Published  08/06/2014

Ursula Ilse-Neuman: interview

Where Image and Object Meet

Ursula Ilse-Neuman: interview

Multiple Exposures: Jewellery and Photography, curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman
Museum of Arts and Design, New York City
13 May – 14 September 2014


From the early days of its development two centuries ago, photography has been closely aligned with an enduring human obsession: jewellery. As the technology evolved, jewellers and photography studios offered elaborate settings for photographs to a growing middle class eager to commemorate loved ones in an age when mortality rates were high.

The degree of luxury apparent in clients’ choices also asserted their taste and status, yet the Victorians’ fascination with photographs spanned every social strata, from Queen Victoria, who spearheaded the rage for mourning jewellery, to women of modest means, who kept images of their suitors in brass lockets.

Photographs and jewellery serve as frames for hopes, dreams, aspirations and desires. Literal “timepieces”, photo jewellery captures an instant, a life or an historical event, for when we view a photograph, the moment has passed. Lockets, brooches, rings and lapel pins are ideal vessels for such images. Potent with meaning and sentiment, they ensure that memories linger.

Multiple Exposures: Jewellery and Photography, which runs until mid-September at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City, is a curious and compelling collection of images appropriated, manipulated or originated by more than 80 contemporary jewellery artists. Featured in 170 objects and videos, these images riff on cherished traditions, highlight jewellery’s performative role, and question its social and cultural value.

MAD’s curator of jewellery, Ursula Ilse-Neuman, has taken a wide-angle view on her subject, ranging from the vintage to the experimental and including artists from around the globe. Visitors will see jewellery made from old lenses, film canisters and miniature cameras; “jewels” that are actually photographs printed on inexpensive industrial materials; altered landscapes pointing to the fictional nature of “realism”; objects with seemingly magical powers of personal transformation; and still photography and video subverting a notion of jewellery as beautiful physical adornment.

In this interview, Ilse-Neuman discusses contemporary photo jewellery, recurring themes and novel approaches reflected in the exhibit, and the creative sparks that fly when two human passions – photography and jewellery – meet.

Cindi di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Ursula. Multiple Exposures is a visual playground, accessible yet extremely sophisticated. The astonishing diversity ranges from Andy Warhol’s wristwatch design for Movado (1988) to Otto Künzli’s photographs of women wearing antique picture frames as necklaces (Die Schönheitsgalerie, 1984), a cheeky take on portraits in the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. Although quite expansive, the show suggests a vast and exciting terrain awaiting further exploration. How did you go about selecting and editing?

UI-N: I have been a curator at MAD for 22 years, the last eight as curator of jewellery [so] I have an extensive network of artists, gallery owners and fellow curators. When I sent out enquiries for jewellery artists who were incorporating photography in their work, I received a wonderful range of works. Going through those images, was a revelation critical to forming my curatorial concept. The selection process was one of elimination from hundreds of images and placing the short list into genres: portraiture, the body, landscape, and so on.

CDM: Visitors will see works by two pioneers in the conceptual jewellery movement, Swiss goldsmith Künzli and Dutch jeweller/industrial designer Gijs Bakker. Can you illuminate some aspects of their practices that shook the field?

UI-N: No other jewellery artist has used photographs with as much ingenuity as Künzli, one of the most provocative and influential figures over the past 40 years. Early in his career Künzli, like Bakker, sought ways of expressing the intrinsic meaning of jewellery and freeing it from historical conventions. In 1976, Künzli took a cardboard box full of tape, wire, lace and wooden rods to a photo booth in Munich’s main train station to try out various configurations and combinations on his own body, an investigation he documented in his Automatenfotos series.

He effectively dematerialised the physical object and rejected the formalism traditionally associated with its making. His goal was not to produce a permanent piece of jewellery, but a photographic series recording the effect of shapes on the body without regard for the material limits or techniques required to make an enduring wearable object.

