Fuzzy Craft, or the Trouble with Clarity

Robin Williams out of focus in Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen (dir.), 1998
Benjamin Lignel, editor of Art Jewelry Forum, reflects on obfuscation strategies.

An early scene in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997) takes us outdoors to a film set in New York City. Worried cameramen look through the camera lens at a scene they’re about to shoot, whilst being told off by the set manager for their incompetence: the main actor is out of focus, and is staying out of focus, despite their best efforts to sharpen his image. They soon realise the equipment is not at fault: it is the object itself, the actor, who is fuzzy. 

Nothing can be done, really, and the scene ends by removing the visual offender from the set: “I want you to go home”, crows a concerned producer, “and get some rest”.

The audience knows that Robin Williams, who plays the fuzzy Mel, is the victim of a scripted, fictional anomaly, a form of idiocy that is all the more amusing as it touches an actor – whose livelihood hinges on being highly visible. It goes against a culture used to seeing everything, at all times, in high definition.

‘High Definition’ was the subject of the last Zimmerhof symposium, held in May 2016 in southwest Germany. As in every other year, the symposium brought together a motley group of contemporary jewellery makers and thinkers. It was cool: the organisers had the wit to reframe the age-old question of ‘tradition vs. innovation’ in terms of speed and network effects (rather than competence and authenticity). It also brought home – for me at least – the net effect of high definition in the digital age: I know everything about everyone at all times. I know what you did this year and what you’ll be doing next year. My position as editor of AJF also aids this situation: knowing about the diversity of what’s happening in the four corners of the vast contemporary-jewellery world is actually part of my job description. 

Most of the information I receive (or access online) surfs on a stream of images showing sharply defined objects – at least in a literal sense – against a triumphant white background. If an image is un-sharp, I make sure to boost contrasts just so, in Photoshop, before publication, so that readers can get as sharp an image of the object as possible. 

But is seeing better, better?


Marcel Duchamp, À Bruit Secret [With Hidden Noise], 1916-64, brass, twine, copper and unknown object, 10.8 x 13.02 x 13.02 cm, Edition of 8.

I’m interested in answering no. This is because I’m feeling a little melancholy about a sharpness that is often (but not always) a preamble to art-as-statement, premised on wide dissemination and fast delivery.

I also want to pick works whose ‘fuzziness’ is not in the image itself. I suspect that in this simple form – for example Annalies Štrba’s out-of-focus portraits of her children wearing her partner’s jewellery, or Antoine d’Agata’s blurred images of Chus Bures’ jewellery – fuzziness doesn’t derail vision as much as it tantalises the viewer. Such pictures are animal versions of David Hamilton’s foggy beach shots from the 1970s, paying homage to the stereotype of the shrouded twentieth-century eroticised female nude (van Stück, Knoppf, Millais). Not in focus, but totemic nonetheless.

A brief and fragmented history of obfuscation in art could start with Duchamp’s À Bruit Secret (1916-64), a small contraption of spool and sheet metal that forever conceals the source of a tinkling sound within. Concealment as a tease: I’m not sure Duchamp is the father of this conceptual device, but it went on to have a certain success in the twentieth century. A blatant breach of the art-maker/viewer contract, it has been useful (and often used) to reframe the question of ‘when is there art?’ by positing that the contemplation of things is secondary to speculation on the possibility of their existence, and consequently, the possibility of art.

A wrapped building, a cat (possibly) in a black box, a box containing (maybe) 40gms of artist shit, an exhibition during which the gallery is closed, an erased de Kooning drawing: all are iterations of the singular idea that ‘maybe’ is more exciting than ‘certainly’, even if ‘maybe’ usually delivers boring visual outcomes (there is only so much visual excitement to be derived from closed containers).1)

All these examples hinge on one certain fact: looking under or inside the box will not only anesthetise a work’s conceptual frisson, but in fact certainly kill the cat.2) As is often the case in contemporary art, the artist is fully in command, and since renunciation strategies invite viewers to engage in a metaphysical guessing game, the work’s ultimate impact depends on exactly what that absence makes manifest. 


