Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).
Benjamin Lignel is curator of Also Known As Jewellery*, an exhibition of French contemporary jewelry that has been traveling the world. AJF asked him some questions about the exhibition and the work featured in it.
Damian Skinner: What is Also Known As Jewellery*?
Benjamin Lignel: Also known as Jewellery* is a traveling exhibition of French contemporary jewelry. It features work by seventeen makers who are either French, or have lived in France for long enough to fool the baker when buying their baguette in the morning. The work selected was created, with very few exceptions, within three years of the project’s inception and is meant to showcase what we described in the catalog as the ‘more conceptual’ branch of French contemporary jewelry: i.e. jewelry which puts the practice itself at the heart of its experiments. The show was curated by Christian Alandete and myself: he trained as a curator and has numerous exhibition projects to his name (both in the applied and the fine arts), I trained in art history and furniture design. It was one of the first projects undertaken in the name of the recently created La Garantie, An Association For Jewellery.
Where has it traveled?
Benjamin Lignel: The exhibition was launched in March 2009, at Flow in London and was then hosted by Alternatives in Rome and Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco. Our last host will be Idar-Oberstein’s Villa-Bengel, where the show will spend the summer, after a brief but most exciting stop at the Institut Francais of Munich, where it is currently presented to coincide with the famed Handwerksmesse in March.
The first three venues are commercial galleries which were part of the project from the word go. In fact, the word go would not have been uttered had they not enthusiastically endorsed the project: they opened their doors to us, funded the invitations and opening party, were responsible for reception and re-shipment of work and took care of local public relations. Given the nature of the exhibition and its rather low commercial viability, theirs was a very big commitment, for which we are really, really grateful. The latter two venues have no commercial interest in the venture: they must have found the project solid and interesting enough to host it.
To show in such different places – different both in terms of gallery set-up and audience - almost means doing five different shows: for even if the pieces had remained the same throughout (they did not), the exhibition itself would have been re-configured to suit each gallery and re-modeled – as it were – by the very contrasted expectations of each population of visitors.
Benjamin Lignel: I suggested the idea for a ‘French’ show to Yvonna Demczynska, the owner of Flow gallery, during the vernissage of an Italian show she hosted in 2008. No one participating in the conversation could remember seeing a French show: in fact, very few knew the work of more than a couple of French jewelers. This in turn determined the dual agenda of the project: give French jewelers as much exposure abroad as possible and provide visitors with a comprehensive critical tool to access their work. Hence the long tour on the one hand and the catalog on the other.
The original plan also included a French stopover, for our French contemporaries are painfully ignorant of the fact that such a thing as contemporary jewelry exists. (There are exceptions – you know who you are!) Things are improving slightly, but there is quite some way to go. This has not yet materialized and may prove to be the one big frustration of the project.
Why did you think it was important to undertake this project?
Benjamin Lignel: Recent projects have given the French jewelry ‘community’ a sense of itself (notably, the exhibition Un vrai Bijou organized by Christian in 2005, which brought together 51 makers) and shown that excellent – if confidential – work is being made in France. Yet, while French makers have been thriving creatively, given the adverse odds they face, they do so in relative insularity. The French scene is too small to attract much foreign attention and its proponents are not well represented abroad. This isolation is a complete anomaly in a very international field and we therefore thought that showing these makers' work as a group to the outside world would prove salutary to both it and them: i.e. by providing international exposure to those artists who have had little of it and by making their work part of the current worldwide conversation on – and with – contemporary jewelry.
How did you select the jewelers for the exhibition? The writers for the catalog?
Benjamin Lignel: Certainly, the selection reflects the aesthetical and conceptual affinities of Christian and myself. We both like work that tiptoes the invisible faultlines between craft, fine arts and design and which makes the most of that ambiguous position. This is a very vague selection parameter. We did not particularly care to have a coherent, seamless selection, but only that the work be of a very high standard and that the exhibition reflect the diversity of experimental approaches present in France. The selection itself was quite simple – simplified to some extent by the limited number of makers and further by the clear artistic choices that all of them have made. By no means does it represent the whole spectrum of French jewelry, contemporary or not.
