The Contemporary jewellery world is quite narrow, yet very compartmented. Each compartment has its own rules and its own do’s and don’ts, and if you cross the borders you might lose your legitimacy and not be able to go back where you started. This is, according to me, one of the reasons why Contemporary jewellery struggles to flourish and expand further.
The main hurdle to this fluidity has to do with the concept of producing “commercial” as opposed to “non-commercial” work, or as I have heard sometimes, with the difference between being an “artist” and a “maker”. One can choose to feature one’s work in very exclusive galleries but struggle to make a living, or follow a more commercial approach and “sell one’s soul” to live from one’s art. For a self-made artist, this confusing nomenclature may be avoided but for academically trained people in Art Universities or Schools, this will haunt their career all along as they have been told they were artists and that they must deserve it. It is always interesting to discuss “business plan” with people outside the art and craft world. They can ask blunt questions such as: “why don’t you sell your work in the local market on Sunday? Or” why don’t you sell your work on commercial websites or on-line” etc. And you find yourself defending your creative integrity and explaining that you can’t afford to do this because established Galleries might then stop working with you… And then back home, you wonder why can I not be involved in both and still be seen as an artist?
This is exactly the dilemma what I just experimented beginning 2017. I participated in both a commercial show in Florida, BIJOUX at the Norton Museum, and in the “Mecca” of Art Jewellery, the Munich Jewellery Week and Schmuck. I equally enjoyed both and find that both nourish my creativity and fulfill very different but necessary functions. So far as I am concerned, jewellery exists when it is worn, when people are willing to buy and wear your work, not when jewellery is stored in cold and pristine cabinets.
In BIJOUX at the Norton Museum of Palm Beach, the show is organized around raising money for a charity. The curator selects artists with a double aim: the success then relies on showing quality and interesting works but also on making visitors purchase. The audience is mainly composed of retired American couples who are either familiar with the Museum and support it on a regular basis or sheer neophytes who visit the place for the first time. Observing people’s reaction is very interesting: they have no special knowledge of Contemporary Jewellery and speak their mind openly. The collection I personally showed was silicone magnetic brooches and necklaces. My work is quite deceptive and people usually think it is made of ceramic, porcelain or glass. For the majority of people visiting the show it is somehow out of the ordinary and disconcerting: no precious materials, use of magnets, soft materials, pristine white color or pitch black translucent silicone. They are always surprised. They all want to touch it. They usually love it or hate it… for me it is fascinating to see how people react and how they follow their instinct. “It’s disgusting” said a lady, “how original” said a man, “I want one” told this other lady. They comment on the ergonomic, the colors, the shapes, the practicality of magnets. At the end of the day, I collected a formidable amount of precious information to process, which can inspire my next collection and trigger some change in my designs. At other times, I had to take more crude comments such as: “it’s cool, I could use it as a fridge magnet” which sometimes left me in a state of shock, or to accept the perfect look of disdain on certain faces. But those negative reactions are useful too.
In those shows, you come to face the reality of your end customer’s base and it is for me an essential part of my practice and a necessary test for my work.
“BIJOUX at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach Florida & My stand at BIJOUX”
After 5 days in the company of the Floridian neophyte crowd, I went straight to the Munich Jewelery Week (MJW) to exhibit with Dialogue, a collective of artists from London and Handshake, a collective of artists from New Zealand. Our exhibition “It will all come out in the wash” is the result of a one-year collaboration between the 2 collectives. After exchanging photos, texts, and videos to know each other better, we decided to choose the washing line theme as a metaphor for our collaboration, a space where you share your intimacy with neighbors that you don’t really know. Each artist has responded to the themes of “collaboration” and “washing line” with his or her own sensibility and style.
For those who don’t know MJW, here is the official description: “Munich Jewelery Week showcases avant-garde contemporary jewelery by established and up-and-coming designers from all over the world. This yearly gathering is by far the most significant event on contemporary jewellery’s calendar; it’s a unique phenomenon which plays a pacemaking role in the contemporary jewellery field. Hundreds of makers, students, educators and collectors come from all over the world to be inspired by this diverse programme that ranges from artist-run exhibitions, book launches and lectures to performances, mobile presentations and parties. Over the past decade, the gradual and organic expansion of the independent city exhibitions has boomed to a remarkable 90+ initiatives, establishing a self-ruled dynamic community of local and international artists”.
Dialogue Collective has exhibited many times during MJW and always with the aim to interact with the public through original displays. It’s not a selling show but a different way of showing jewellery. We, members, always create works responding to the specific theme for this occasion. This year I decided to imprint silicone Fern leaves on a white dress and a white brooch. I noticed how nature was predominant in New Zealand and labeled my work: “overtaken by nature”.
My work exhibited at MJW 2017: “overtaken by nature”
How does this experience influence my practice and what does it make it stand at the extreme opposite of a selling show?
First, I always use this exhibition as a starting point for new works and as a way of getting out of my comfort zone. In a selling show, you tend to focus on the most successful designs since you want to maximize your turnover. That forces your work to be quite repetitive and to rely on ‘best seller’ pieces. But working with a set brief as we do for MJW makes you reflect on your work, makes it evolve without losing your signature and makes you respond creatively to a theme that is not necessarily familiar. Three years ago, the theme for our MJW exhibition was ‘Jack the Ripper’, a theme I would never have considered other than for this exhibition.
Secondly, Munich becomes “the place to be” for Contemporary Jewellery once a year. You don’t want to miss this rendez-vous to see new works from the most talented artists in the world, to network, to see and be seen. I find it sometimes overwhelming, an event for an exclusive elite, but I reckon that it plays an important part in my practice as well. It’s an occasion to test a new body of work amongst peers and expose it to the most critical and knowledgeable audience in your field. Also, participating to MJW with our non-conventional Dialogue exhibition is a way of being part of it without taking ourselves too seriously.
Those last two exhibitions have both been great for me in very different ways but I am very glad to have been able to attend both without compromising my vision of contemporary jewellery. There is time for selling and interacting with an audience that is not familiar with art jewellery, and time to show works in a more conceptual environment. Both are equally useful and eventually enrich each other.
Going from one extreme to the other of the spectrum is a very challenging experience but a useful way of nurturing my creativity. I only wish the contemporary jewellery world was less judgmental and more open about crossing boundaries…
About the author
Isabelle Busnel | After a 15-year career in finance and banking, an urge to express herself in a different way led Isabelle to retrain academically. She obtained my HND in jewelery in 2008 and her Research MA in 2010, both from the London Metropolitan University (Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design). She is now sharing her time between creating original jewelery and writing a blog about Applied Arts and Contemporary Craft. Isabelle is member of Dialogue Collective, a group of London-based jewelers and silversmiths, as well as a member and former treasurer of the British Society of Enamelers. Also collaborates with La Garantie, a French contemporary jewelry association.
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