Seminar Thoughts on Beauty
Stockholm November 2004
Liesbeth den Besten
Through writing I can get a grip on the objects I am confronted with. It is my way of exploring them, to get near to them, to get ‘under their skin’, to understand them. I don’t want to explain, just want to reveal a glimpse of the inside of an object, of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. I want to know how objects relate to other objects. I try to do this in an understandable way, hoping that others like to read it. Writing and thinking are practically the same.
Writing is an egocentric activity. Without writing I would not be able to ‘conquer’ all those vulnerable, tempting and repulsive objects that artists make. If an object lacks one of these qualities it isn’t inviting to explore. Sheer beauty is uninteresting, it doesn’t stimulate writing.
For me, the act of observing art and design objects and products is, in its ideal form, of the same order as experiencing exotic cultures while travelling. Art and design objects can also represent something exotic. They can absorb and confuse you. For this seminar I have written an essay that presents my ideal form of writing more or less.
I would like to introduce an object to you, which highly intrigues me. It is part of Célio Braga’s collection Brancos (= White), which consists of about twenty closely related objects. (Gallery Louise Smit, Amsterdam, 23.10.04 – 02.12.04).
Célio Braga (1965) is born in the Brazilian countryside. He studied painting in Brazil and Boston (USA), before moving to Amsterdam in 1996 to study textile at the Rietveld Academy. At the academy he discovered the jewellery department. He graduated in jewellery in 2000. He has never practised gold and silversmithing, he makes installations and objects. Célio Braga is living and working in Amsterdam.
The object looks formless, but it isn’t. It can’t be, because the moment you see it, you notice that it is handmade in a very precise and intense way. The form is just the way it should be. There must have been a moment for the artist to decide that the form was right.
The object is soft, made of pure white silk and thread, filled with felt, and covered with sparkling glass beads. Because of its sparkling character with the white, translucent and pink beads it has something festive and attractive.
That is your first impression. A second glance reveals another aspect, the hole. Your eye couldn’t grasp it at first sight. It is a disturbing opening, it is fleshly, erotic, inviting and at the same time horrible.
The object is an ‘exoticum’ , it is foreign. You can sense that it is loaded with personal, private emotions. You can trace it from the way it is made. It is stitched by hand, carefully, minute by minute, hour by hour, in a kind of a ritualistic continuum. This is devotion, dedication, comparable with the way medieval monks dedicated themselves to the illumination of manuscripts. Don’t misunderstand me, this object has no general religious meaning, its meaning is personal and private. Through its reference to dedication and time, which are rare notions today, it becomes accessible for a broader audience.
The object bears no marks of its function. Does it have any function, besides an aesthetic one? You tend to think it shouldn’t need a function: perhaps just being there and attracting attention and response of the audience is enough.
The object is presented in a jewellery gallery, and this implies that it has to do with jewellery, with wearing it, but how and why?
The artist has presented an abstract object. It is so abstract, that you need an explanation and a demonstration to understand how this object could be attached to your clothing, with the aid of special made loose pins. If the artist had shown the pins and the object together, the character of the object would have changed. The pins had immediately pointed at wearing the piece, at a
decorative and subordinate function of the object. Not showing the pins was indeed a conscious act.
You may wonder if the artist, really wants to see his objects worn by someone. I don’t think that in Braga’s view his jewellery is only completed when someone wears it. Perhaps I am wrong, but I sense such a strong charging of his jewellery that I can only observe them as an autonomous object and not as a nice ornament.
Still, there are people who like to wear these objects/brooches. When you observe someone trying a brooch by Braga, this is somehow an insensitive and shocking experience. As if the act of wearing, and looking in the mirror, affects the integrity (or as Walter Benjamin has put it ‘the Aura’) of the object. At the same time it seems so intimate that you almost feel embarrassed. Art that can raise such intense feelings is accepted; in jewellery it is generally considered as inappropriate.
Célio Braga is exploring the borders. His objects seem to be more related to painting (in their emphasis on colour, shadow and texture) than sculpture, and they are totally alien to design. Being aware of the meanings and connotations of this unusual material, he doesn’t even hesitate to include real human hair in some of his objects.
These hairy objects are so shockingly private, that you can hardly imagine any person longing to wear these as a brooch. They seem somehow without reason. There is no conciliation between the grievous and intimate dimension of the object and the expressive and open dimension of the jewel. You may wonder if this is a jewel after all.
Another work which sincerely occupies me is made by Lucy Sarneel.
Lucy Sarneel is one of those artists who is consciously dealing with the field of tension between autonomy and function. Lucy Sarneel (1961) is born in Maastricht, in the Southern part of The Netherlands. She first studied gold and silversmithing at the Art Academy in Maastricht. After three years of intense technical training the challenge was gone. She was passed at the jewellery department of the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam to study for another four year. The cultural shock, the shift from the technical, provincial academy in Maastricht to the artistic and liberal climate at the Amsterdam academy, was enormous.
Since her graduation in 1989 she makes distinguished jewellery characterised by their brave forms and bold choice of materials. She is living and working in Amsterdam.
Sarneel’s jewellery has an object like character, although it is quite different from that of Braga’s. Her jewellery is not charged with private emotions, but it provides stories and symbols with a more universal character. The Family piece consists of a big, flat wall ornament, and a string. The ornament presents the image of a family, carefully cut in silhouette from a plate of zinc. It is clear that it is not her own family. By using the silhouette and by avoiding details, she manages to evoke an image of a universal family. The ornament is used as a symbol of this mysterious bond of blood. It expresses the power and vulnerability of their unity.
Her pieces are often big and not easy to wear and she takes this into account, by making boxes with the raw outline of the jewel, made out of the same material (like steel) and painted with the same pigments. In her view it is important to offer a special space for special jewellery. Just recently she decided that she would also like to hang her pieces on the wall. People like to have beautiful, beloved and cherished things around them (remember your mothers cupboard with pictures of her offspring, the old China vase and the souvenir from Rome). Now she is making ornaments on the wall, which will become more and more elaborate and complicated, as her first sketches prove. They present the hook to hang your jewel. The ‘family’ is such a wall ornament, the first step that the artist made in this new direction. You can take the ‘string of pearls’, which is composed of hand-made zinc beads, and put it on. Separated from its context - the ‘family’ - the string of beads will look bare, although the wearer will take along the idea of the total ornament with him(her) in his(her) mind.
Both Braga and Sarneel, as so many applied artists today, are enjoying their freedom. At the same time they have to cope with it. It leads to extremes, like embarrassing objects that one could hardly wear or jewels of the mind that look bare on the body. Both represent aspects of contemporary jewellery, and there are many more aspects to be explored.