Suska Mackert, Pinochet, 1999, one print from the Affiches series original newspaper image: Reuters, Archiv FAZ ,13.7.98 64 x 61 cm and 86 x 61cm, edition: 25, self-published
Suska Mackert, Genscher, 1999, one print from the Affiches series original newspaper image: Reuters, Archiv FAZ ,13.7.98 64 x 61 cm and 86 x 61cm, edition: 25, self-published

Erasures
A handful of contemporary jewellery makers have also used renunciation strategies, and my working hypothesis is that they have a different relationship to thingness than do visual artists, and a different point to make. I will use as a first example the work of German jeweller Suska Mackert, in particular, Affiches (1999). It consists of a series of five posters of different sizes that are reproductions of enlarged and cropped black-and-white photographs from the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily newspaper. Each image shows two or more white men of the three-piece-suit variety.3) They are variously engaged in acts of officialdom: some are being decorated, others are doing the decorating, and since Mackert has blacked out the actual necklace, medal, or lapel pin that is being exchanged, it looks very much as if they are embracing, touching, or playing with one another. The strategy deployed here is in keeping with other simple interventions by the artist (she has previously cut out images from auction catalogues, reduced news images to a fine powder, and gilded railway station signs), but it is unusually deceptive. One can see the images but not notice that certain things are missing. The overall effect is one of mild estrangement: the authority of the public-portrait format is preserved, and it simply lacks a caption that would justify the ‘photo op’. 

Meanwhile, knowing about the ‘blacking out’ process – and that Mackert is a jeweller – puts that ‘strangeness’ in much sharper relief. We know that men in suits don’t touch unless they are required to shake hands. We guess that the ceremonial object is an alibi: its distancing properties are the only reason men allow themselves to touch one another. We suspect that jewellery – the missing jewellery – is part of an institutional power play that must include an ‘authority’, its designated champion, and witnesses. We speculate that the absence of jewellery is a means to reference both a certain Western male resistance to adornment over the last two centuries, and an expression of the artist’s tenderness with respect to the emotional stuttering of the dominant political class.

This is all plausible, and it amounts to unplugging jewellery, the better to understand its emotional, anthropological or magical attributes. A conceptual moment, then, of meta-discursive dismantling and re-assembly. But my speculation is also far from certain: Mackert may simply have a taste for pictures of guys in suits, minus the jewellery. I’ll never know, and I like that, because I can’t be sure of what she is trying to say, and the absence of something grabs my attention and keeps my eyes fixed on what I can’t see.


Gijs Bakker, Blue Sea Brooch, form the series Real, 2004, white gold 585, sapphire, plastic, metal, h. 25 x w. 53 x d. 22 mm, executed by Pauline Barendse
Susan Cohn, Way Past Real, 1994, installation, fine gold, natural aluminum, 24-karat gold-plated brass, gold anodized aluminum, 22-karat gold leaf, gold dust, Dutch gold leaf, gold paint, theater lights, 6 x 1.5 m (each bracelet 30 x 130 mm diameter), Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Doppelganger
My second case study of fuzzy craft features examples of cloning strategies (rather than absence) that derail the gaze. Exhibit A is Gijs Bakker’s Real series, a small collection of brooches constructed as stacked replicas of themselves. A large brooch manufactured in glass and metal sits under, or next to, a smaller version of the same design in precious metal and stone. (It would be tempting to say that the glass version is a copy of the precious gem version, but it’s a little more productive not to second guess that hierarchy, since the series comes from a designer whose commitment to mechanical reproduction is seldom ironic). 

Meanwhile, at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne, designer Susan Cohn caused a stir in 1994 when she exhibited Way Past Real, a floor installation consisting of four groups of her signature donut-shaped bracelets. In the first group, a fine gold bracelet was hidden amongst 35 gold-plated ones; the second group contained 44 gold anodised bracelets, but only one made by the artist; the third group displayed a range of fake gold finishes; and the last group, as one journalist put it, “looked like gold, but was in fact cunningly lit aluminum”. Cohn, with her usual tightrope playfulness, kept the public guessing: “People would look at the work as an installation, then after reading the price list would try to work out the fine gold bracelet. I did not tell anyone, including my gallery director (drove her crazy) until I dismantled the installation. I babysat the installation so I would move the gold one into a different position every day.”4)

Both examples are textbook illustrations of artists questioning the value system that underpins contemporary craft practice. You anticipate that the room-sized treasure hunt will end when yes! You find the gold. Well Done! But you’ll spurn its devilish attraction – because you’re strong, and you know the artifices of art are much cooler than the reality of the real, or the adoration of the golden calf. There’s a moral here, which tries to untangle the good values of this craft from the bad ones. Bakker’s and Cohn’s propositions are best understood as analytical and playful heirs to Otto Künzli and his seminal Gold Makes Blind bracelet. But I’m less interested in the moral message of these artists than in the process of cloning.