In the 1960s, Bakker and his wife, Emmy van Leersum [1930-1984], began to use photographs to disseminate their revolutionary designs, which promoted the use of industrial materials such as aluminium, steel, rubber and plastic, and were inspired by the pared-down shapes of modernist art and mass production. In 1973, Bakker enlisted photography to present what is considered the first example of conceptual jewellery, his Shadow Jewellery. It was an ephemeral work without traditional jewellery’s monetary value or permanence. Bakker wanted to make an invisible piece of jewellery that would change the body and make it more visible than the piece of jewellery itself. He wrapped gold wire around different body parts using photographs to provide documentary evidence of the impression left on the skin – the actual “jewellery”. The photographic record of this event is of great, lasting importance.

Beginning in the 80s, Bakker began appropriating images and laminating them in PVC to create jewellery. His iconic works seen in Multiple Exposures include a necklace in which Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Adam rests on a gold circlet and the Waterman Brooch, with a photograph by Bruce Weber of a naked man throwing a bucket of water over his back, studded with diamonds that sparkle like droplets of water. The brooch represents a stunning contrast between a cheap throwaway item and enduring luxury. He further explored the capacity of the photographic image to embody and confer value and association by creating a large collar from a photograph he made of a 1780s French necklace, now in the Pforzheim Museum collection. Do we value the historical necklace more than Bakker’s PVC collar – and with it the artistic idea? It is clear where Bakker’s choice lies. Eventually, the museum in which the historical piece is kept also bought Bakker’s piece.

CDM: À la Künzli’s Automatenfotos (1976), MAD invites visitors to participate in the creative process via the “Auto-Selfie: The Hasselblad Photo Booth”. What will they encounter in this installation?

UI-N: The booth has been beautifully designed by Rupert Deese and fabricated by Eric Lindveit. In it, visitors can try out various combinations of forms using simple objects to make ephemeral jewellery preserved only in the Hasselblad photo booth. The installation encourages visitors to see jewellery as a creative activity and that jewellery can derive value from its forms on the body rather than from precious metals and gems. Of course, the superior quality of Hasselblad’s digital camera is also intended to remind us of the difference that using fine lenses can make, even with images uploaded to a website.

CDM: Similarities between our age and the Victorian era are striking, with rapidly emerging technology changing society’s values and speed of life, then and now. Can you mention a few pieces in the show that dialogue with these distinct time periods by using vintage photos (daguerreotypes, ferrotypes, Kodachromes, and so on), traditional formats (cameos, mourning jewellery, lapel pins and campaign buttons) and customs (incorporating human hair). For example, Geoffrey Giles’s Self-Portrait: Cultivated Perception bracelet and Keith Lo Bue’s Spectre Woman brooch?

UI-N: I prefer to think of the use of vintage photographs as being reimaged and seen through a contemporary lens. When you look at Robert Ebendorf’s use of a tintype, you see that he invests the image of an anonymous soul with mystery intended to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. Thus, he is reversing the original intent of preserving the memory of a [specific] person. Similarly, the people in vintage photographs stare out from the past, but Bettina Speckner sometimes blocks their gaze with opaque materials such as jasper, thus cancelling the subject’s identity. The decorative power of jewellery transports these history-laden portraits into the existential ambiguity of the 21st century.

Lo Bue enjoys creating dramatic tableaux within his pieces. His use of the Victorian spirit photograph evokes the power of the paranormal felt by believers even though we no longer accept it as a true ghostly presence.

Gabriela Sánchez subverts the aesthetics of the traditional cameos generally worn by wealthy women as status symbols by using the form to frame close-up photographs of blemishes and body parts her friends considered to be unattractive and embarrassing. Taking photographic details out of context allows the artist to question: “How real is the beauty we see? How abnormal is the ugliness we hide?”

Similarly, Giles’s use of his hair recalls a hair jewellery tradition that reached its height of popularity during the 19th century. His intention in combining a single dreadlock of his hair with photographs chronicling its cutting is not to memorialise, but to record the prejudice he felt after he had let his hair grow for 10 years.

