Touching Warms the Art

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Curating Craft: An Experiential Exhibition

MoCC Curator Namita Gupta Wiggers introduces Touching Warms the Art, an experimental exhibition that centralizes the experience of wearing art jewelry by placing work made by artists directly into the hands of museum visitors.

Curating Craft: An Experiential Exhibition

By Namita Gupta Wiggers, Curator, MoCC

magine if each of the studio jewelers created a non-precious piece for visitors to handle. Could we professionals even achieve such working freedom? Does it devalue what we do? Painstaking craft and hand-worked detail may be the forte of the craft artist. Nevertheless, these values generate preciousness, ultimately dividing the masses from experiencing the pleasures of ‘real’ studio jewelry first-hand.”1

In her review of Beyond the Body: Northwest Jewelers at Play, Rebecca Scheer directly challenges both makers and exhibitors of art jewelry. Although art jewelry is created in relation to the body, museums must display such works under glass to ensure they are protected and available for future generations. Composed of precious and delicate materials, visitors simply cannot handle – let alone wear – these works of art in a museum setting. How, then, can the physical experience of wearing art jewelry be made available to a broad audience within a museum environment?

Museums today are expected to fabricate experiences, to provide something that moves people beyond their daily lives, the malls and stores, and, often, beyond other art experiences.2 A good museum exhibition is expected to not only expose the visitor to the work on view, but to provide content that explains why the work is on view.3 In the past several decades, art museums have increasingly incorporated a range of interpretive devices, from guided tours to lectures, wall panels, catalogues, hands-on activities, demonstrations and workshops – all designed to provide deeper understanding of the structure of exhibitions and of their contents. As educating the public becomes as important as collecting itself, museum professionals continually seek creative ways to provide first-hand experiences with objects while simultaneously protecting work for future generations.

Much like other art museums, one primarily encounters objects at the Museum of Contemporary Craft from behind a barrier – typically under a protective cover or at a safe distance. However, the objects exhibited at the Museum are craft-based, meaning that physical engagement with the materials by the maker – and often by the “viewer” – is vitally important. “Viewing” – a term used describe the way a visitor engages a painting – does not, however, adequately encompass the experience with a craft-based object. With art jewelry, for example, a relationship between the maker and the wearer’s body is embedded within the object’s conceptual focus and structural form. Glenn Adamson argues that “craft should be treated as a subject, not a category…that craft is not something to be pushed into the background or seen in relationship to other objects, but rather a topic for conceptualization.”4 To recognize this difference between craft and other forms of visual production requires a critique of craft museum practices and the development of new and experimental exhibition strategies.

The Tacoma Art Museum offered a viable solution in Beyond the Body, an interactive display of art jewelry in which visitors were allowed to try on works created by sculpture students working under the guidance of noted art jeweler Nancy Worden. Engaging an artist from the exhibition to create a related, interactive feature is what museum professionals are taught to do. But Scheer’s review revealed that such features may not function as intended – particularly in terms of craft-based artwork. Scheer described the same display in her review as a “petting zoo,” lamenting the way it distracted and diverted visitors from the artwork on view.5 Her comments were a provocative reminder that substitutions for first-hand experiences may not always succeed as educational devices within a museum setting.

Touching Warms the Art is an experimental exhibition that centralizes the experience of wearing art jewelry by placing work made by artists directly into the hands of museum visitors.6 Through a call for entries, artists were invited to “help bring the experience of art jewelry to our visiting audiences.” Asked to put aside precious and fragile materials, artists were challenged to create designs using unexpected materials, construction techniques and works which could withstand physical handling by museum visitors over a period of several months. Of the 145 submissions from 17 countries, work by 67 artists from 12 countries was selected by jurors Rebecca Scheer, Rachelle Thiewes and Namita Gupta Wiggers. Selections were made based on creative use of materials, innovative construction, wearability, and the merger of concept and form.

Generously donated by each artist, the works in Touching Warms the Art are the foundation of a teaching collection, a new Museum program through which a series of educational programs and outreach experiences can be developed. By developing a new branch of the collection, the Museum can ensure that the works remain accessible for public use, supporting the Museum’s mission to educate without sacrificing its role to collect, preserve and protect objects.

Recognizing that individual experience is a critical element with this project, visitors are invited to try work on, to view themselves in a mirror and to take pictures of themselves at a photo kiosk. All pictures will be uploaded to a Flickr site, from which visitors – and artists – may better understand the relationship between object and wearer, display and portability. Extending individual experience further, an Art Bar – fully stocked with materials, tools and books – is available for visitors to try their own hand at making and wearing art jewelry.