Steinar Haga Kristensen: Totaler Angst der Abstraktion #03 (Der Schliemuskel funktioniert nicht mehr #64), 2014 Jasmonite, styrofoam, acrylic paint, epoxy, aluminum and glassfiber, Diptych / 190x245x70cm each

Like the motif of ‘absence’, cloning strategies have a long genealogy in art (Andy Warhol, Vija Celmins, Haim Steinbach, Jim Dine, and, more recently, Steinar Haga Kristiensen).5) In the present context, cloning strategies are imbued with concerns specific to jewellery. I understand Bakker’s and Cohn’s works less as cautioning against the trappings of commodification than as a riff on contemporary jewellery’s continued ambivalence towards ‘all that glitters’: even their post-modern relativism doesn’t quite renounce the pleasures of, well, gems and quite a bit of real gold. 

Seeing ‘nothing’ and seeing ‘double’ are odd positions from which to view art, and they constitute riskier propositions than the artists themselves would probably admit to. Positing the contingency of the meaning of gold, diamonds or jewellery, transmuting one value into another, by proposing, as Bakker does, that real gems might be caricatures of their glass reproductions 6) open the door to the possibility that all things can mean something other than what they are expected to mean. These ways of viewing art open up the possibility that things are in fact insignificant, interchangeable, or, as my friend Frédéric Martin would say, indifferent. 

But indifferent doesn’t mean uninteresting. 7) To appreciate these propositions, one simply needs to look away and think of them as antidotes to the idea that art objects are enigmas, that in themselves they contain meaning ready to be harvested. The fuzzy actor we started out with and the examples that followed put an interesting spin on the reciprocal relationship that unites people and the things they look at: these examples resist the notion of the primacy of the ‘thing to look at’. Their ‘materials’ are behaviour patterns and human expectations, and they posit things and their meaning as accessories to human interaction.

They are also fringe phenomena in contemporary jewellery, which recently has favoured bright statements and clever colours; they emphasise the charm of uncertainty and partial vision now playing second fiddle to affirmative statements, and the lure of well-made objects seen against a well-lit background (model optional).

I found myself, as I was writing this article, longing for a little more ambiguity.

Robin Williams out of focus in Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen (dir.), 1998

Notes: 

1)The works or principles referred to here are by Christo, physicist Erwin Schödinger, Piero Manzoni, Robert Barry and Robert Rauschenberg.

2)Fellini pushes the device to its logical and tragic end in the film Roma, in which metro diggers accidentally excavate themselves into an underground archaeological site decorated with frescoes not seen since antiquity. But the brightly coloured frescos gradually corrode and vanish simultaneously as they are discovered. 

3)News readers may recognise a varied cast of figures from the past 50 years: Duisenberg, Chirac, Havelange, Pinochet, Genscher and Geremek.

4)Susan Cohn, in email to author, 30 September 2016.

5)The question of the double is discuss at some length In ‘Michael Van den Abeele in conversation with Steinar Haga Kristensen’, published by Établissement d’en face, in conjunction with Steinar Haga Kristensen’s exhibition Tweemaal door de blinden, March-April 2013 (link).

6) The idea that reality might be a caricature of its copies is developed by Clément Rosset, Le Réel, Traité de L’idiotie, (Paris: Les éditions de Minuit, 1997), 47.

7) See Rosset, 40.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Benjamin Lignel is an artist, writer and curator. He is a co-founder of la garantie, association pour le bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewellery. In 2014 he organised Différence et Répétition, a research-by-exhibition project that was shown in Norway and France. In 2009 he became a member of Think Tank. A European Initiative for the Applied Arts, and in January 2013 was appointed editor of Art Jewelry Forum. Lignel has just edited a third book under AJF’s imprint – On and Off – which is dedicated to jewellery in the wider cultural realm. He is currently working with Namita Wiggers on a book themed on jewellery and gender. Ben Lignel is also acting as adviser for Médusa, a forthcoming exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.