Exhibition as Novel. The Wilde Things
With exhibition ‘The Wilde Things,’ Z33 explores new presentation models for contemporary jewellery in context of a wearer and within a narrative framework. Furthermore it takes a critical look at current developments within this discipline, which has evolved since the 1960s to become an autonomous, artistic, and reflective design practice.
Text Evelien Bracke
For several years now, I have tried to define my fascination for contemporary jewellery. It is one of the most exciting forms of contemporary object culture, able to cross between the public and private spheres of everyday life. The intense relationship between subject and object is unique in the visual arts. Jewellery, moreover, is mobile, wearable and hence semantically variable, depending on the context from which it is viewed.
Time and again I have tried to put my fascination into words, yet I have to admit that words, in themselves, are not enough. Contemporary jewellery has to be ‘experienced’: the richness of its micro world of subtle materials, the pleasure of wearing it on the body. It is a ‘coup de foudre’ that overwhelms one when confronted with a particular piece. That feeling of confusion and ecstasy of the moment, a feeling that cannot be put into words.
It is exactly this feeling that I first experienced as a young student when visiting an exhibition of contemporary jewellery in Antwerp.1 I can still exactly recall the pieces I saw on that occasion. A new conceptual (micro) world opened itself to me: a world of jewels, related to art, fashion and design, that makes up a form of artistic expression and a discipline entirely of its own.
In compiling The Wilde Things at Z33, I kept this first experience in mind: the ‘wonder and fascination’ an unknown discipline can provoke. It is a true pleasure to see that some of the jewellery designers I discovered at that time (Hilde De Decker, Dinie Besems, Iris Eichenberg and Manon van Kouswijk) are now part of the exhibition as well.
The Wilde Things. The so contemporary jewellery collection of Mrs. Wilde (13 October 2013–19 January 2014, Z33) makes clear that even something small can be truly ‘great’. The exhibition shows how jewellery can evoke memories and associations; how it is, in this sense, intertwined with life as ‘material memories’. It can be included into the domain of personal stories; that sensual, lithe entanglement of objects and memories.2
It is precisely this relationship between jewellery and its wearer that formed the starting point for this exhibition. In The Wilde Things, contemporary jewellery is, once again, presented in a context, namely in the intimate and personal environment of the wearer, which is where, in essence, it belongs. The exhibition, in this respect, positions itself within the emerging debate on jewellery and context that is for one very much present in the work of art historian Marjan Unger. Jewellery is presented mostly as an autonomous object and often portrayed without context in books and catalogues, but jewellery is meant to be worn.3
Since long, this specific relationship between jewellery and its wearer has fascinated me. How does contemporary jewellery function as ‘material memory’? How is it able to evoke memories and associations? A piece of jewellery can be seen as a collection of meanings. There are several moments when meaning is created. The first involves the maker who gives form to a particular concept, laden with meaning, which is then infused with the wearer’s personal memories, interpretations and associations, and finally with the viewer’s perspective. In contrast to most exhibitions of contemporary jewellery which mainly focus on the intentions of the designer/maker (author), The Wilde Things puts forward a different layer of meaning: that of the wearer.
The Wilde Things, having as its starting point the relationship between jewellery and its wearer, was conceived as a narrative exhibition in which a story and a fictional character play the leading role. The concept, from the outset, incorporated other disciplines such as literature and film. Contemporary jewellery can, in this way, establish inspiring relationships beyond the boundaries of its own discipline, reach beyond the confines of a niche and enter into dialogue with a different audience.
‘Mrs. Wilde’ – an elderly lady with a love for contemporary jewellery – was created following a number of conversations with writer Oscar van den Boogaard. Based on a selection of twenty-five contemporary jewellery pieces from both emerging talent and established names on the international scene, Oscar van den Boogaard wrote a story about Mrs. Wilde, her jewellery collection, and the personal memories and associations attached to it.
Aside from twenty-two existing creations, three designers4 were asked to design a new piece for the fictional Mrs. Wilde. Filmmaker Manon de Boer in turn, created a film that makes tangible the relationship between Mrs. Wilde and her jewellery and translates the story into the dimension of the exhibition space. In the film, Mrs. Wilde is given a face and the jewellery a body. Together, the story, the twenty-five pieces of jewellery and the film form a whole, a narrative exhibition experience. As a visitor one literally steps into the world of Mrs. Wilde.
The selection of twenty-five contemporary jewellery pieces presents a sampling of the current perspectives within the discipline on an international level. The Wilde Things does not aim to present an overview, but rather a critical look on a number of current developments within this discipline which has, since the 1960s, developed into an autonomous, artistic and reflective design practice. Indeed, already from the outset, some fifty years ago, investigations have in the first place turned toward the possibilities and history of the medium as such. This process of experimentation with materials and technology or the referencing to the long and rich history of jewellery (this could be called ‘self-reflective’ jewellery) still continues. Obviously there are numerous interesting examples of these tendencies, as well as of the more narrative jewellery approach, but at the same time there is a need for a broader look at the world and our society of today. Jewellery, by definition, belongs ‘in’ the world and can, as such, function as ‘conversation pieces’. As ‘critical objects’, they can provoke debate. Some of the young designers/makers present in the exhibition resolutely opt for a more socially oriented approach. It is important to keep questioning the relevance of contemporary jewellery and to explore the ways in which jewellery can address issues that are pertinent in our society. The Wilde Things aims to encourage young designers and makers to debate and reflect upon their position in society.
My whole collection consists of jewels that pose questions; that give others and myself a wake-up call. I can deploy them as conversation pieces to provoke a confrontation, or at least a dialogue.
– Mrs. Wilde
The statement was originally published in exhibition catalogue ‘The Wilde Things – The So Contemporary Jewellery Collection of Mrs. Wilde’ in October 2013.