Valeria Vallarta Siemelik is a Mexican architect. She holds an MA in museum studies from the Reinwardt Academy, Amsterdam and a second one in exhibition design from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico. She has recently obtained her doctorate in art history from the National University of Mexico. She lives in the Netherlands where she co-founded the Otro Diseño Foundation and works as a freelance curator and author. She has organized exhibitions such as the Second Biennale of Latin American Design, Reinvented South, Walking the Gray Area and Think Twice.
A title such as Broochmania conjures images of a somehow frantic exhibition. A craze of brooches, where the viewer is confronted with a wild and endless display of the ornaments that have accompanied mankind for a long, long time. However, when entering the bright and quiet space of the Rob Koudijs Gallery in Amsterdam (June 5 –July 3, 2010) we are greeted by an exhibition that is sober, yet full of talent.
The title, as commonly happens, came before the collection was even created: Karen Pontoppidan, jeweler and head of the Ädellab (the jewelry department of the Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm) envisioned a project that involved students of her academy from the first year to recently graduated masters students. Rob Koudijs, owner and manager of the Amsterdam-based gallery hosting Broochmania, welcomed the idea with the open and daring attitude that characterizes his exhibitions and that often regales the audience with refreshing exhibitions and unexpected artists. Through a series of five workshops, the Ädellab students had studied the history and diverse facets of brooches. The students were then encouraged to translate their recent experiences in brooches that would be suitable for exhibition in a prestigious gallery.
Brooches are perhaps the oldest type of jewelry. They started their lives as fibulae, ornamental clasps used by Romans, Greeks and also by Celts and migratory tribes in Europe, even before the Bronze Age. Those early fibulae were simple in shape (a kind of large safety pin made of simple materials, like thorn or bone) and in function (to hold clothing together). But soon they began to change form and acquire a different function: to represent the identity of the wearer, indicating ethnicity, rank or status. And so they turned into brooches, which through the centuries have been produced in all kinds of shapes and materials and used for all kind of purposes. From the Victorian lockets that held the hair of beloved or departed ones, to those badges that indicate ideology and preference, to the cherished mementos that people want to keep close to their bodies, brooches are good examples of the powerful nature of jewelry.
The theme of the exhibition is both extensive and rich. Brooches are, perhaps, among the most frequently produced ornaments by contemporary jewelers. Their possibilities are almost endless and their prominent display on the chest make brooches a remarkable media for communication. Given this fact, it is a pity that there were not that many Ädellab students taking advantage of the opportunity.
Dutch architect Ward Schrijver was invited to Stockholm to act as a curator for Broochmania. The curatorial experience proved to be a tough one. Absent students (and their expected works) great ideas with technical problems or last-minute pieces that simply fell apart in the hands of the curator, left Schrijver with a smaller choice than expected. A collection of about 25 brooches executed by a group of only thirteen students and graduates made it to the showcases of the Rob Koudijs gallery. As a last minute addition, a small collection of necklaces also made by the selected students was added to enhance the exhibition. And the chosen necklaces were as interesting as their maniac brooch companions.
Schrijver based his selection in the novelty of the proposal, as well as in the aesthetical, formal and technical qualities of the works. Being an architect myself, it was not difficult to spot the hand of a colleague in the curator’s approach. The manufacture of all the chosen pieces is superb and a certain constructivist style can be perceived through the exhibition. Examples of this are the analytic, geometric style of Hanna Lundborg’s work, the sculptural qualities of Emille de Blanche, or the topographic appearance of Jacob Erixson’s massive brooch. A creative, effective and simply beautiful approach to the pinning and closing mechanisms of several of the pieces remains a constant through Broochmania, found in the work of Yi Shen, Maki Okamoto and Dana Hakim.
