Appearance Is Everything

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 1/ 2012: Identity, Fashion and Adornment

In 1990 the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was published by the now-renowned feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler. In no time at all, the book became the ‘bible’ for a post-struturalist deconstruction of gender.

The book is about identity; about how it is constructed in (post) modern society. It discusses what it means to be a gender or to have a gendered identity.

The book has been seen as an attack on Feminism and the assumption that there exists an identity and a subject that requires representation in politics and language. For Butler the categories ‘women’ and ‘woman’ are complicated by class, ethnicity, sexuality, and other facets of identity.

The conclusion made by a generation of young Feminists readers and others who are concerned with gender and identity is that gender is constructed, acted out, staged and therefore possibly changed through appearance.

This seems to accord with the post-structuralist view that, through language – be it visual or linguistic – the social world is constructed. Its meanings, while never fixed (on account of the inherent instability of language), constitute social reality.

According to this view, gender identity comes into being through the use of language, body language, behaviour and the way you communicate through what you wear. The book has inspired number of artists who explore the boundaries of gender and sexuality.

«gender identity comes into being through the use of language, body language, behaviour and the way you communicate through what you wear»

Also in popular (sub) cultures of the ‘90s, one could see the increasing interest in exploring identities in different ways.

Given that televised ‘reality programs’ have flourished over the last decade, it may seem as though there is renewed interest in politics and reality. An idea seems to have regained credence – that there actually is something called ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ to what appears before our eyes. It is not mere appearance (schein).

This issue of NorwegianCrafts.no explores identity as something that can be transformed and transgressed through fashion and adornment. Although not uttered in so many words in the articles published here, it is possible to think of transformation and transgression as possible premises for wearing clothes, jewellery and other adornments.

In the book Contemporary Jewellers: Interviews with European Artists, the author Roberta Bernabei starts by asserting that ‘Without the curiosity, desire or need to decorate the body, jewellery would simply not exist.’

One could ask oneself: What is this curiosity, desire or need to decorate the body? What does it mean and why do we have it?

Maybe Barnabei answers this question for us in the following quotation:

‘[…] if the act of wearing jewellery can change us in some way, it then follows that through this act of adornment we also contribute to a transformation, subtle or otherwise, of the meaning carried by the object. This relationship becomes increasingly sophisticated in proportion to the intricacy and complexity of the communicative role that one demands of the piece of jewellery. Therefore, a symbiotic relationship between the object, wearer and observer exist.’

«Decorative or ornamental things are not empty signs. They contain deeper signification and may communicate identity on a deeper level»

In this sense, the act of adornment becomes a way of communicating with the world through sensory objects.

One of the featured artists in this issue of NorwegianCrafts.no is Tone Vigeland. She has already received a place in the pantheon of Norwegian jewellery artist even though she has not made jewellery since the 1990s (the beginning of her career as a sculptor). Reinhold Ziegler has done a thorough interview with her, tracing her history back to the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Vigeland is also one of the jewellery artists Barnabei interviews in her book.

Another featured creator is Ingunn Birkeland, a fashion designer who makes sumptuous dresses, shoes and furniture. She sets up a reality though her fabulations and arranges fashion performances where the models are more than mere ‘mannequins’. Cecilie Mossige has done an interview with Birkeland that almost imitates her fabric in the way it is written, reminding us how important language is in constructing identity.

Finally, art critic Lars Elton has written an essay trying to map out the flourishing young Norwegian jewellery scene. These are artists who do not seem to mind being decorative or ornamental.

Decorative or ornamental things are not empty signs. They contain deeper signification and may communicate identity on a deeper level. And maybe, just maybe, appearance really is everything.

«the act of adornment becomes a way of communicating with the world through sensory objects»

Reference:
Judith Butler: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 1990
Roberta Bernabei: Contemporary Jewellers: Interviews with European Artists, Berg Publisher, Oxford, New York, 2011 (quotes from the Introduction, pages 1 and 2.)