Theatricality and Art Jewellery

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 1/ 2013: Afterthoughts on a Jewellery Spectacle

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts

So says the character Jaques in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a play written around 1600.

I come from a background of studies in art history and theatre theory and, as an art critic, have benefitted greatly from my knowledge of performance theory and how theatrical strategies infiltrate fine arts and crafts, relational aesthetics and curatorial practices.

In jewellery, one can easily look on any kind of adornment as part of a ‘costume’ that serves the purpose of saying something about the ‘character’ of the wearer.

Art historian and jewellery collector Marjan Unger said last year in Munich that she defined jewellery thus:

‘objects worn by people, as decorative and symbolic additions to their outward appearance.’

Speaking about what it means to study jewellery, she asserted that ‘The essential triangle in the study of jewellery consists of makers, wearers and onlookers.’

«The relationship between the jewellery wearer and the onlooker may be seen as similar to the relationship between the actor and the audience in theatre.»

When reading these passages I immediately thought of the opening of stage director Peter Brook’s book The Empty Space from 1968, a standard work in theatre studies, where he speaks of the significance of an empty space:

‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’

The relationship between the jewellery wearer and the onlooker may be seen as similar to the relationship between the actor and the audience in theatre.

In a time when art jewellery seems to be becoming «mere» objects in a museum or gallery exhibition, the theatrical aspect of jewellery is something that intrigues me. I use the term ‘theatrical’ here to emphasise a way of being in the world that derives from theatre, but exists outside the theatre institution. In my opinion, jewellery theory could use the perspective of theatricality to gain valuable insight into the relationship between wearer and onlooker.

The concept of theatricality in art is discussed by art critic Michael Fried in his essay Art and Objecthood (1967) as ‘concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters’ a work. The work has ‘a kind of stage presence’. Furthermore, theatricality has to do with the experience of the whole situation around a work of art, and Fried describes this situation as ‘open-ended’ and ‘objectless’, putting the emphasis on abstract qualities like durability, conviction, sensibility, absence of enclosing profiles and centres of interest, and unperspiciousness. Fried however sees this ‘theatricality of objecthood’ as a threat to Modernist painting, and as ‘the negation of art’.

«The concept of holy theatre is significant here because it embraces theatricality as an on-going process where the body is centre stage»

Holy theatricality
Returning to Peter Brook, who published his book the year after Fried’s essay came out, one finds four different meanings of theatre: a Deadly Theatre, a Holy Theatre, a Rough Theatre and an Immediate Theatre. While Fried attacks ‘literalist art’ (his term for Minimalist Art) for being theatrical, Brook attacks a ‘literalist’ theatre for being stale and deadly. Brook seeks a theatre that engages the whole body – in a profound way. As ‘Holy theatre’, he discusses, among other things, the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, who conceives of it as ‘a vehicle, a means for self-study, self-exploration’. Like Fried, Brook describes here a theatricality that is open-ended and ‘objectless’ – meaning that it lacks a fixed product.  

The concept of holy theatre is significant here because it embraces theatricality as an on-going process where the body is centre stage – theatre in this sense doesn’t need to have another narrative structure than duration, and it is not set aside from life itself as ‘fiction’, but is a way of being in the world. ‘Holy theatre’ as self-study and self-exploration, according to Grotowski’s meaning, is not a psychological process; rather, it aims to engender collective values, to provide some sort of modern-day spirituality and to escape the isolation caused by individualism.

This may not be very distant from what jewellery artists Reinhold Ziegler aims for in his ‘quest for a deeper understanding of jewellery’. This is a theme which Christer Dynna, editor of the Norwegian journal Kunsthåndverk, touches on in his article Quo Vadis, Nordic Art Jewellery? in this issue of Norwegian Crafts magazine. Ziegler sees his jewellery pieces as talismans and seeks to connect them to a spiritual world. 

«Disguised theatricality is a staging of the self (or others) that aims at being non-theatrical. »

Relational art jewellery
Unger’s talk in Munich last year did not address issues of theatricality. Rather, it addressed what she describes as a crisis in art jewellery – she sees the field as having become ‘an inbred circuit: too many insiders and too few outsiders’. But her talk addressed jewellery as fashion, something I consider to be closely related to certain interpretations of theatricality, and in her lecture at From the Coolest Corner symposium, which Christer Dynna discusses, she reflected on an apparent abandoning of important values in jewellery, namely the emotional and social aspects.  

The social aspect of jewellery is a theme Nanna Melland engages with in her public installation Swarm. This is a large wall covered with small, aluminium airplanes, and it has been on show at Oslo’s main public library throughout January and February. The airplanes could be bought at a low cost, removed from the wall and worn as brooches. In Monica Holmen’s interview with Melland, the artist talks about wanting the public to participate in the work by bringing it out into the world.

