounter with the piece of work today that can be different in ten years. And it can be a piece which is not at all about content or narrative, but has just captured the energy in the process of making. I think trust that one beautiful brush stroke – if it comes with expertise – it’s all that is needed.

At Cranbrook you have a lot of American students and a lot of students that are coming from Europe to study with you here. And also a lot of your American students, you’ve sent to study in Europe. How do you see that traveling and exchange informing the work.

It extends horizons. All these people that come here from Europe are so grateful to have that time at Cranbrook that they basically open their life and their doors to whoever wants to come and visit. You can talk endlessly about America, but I also want to educate Europeans that America is everything you think it is, but also one-hundred and fifty things more. There are things you think are true, from a European perspective, but if you encounter them here they unpack totally differently.

Are you talking about stereotypes of Americans in Europe?

Yes, stereotypes and the role they can play. The only way to learn about America is to be here for a while and that works really, really great with everyone who comes here. I’ve never had the feeling that someone could stick to their pre-conceived notions of America. They all had to go back and say, ‘listen, it’s something totally different.’ But also, students I take to Europe who might have said, ‘this is very much German work or Dutch work,’ once they encounter those people, and see the scene and see the diversity – it’s learning to see.

I’m going to call myself out here. I’m often guilty of trying to put a box around something as a strategy to understand it – like this is German work and this is Dutch work.

Just imagine how much there is to gain if you would just get out of your boxes.

Intellectually I know that it’s bogus.

I’ve taught in China, in India, in America and the subject matter – what people are interested in – is the same worldwide, it just unpacks differently because people are in a different context. So if you would shift your boxes and try to put them in a different grid you would see that it makes for a lot of space. I don’t want to put a box around American work anymore. Indeed for me American jewelry was a cliché, it looked totally narrative – in the bad sense of the word, because I’m interested in narrative work. But now knowing more about American culture, I also know what I had not seen. I really love folk art. It’s something really good to learn about a culture because of its directness. I could never make it, but it is something that does interest me.

Can I come back to this metaphor you used earlier about seeing every individual tree in the forest . . .

Let me give you a different example. There is this piece of work by Anish Kapoor. There is a space about four times the size of this room.

We’re in a ten-foot by ten-foot room.

There is a big ball in the room which touches the ceiling and the sidewalls; it sort of perfectly fits in the room. Everything is covered with dark blue pigment. The person who passes by is not allowed to go into the room. The adjacent room, which the viewer walks through, is very bright. If you walk by all you see is a black room, you look into a black hole. Only if you stand there and you allow your eyes to adjust, after one or two minutes you all of a sudden see clearly the ball in the room covered with pigment. But if you look away, your eyes of course contract with the light and you have to stare into the room again. You have to invest in the work to see it clearly.

How do we reframe the dialogue so we are really taking the time to see a practice in that way? How do we engage the dialogue differently so that it’s more about looking harder and seeing nuances?

Maybe asking more instead of having so many opinions.

This is why I’m talking to you now.

It’s more about knowing that you don’t know than having it all in place. It’s more about learning to search and engage, which is a very important tool for staying a maker. If there’s no curiosity – if you’re not surprising yourself with your own work, stop making. If you know what you are going to do already, beforehand, I find it so boring that there’s no point in making it anymore. But that’s an art-and-design discussion. If you make a drawing then execute the drawing and there’s nothing that happens in between, you’re not learning from what you do. It’s an important thing to learn from what you do. It’s not just making it but learning from it for the next step and not always understanding what you make. If I would always understand what I make I would be so bored I would probably become a carpet dealer.

I think that is what’s enigmatic about your work. When I look at the work I can see, almost tangibly, that learning. There is that recognition, in the object, of the progression that takes place. So perhaps I can circle back around and ask something that can help conclude us here.

That’s another thing. Conclusions are killers.

Yeah? Well, maybe that’s the conclusion.

You open the drawer and you pack it in. Conclusion. Done.

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