Painted eye miniatures [popular during the Georgian era] were quickly replaced by the immediacy and far lower cost of photographs. Instead of the eye of a beloved, Suska Mackert’s brooches appropriate eyes from photographs printed in newspapers and bestow on them an unsettling directness, as they seem to be looking at us with a gaze not intended for a loved one. They recall some of the most provocative images of surrealism, in which sight is the avenue of desire and also of voyeurism and forbidden knowledge.

CDM: The theme of memory reverberates through Multiple Exposures. The historical pieces are poignant, particularly “trench jewellery” fashioned by soldiers from empty shell casings and cast-off aluminium. I am also deeply moved by how Ashley Gilreath communicates her heritage in I Am Who They Were, a piece of heirloom-style jewellery honouring family members she may know from photographs only. Can you give readers some insight into the way she constructed the piece?

UI-N: Ashley explains that the frames were modelled after dollhouse parts. She made a mould of the originals, poured wax, carved and manipulated their surfaces, and then cast them in sterling silver and bronze. The portraits themselves were collected by looking through stacks of her family photo albums, backed up through years of genealogical investigation. She scanned and manipulated the photos to enhance the quality of the images and printed them on to plastic decal paper. Then she cut, ground and fitted microscope slides into the frames. Adhering the decals on to the glass surface provided the transparency she wanted in the necklace so that her “family skin” would show through as a unifying element.

CDM: The great narrative potential in Multiple Exposures mirrors the diverse sources the artists draw on. For instance, Herman Hermsen made his Booklets necklaces from photos he took of architectural details on buildings in Europe. Just as the images tell a story of his travels, viewers who recognise these sites will have their own associations. Can you describe an abstract work in Multiple Exposures that stimulates narratives in a different way and also involves memory?

UI-N: Craig Arnold’s Corrosion Brooches are abstract, yet he wants them to convey a message. While looking at twisted metal in a junkyard, he was drawn to the patina that age and corrosion had produced on the once functional objects discarded there. He made the photographs he took of the metal into brooches intended to be statements of the inevitability of decay. The idea that the detritus of our industrial age can inspire objects of adornment is a central theme in his work.

Jiro Kamata believes that cast-off lenses are repositories of memorable moments in people’s lives. His abstract brooch from the Arboresque series, made from old camera lenses, is a container for such memories. He painted the lenses with bright colours using the ancient Japanese [marbling] technique, suminagashi. The result appears as an abstractly painted surface, but Kamata considers it as symbolic of what was seen through the lenses.

CDM: Many works incorporate found objects, thus invigorating compositions and widening the interpretative arena. Which are some of the most unusual uses of found objects in the exhibit?

UI-N: Robert Ebendorf’s 1968 Man and His Pet Bee, a signature work, comes immediately to mind. Using collage, Ebendorf juxtaposed found objects and vintage photographs for their ambiguous, almost surreal or dreamlike associations. His combination of a dial with 60 increments, beads and the enigmatic turquoise glass bee between the man’s legs is a landmark piece in the studio jewellery movement.

Despite its elegant appearance, Kara Ross’s Transformation Necklace includes bits of raw concrete from a construction site alongside black diamonds, white sapphires and sterling silver.

CDM: Jordan Doner’s Surveillance Pendant/Display Cuff is a bit unnerving, reminding viewers that in the 21st century, everyone is a target for the camera and the internet. Doner’s impersonal rendering of this dilemma is balanced by Wafaa Bilal’s 3rdi camera implant, which restores intimacy to our Janus-faced digital world. How does Bilal’s work function as jewellery?

UI-N: Today, many sports enthusiasts use helmet cams to record their exploits. They are purely functional gadgets, while the silver camera implanted in Bilal’s head is a conceptual reminder of the camera’s link to memory and the human mind. Because the human body is the site of our experiences, of our sense of identity, the act of wearing a bright silver camera that actively records images of his experiences bridges the boundary between the self and the outside world.