Swarm is relational art, in Nicolas Bourriaud’s sense of the term (which I have previously touched on in ‘Craft and Objecthood’). Swarm deals with issues such as collectivity and individuality but also with jewellery as an art form. Since the airplanes are mass produced in a cheap material, the work raises questions about the unique art work and value. The work may not be radical or new in the sense of breaking with art jewellery’s traditions – after all, the precious materials with which jewellery has traditionally been made have already been challenged by the use of trash and low-cost materials – but it still offers a critique of art jewellery; it avoids being «merely» an object, and it avoids, to a certain degree, concepts of craftsmanship and decoration.

The relational aspect in Swarm relates it to Atelier Ted Noten’s work Wanna swap your ring? currently on display in Gallery Format Oslo. The work consist of 500 computer-made «miss piggy» rings in pink plastic that can be swapped for your own ring. In Noten’s case however, the brand value is high, and the coolness of the Noten brand alongside the modern and memorable look of the ring makes it desirable in a consumer-friendly way.

This is not the case with Melland’s work. It doesn’t have a big brand name or famous artist (yet) to back it up, and there is very little coolness to the way the installation is made. Rather, it seems to represent a genuine attempt to discuss social matters with a public who moves and breathes outside the field of art jewellery. This is especially the case since the installation’s context is a public library.

«theatricality is about getting people involved, to have them feel something on a deeper level, be it joy or sadness»

Disguised theatricality
In the way Melland has made and presented her work, she may not be interested in the aspect of theatricality – at least not in the sense of a stage play where the piece of jewellery functions as part of a costume. In Noten’s installation, the theatricality is all too evident. Noten’s work also engages in critiquing value and individuality, but through inviting the public to share in his brand name, as would fashion designers and high-end consumer brands. And it is important for the ring to be spectacular to achieve its purpose.

While Noten engages in the visual and conceptual language of consumer culture to point to the structures of desire that make you want to buy and wear a certain ring or jacket or other object of social distinction, Melland seems to escape the logic of desirability and go for a more ‘honest’ approach.

Normally I don’t like to think of theatricality as a contradiction to honesty (therefore the quotation marks), but in this case, it shows two very different involvements with the public, and this contradiction draws a picture of a field of theatricality within which the artists work.  

On one side of the spectrum of theatricality you have the obvious, playful staging of identity – which is evident in consumer culture – on the other side of the spectrum you have what theatrologist Anne-Britt Gran describes as disguised  theatricality in her book Vår teatrale tid [Our Theatrical Era]1. Disguised theatricality is a staging of the self (or others) that aims at being non-theatrical. Melland’s work is theatrical in that it seeks to hide the fact that it is staging both itself and the wearer. For Melland’s work to be political, to discuss the individual’s part in the masses, and to engage the ‘outsider’ public – to refer back to Unger’s critique of an art jewellery in crises – it has to appear to be honest, and non-theatrical.

I don’t imply here for a second that Melland is not an honest artist or that her work is dishonest in some respect; I merely want to point out that she is actively engaged in staging her work and the public in no less manner than is Atelier Ted Noten.  

Following Gran, this sort of disguised or secret theatricality is a means to an end, a way of structuring reality to construct meaningful narratives and to get ‘the public’ involved. For Brook, theatricality is also about getting people involved, to have them feel something on a deeper level, be it joy or sadness.

«Shaping an installation or an exhibition may also be thought of in terms of theatricality.»

Curating as directing
Shaping an installation or an exhibition, normally referred to in the art world as curating, may also be thought of in terms of theatricality. This is because the curator and stage director share certain similarities.  

Liesbeth den Besten, who, in this issue of Norwegian Crafts is interviewed by Gjertrud Steinsvåg, has ‘staged’ an exhibition at Galleri Format Oslo that seeks to investigate national identity. den Besten invited nine jewellery artists to participate, and all are somehow linked with the Nederlands. The press release for Below Sea Level – Jewellery from the Netherlands describes the exhibition thus:

‘The selection includes an iconoclast, an entertaining conceptualist, a joyous zinc smith, a chain artist, a romanticist, a designer in synthetic materials, a still life pictorialist, a storyteller and a playful abstractionist – together they present Dutch jewellery in all its broadness.’

Looking at the jewellery pieces, which are presented basically as art objects, one can try to identify the concept of the artist and to look at the work for insights into the identity of the maker, which is what the press release stresses. Viewers may ask themselves: What kind of ‘play’ does den Besten present with these ‘characters’?

But one could also see the works as picturing the wearer, bearing in mind that jewellery is signified by its relationship with a body. So what do these pieces say about their potential wearers?

What I have touched on here are but a few possible interpretations of theatricality. Looking at ‘Holy theatre’ in Brook´s sense could be fruitful when discussing art jewellery practices like Ziegler’s, and looking at instances of relational jewellery through the lens of theatre theory could offer interesting perspectives on jewellery practices as different as that of Atelier Ted Noten and Nanne Melland. Thinking of the curator as a stage director may also provide different answers to the question: What do we see and what does this mean?

Of course there are many other ways to use concepts of theatricality in the discussion of jewellery. My aim here has mainly been to put forth some suggestions.

1 Anne-Britt Gran: Vår teatrale tid - Om iscenesatte identiteter, ekte merkevarer og varige mén, Dinamo 2004 [Our Theatrical Era: About Staged Identities, Real Brands and Longlasting Injury].