As said before, producing a catalog was fundamental to the project. We wanted to provide visitors (or readers) with multi-layered information about each artist and chose an editorial approach that favored individual practice over a group study. In effect, the catalog is made up of seventeen folded and rubber-bound posters. It can be read as you would a book, by leafing through the pages in sequence, or taken apart and enjoyed as a set of posters.
Each poster is treated as a self-standing publication, featuring a series of studio pictures shot specially for the catalog (and, in some cases, pictures of older work for added background) a portrait of the individual artists wearing one of their pieces, a short CV and a 500-words essay written for the publication. Makers were offered the possibility of suggesting a writer (some did) but in most cases they were ‘matched’ with writers we felt would do their work justice, chosen from a wide range of disciplines: poet, artist, sociologist, philosopher, historian, anthropologist, gallery owner, curator. While looking for seventeen writers, coming at them with the bargaining power of two beggars on the dole, we found, surprisingly, that a lack of institutional interest for jewelry whetted the appetite of researchers. It afforded them a sort of intellectual terra incognita with more than circumstantial relevance to their ‘legitimate’ areas of research. Only two people turned us down out of nineteen who were approached.
Benjamin Lignel: I don’t think it makes one argument about contemporary jewelry in France; it makes seventeen of them – each one with its own history and very individual ways to relate to the larger phenomenon of international contemporary jewelry. (They had been starved, now they want food.)
Do you think that nationality is a very useful way to think about contemporary jewelry? What is French about French contemporary jewelry?
Benjamin Lignel: The case for national ‘traits’ or ‘creative identity’ is a dubious one today, unless one is dealing with either a fairly rigid educational system, a concerted effort to perpetuate a vernacular style, or an artistic agenda that aims to (co-) produce a form of cultural identity. (I say ‘today,' because one cannot argue away the existence of, say, a Flemish school of painting – the product, I would argue, of a different information age, and a different relationship to territory.) A country is often too large a place and its frontiers too porous. More importantly, maybe, I have not found in my contemporaries the desire to exude ‘Frenchness,' whatever that may be. I did find some common fields of enquiry (gender, identity) a pretty conceptual bend (a self-fulfilling prophecy, as this was a selection parameter) a certain economy of means they all seem to share – but nothing as conclusive as the smell of a ripe camembert.
If there is such a thing as heritage, or lineage, I would argue that its strands are best seen in the tutor/student relationship. Contemporary jewelry is unusual (compared to design, say, or the fine arts) as long teaching tenures on the one hand and a relative scarcity of schools on the other have allowed teachers to thrive and their varied influence on students to be both quite visible and visible over time. Brune Boyer and Sophie Hanagarth in France, OttoKünzli in Germany, Caroline Broadhead in England are good examples of a ‘background’ that informs the way students approach the trade, and allows them to bloom.
Has the exhibition been successful?
Benjamin Lignel: Contrary to popular wisdom, I believe that translation is invigorating for any work of art – showing work coming from place A in place B and finding how relocation has affected its capacity to inspire. From that point of view, the show’s success has been spectacular, as it engaged – and was commented on by – three very different crowds at its openings. A very academic crowd in London, necessarily well equipped to ‘get’ the show as a whole and to relate to individual pieces; they were kind enough to acknowledge that French jewelry did, in fact, exist, bless them. In Rome, a mix of regular clients and uninitiated guests, who found themselves irked and excited in almost equal measures by conceptual propositions that are quite alien to the subtle material poems and technical pyrotechnics that are the hallmark of the Padua school. A roster of militant collectors and jewelry lovers in San Francisco, very sympathetic to the agendas of some of the makers (gender, corporeal identity) and quite committed to saying so.
Along the way, all of the 70-odd pieces featured in the show have been re-evaluated, re-interpreted and re-appropriated by the curators who followed the exhibition, the spaces it was shown in and the visitors who came to see it. I personally found it extremely rewarding and not a little surprising to see how context could modify the impact of different pieces. Munich will certainly be an interesting test, as the exhibition has to compete with many other equally seductive propositions . . .