By employing a dialogic approach, Touching Warms the Art merges strategies from several types of museums within a single setting.7 Starting from the general premise that art jewelry is meant to be worn, artists have provided the work and the museum has provided the setting to provoke interactive learning, tactile experiences that honor the specificity of craft and challenge current museum practices. The Museum thanks Scheer for her passionate and rousing review that provoked the creation of this multi-faceted and collaborate exhibition.

1. Scheer, Rebecca, “Beyond the Body: Northwest Jewelers at Play, Tacoma Art Museum,” Metalsmith, 26:2 (2006): 53. Rock Hushka, Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, Tacoma Art Museum organized Beyond the Body: Northwest Jewelers at Play as a companion exhibition to connect regional art jewelry using alternative materials and ideas to a larger traveling exhibition Zero Karat: Jewelry in Non-Precious Materials from the Collection of the Museum of Arts & Design, on view May 14–September 11, 2005.
2. Hein, Hilde S., The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2000, p. xi.
3. For a provocative discussion about contemporary museum practice, see Maurice Berger, edit. Museums of Tomorrow: A Virtual Discussion, Issues in Cultural Theory 8, Santa Fe: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, 2004.
4. Adamson, Glenn, “Handy-Crafts: A Doctrine,” in Maricola, Paula (edit.), What Makes a Great Exhibition?, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006, p. 110.
5. Scheer, “Beyond the Body,” p. 53.
6. The title of this exhibition is a play on verbiage used in the Tacoma Art Museum and adopted by the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2005 to help visitors understand why handling artwork is discouraged: Touching Harms the Art.
7. Hein, The Museum in Transition, p. 26. Hein notes that exhibits in science museums “do not celebrate what eminent scientists have done, but rather invoke the universal processes of science.” Rather than focus on individual artists, Touching Warms the Art is organized, instead, on a central, shared principle that art jewelry is made to be worn.

Letter From a Maker and a Co-curator

Guest co-curator and metalsmith Rebecca Scheer addresses the wearers of contemporary art jewelry and explores about the ideas and experiences that informed Touching Warms the Art.

Letter From a Maker and a Co-curator

By Rebecca Scheer, Guest Curator

Dear Potential Wearer of Contemporary Art Jewelry,

The artists in this exhibition agree that jewelry means nothing without you. Your participation and your touch fully makes these objects both jewelry and art, fully makes them real in ways they can’t be behind glass display cases. That is why every artist in Touching Warms the Art has generously donated his or her work to the Museum, for your delight, pleasure, and provocation. This work was not made for “the body” in the abstract, as if it was just an idea. What the artists want, and are trying desperately to seduce with all their creativity, is not just any body – but yours.

Why is it so important that you actually wear the jewelry? Why can’t you just look at it? Sight has been the privileged sense in Western thought and culture for thousands of years, but many modern thinkers have questioned this distortion of our experience. “Only the distancing and detaching sense of vision is capable of a nihilistic attitude,” notes Juhani Pallasmaa, “it is impossible to think of a nihilistic sense of touch, for instance, because of the unavoidable nearness, intimacy, veracity and identification that the sense of touch carries.”1

Your touch endows the medium of art jewelry with latent powers unexplored by traditional artists. Among these powers is the mobility of the object. On you, jewelry quite literally travels places that art rarely does. This quality gives both makers and wearers of jewelry the potential to directly engage social environments in unexpected arenas. The simultaneous interaction between the object, the internal awareness of the wearer and the observations of the spectator is what gives jewelry meaning. At its core, jewelry is about relationships – between maker and wearer, object and subject, giver and receiver, individual and society, and a variety of private and public experiences.

But all of this interactive potential remains abstract unless you wear the jewelry. How often do you have that opportunity? In most exhibitions, labels read “Please Don’t Touch” or “Touching Harms the Art.” Curators must protect the artist’s precious materials and meticulously hand-worked craft, so the transmission/transformation is barely possible. The full experience of wearing art jewelry becomes the privilege of the elite. Some recent critics have suggested jewelry artists are working in a vacuum, that hardly anyone actually wears the work, and have pronounced the death of contemporary jewelry.2

With this exhibition, we put the experience of art jewelry into your hands where it can come to life. Artists were challenged to create works without using traditional jewelry materials, like gold, silver and stones, for entirely practical reasons. Preciousness – of value, craft, or rarity – was not allowed to be a barrier to your experience. The true value of the work in Touching Warms the Art is evident in dozens of innovative designs, imaginative (re)interpretation of materials, and in the sensory experience activated by your touch.