CDM: Popular culture offers contemporary jewellery artists a wealth of subjects, from famous paintings and religious iconography to superheroes and soda pop bottle tops. I especially admire how Maria Nuutinen makes mass-produced pictures of the Madonna and the Passion objects of deeper reflection with the whimsical addition of brightly coloured sewing pins to her pincushion bracelets. In his Tree brooch, Ruudt Peters takes a different tack to achieve similar ends via surrealism and an image downloaded from the internet. Which other artists in Multiple Exposures are working in the high/low, sacred/profane vein?

UI-N: Bakker provides a powerful example in his Holysport series. For his Munster Da Vinci brooch, he used computer manipulation to replace the arms and head of Leonardo’s figure of Christ on the cross with those of a football player who was famous for pulling his shirt over his head and running with his arms outstretched whenever he scored a goal. The image satirises sports as religion, and the hooded figure has been connected with the victims of violence in the name of religion.

In a more humorous vein, Peters’ self-portraits are reminders of his Catholic upbringing. [For Ritual], he reworked an old custom in which Catholic schoolchildren would have a Madonna medallion pinned on their shirts every morning for protection. With a wink, Peters exchanged his own visage for the revered image and took great pleasure pinning it on friends and admirers.

In her Mood Swing necklace, Kathleen Browne took images from a 1950s pulp magazine. She reconfigured these overly dramatic poses, capturing a moment of psychological stress. The reference to historical portrait miniatures, in particular 18th-century decal transfers, is an interesting way to combine an old technique with a very modern sensibility. Her process uses monochromatic photocopied images reproduced as enamel decals, fired and placed into jewellery frames.

CDM: Some Multiple Exposure artists use MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] films, x-rays and other medical imagery to question identity. Francisco Toledo’s Sarta de Cangrejos #2 links the internal environment of the human body, the ocean depths and legends originating in Oaxaca, Mexico. Can you explain the symbolism of the crab, the shape he chose to cut the medical film in this work?

UI-N: Crabs were a part of the visual landscape of Juchitán, Mexico, where he spent his childhood. He closely observed the intricacy of their structure, the precise definition of the exoskeletons, and the rhythm of their movements. Crab was often part of his daily meals, and Toledo was born under the sign of Cancer, identified by the crab. The presence of cancer as illness is often indicated through x-rays, a dark connection with the image of a crab. But crabs are agile and capable of moving quickly and sidewise to escape danger.

CDM: The “Jewellery through the Lens” section contains photographic treatments of jewellery as subject rather than object, and documentary of ephemeral forms of physical decoration. How do you define the genre in the 21st century, when contemporary jewellery artists are pushing boundaries well beyond typical ideas of what jewellery should be?

UI-N: Many artists are drawn to photography for its potential to transmit ideas about jewellery and the act of wearing it. In their explorations, the question, “But is it jewellery?” is not relevant, since art jewellery is rapidly evolving even as conventional jewellery remains a status symbol; diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but there is an expanding realm of jewellery that is rich in content and increasingly relevant in the search for personal expression in a depersonalised society. We are also beginning to see a merging of technology and adornment that will challenge our concept of jewellery and its relationship to wearer and viewer.

With video, jewellery artists explore wider-ranging themes: for example, rituals involved with wearing jewellery and its significance as a wedding ring; tension created by too much gold and precious stones that can become restricting and a burden; commercialisation of well-known brand names through the lure of the logo, standing in place of craftsmanship and creative ideas originally present in the works. The short videos by trained goldsmiths in the exhibition represent intriguing new ways to express these ideas.

CDM: “Intriguing” is an apt word for every work in Multiple Exposures, Ursula. As the first major exhibit devoted to the genre, we hope that it leads to greater awareness of contemporary photo jewellery.

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