Although small in number, the collection is diverse, with a variety of materials and techniques that show the different cultural backgrounds and interests of the makers as well as an inquisitive and experimental approach to material. Maki Okamoto’s Spoon brooches show an interest in challenging the conventional use of brooches and inviting the wearer to become engaged with her pieces. Recovered silver spoons are transformed: the hollow containers become voids, the decorations on their handles are erased and weighty, tactful nuggets (which now bear impressions of those decorations stolen from the spoon handles) are the ingenious mechanisms used to fasten the brooch to the fabric. The wearer agrees to have their clothes modified by the spoon and is constantly reminded about its weight and dynamics. Okamoto’s background in sculpture is evident in the balanced proportions and contrasting volumes of her work, yet she seems to be on her way to master jewelry as well. Her Spoons are smart, skilful and pleasant to see, to touch and to wear.
Israeli graduate student Dana Hakim, whose four-brooch series My Four Guardian Angels was selected for the exhibition, uses familiar everyday commodities that are drastically transformed and infused with new meaning in an attempt to persuade the audience to engage in critical reflection. Hakim chooses objects loaded with cultural meaning, such as iron nets, rubber gloves, reflectors and tape and carefully transforms them into four brooch-amulets that make a clear comment on the current fears of our post-modern society: crime, terrorism, epidemics, bio-weapons. What is most remarkable about her work is the contrast between the harsh, almost post-nuclear appearance of the brooches and the meticulous labor involved in the execution of each piece. The iron nets are cut, folded, sewn as in the making of a delicate garment. The plastic of a light reflector perfectly fuses with silver and paint, resulting in a homogeneous and smooth surface that almost seems to have been born that way. The pins and hinges are cleverly designed and blend into the pieces, overcoming mere function.
Industrial designer and jewelry graduate Nicolas Cheng presented a series of brooches, part of his graduation project titled The Beauty of Nothingness. Untitled, the brooch selected for Broochmania, questions the invisibility of beauty in our contemporary society. How are our inexorably decaying, grimed bodies perceived by people obsessed with youth and physical perfection? Cheng presents an interesting choice of organic (and therefore also decadent) materials that often serves to clean the body: sisal fiber, loofah, cotton and natural sponge. In his Untitled brooch, a silver twig serves as a support from which a highly tactile shape, made of natural sponge, silk and amber, seems to grow outside the body, like a parasitic animal or a malignant tumor. There is, indeed, an ambiguous and subtle notion of beauty in this brooch. The viewer may need to train his eyes and go beyond the layers to discover the beauty of Cheng’s nothingness.
Annie Hagvil, a first-year student at the Ädellab, is interested in illusions and the total transformation of materials. Schrijver selected two of her brooches for Broochmania: a couple of puzzling and unexpected ‘containers of empty space.' A dark crocheted see-through membrane separates the outside from the inside. Even the smallest details of the crocheted pattern and the thread used to make the pieces are visible and the viewer thinks of handling them with outmost care, fearing they will be crushed when attempting to pin them somewhere. But Hagvil’s brooches are massive and certainly uncrushable: the original piece of crocheted yam is strengthened with wax and then cast in bronze.
It’s no wonder that undergraduate student Yasar Aydin’s brooch was one of the first to be sold at the exhibition. It is a piece of exceptional aesthetics derived from its proficient making and the sensible choice of materials: iron, porcelain and leather. His Untitled brooch is part of an ongoing research project that deals with self-acceptance and the acceptance from others – a rather complex topic that he has chosen to approach in a playful way in this piece. Aydin compares his path as a jeweler to the one of a storyteller: he likes to revive his experiences and questions his ideas and the world that surrounds him, using jewelry as a medium to narrate the outcome. It may be interesting to see the rest of the works of his current research project and understand how this piece fits in the story. But Aydin’s brooch is proof that collaborative projects between academies and renowned galleries often work pretty well.
Broochmania is an interesting academic project. While it makes it evident that academies and students would benefit from training students from the early stages to face the demanding and complex professional scene of contemporary jewelry, the exhibition has also been a great opportunity for them to acquire real-life experience and for the audience to be treated with the promise of surprising young talents. It also makes us glad to have galleries that are willing to undertake unusual projects and make the jewelry scene even more exciting.
Broochmania may be a slightly big name for a small exhibition, but it is an exhibition that explores the limitless possibilities of brooches in a creative and skilful manner and that leaves the audience wishing to see what these new artists will come up with in the future.