Because these artists knew they were creating for your very real body, many used particularly sensuous materials like fabric, felt and rubber, in distinctive ways. The hollow, natural rubber forms of Teresa Faris’ Bracelet #3 mimic human skin in color, jiggle and rebound. Sinuous tubes of ultrasuede and sand in Sandbags, by the designing Brothers Ladd, wrap around the body a bit like hugs. In one of the few uses of actual metal in this exhibit, Susan Kingsley captures the seductive qualities of art jewelry by attaching a steel meat cutter’s glove to a rubber cord in Handpiece. You must put it on to feel its weight, movement, how it restricts and how it caresses. Your emotional, visceral and physical experience is the message and the meaning of this artwork.

Some artists, like Mindy Herrin (Abstracted Fruit Necklace) and Eliana Arenas (Back Elongations, Full Body Elongation), have made the wearing of their jewels a theatrical event, with you as the main attraction. Maru Almeida substitutes felted wool in the iconic pearl necklace String of Pearls, with a dramatic shift in scale that heightens sensuality and awareness of the body by suspending massive pearls from neck to groin. Christine Dhein’s Strictly Rubber neckpiece envelopes the throat and cascades down the back with ticklish fronds of inner tubing. While these pieces challenge conventions of scale and materials, they perform an age-old function of jewelry: to make the wearer look and feel like the center of attention.

Other artists make significant demands upon you, the wearer, by referencing the body in unexpected ways. Will you put your fingers into Elizabeth Ryan’s human Hairball Collection rings or recoil in disgust? Will you attach Courtney Starrett’s hollow silicone Bubbles directly to your skin by suction, adding luminous, protuberant growths to your own body? Will you allow Masako Onodera’s Flesh Propagation or Masumi Kataoka’s Gut Ball to hang raw and bulging, turning your inside out? Can you imagine a trip to the grocery store in Natalya Pinchuk’s How Many Do You Have? dominating necklace of felt penises, an ironic trophy of manhood? Historically, jewelry has highlighted the décolletage, Rachel Kassia Shimpock uses your chest space to confront those who dare to look, in Show me yours… Within the safe walls of the museum these pieces titillate. Outside the museum, they could turn the wearer into a performance artist.

As if simply wearing jewelry wasn’t enough, several of the artists seized upon the unusual interactivity of the exhibit to give you something to do. Through a thoughtful combination of lead and leather, the Alma (Soul) Ring by Diego Bisso, allows the wearer to sculpt infinitely for the hand. Jennifer Crupi’s aluminum Gesture Cuff teaches awareness of a familiar defensive pose by visually and physically directing you into assuming that very pose. With modular pieces of acrylic and Velcro, Ana Cardim’s Swing Bracelet allows you to stack color and light in various configurations. Emiko Oye’s My First Royal Jewels Jewelry Collection: The Queen Margherita cultivates contemporary jewelry collectors of the youngest age group (or mindset), giving them the power to make multiple necklaces, bracelets and a brooch with the click of a Lego. Proclaim your commandments in magnetic letters in Jenny Campbell’s The People’s Crown, which crowns you as queen (or king) for a day. Long live the wearer!

Both the materials and the processes of making jewelry are democratized in this exhibit. What could be more empowering than knowing you can make fabulous jewelry out of practically anything? In Necklace 1, Heidi Gerstacker alters the lowly paperclip necklace into a form of simple beauty by obsessively wrapping each clip with thread. The stuff of bureaucratic nightmares becomes a dynamic bangle in Cynthia Toops’ Red Tape Bracelet. Clever recycling of soda bottles and other plastics allows Liaung Chung Yen (Changeability) to create rings with interchangeable inserts as beautiful as anemones. The minimalist, nylon thread drawings of Michelle Pajak- Reynolds (Drawing: Crimson #1, Drawing: Navy #1) treat the wearer’s clothes as a chalkboard on which to scribble.

It doesn’t take much to speak volumes when the art is this close to our bodies. Agnieska Zoltowski’s small and simple Untitled Plexiglas box with finger hole succinctly captures the spirit of the exhibition. The body in such a restricted space is absurd and slightly angry, flipping off the traditional museum display case. Another piece offering layers of discovery is Julia Barello’s Flowers of Rhetoric. You don’t need to understand the source material to enjoy the exuberant forms. But when realization occurs, the ghost of a delicate X-ray comments on the ephemerality of the body itself, and becomes a poignant reminder to enjoy and decorate our bodies while we have them.

In the imaginary world where the artist-philosopher rules, picture a traveling public library of jewels like those found in this exhibition, precious in their inventiveness, fascinating expressions of thoughts made real. The librarian would allow you to check out a piece only if you solemnly swore to wear it everywhere for 24 hours straight and describe the reactions you got at the carwash, the office, the movie theater. Did you feel silly, special, powerful, itchy, sexy, wistful, or burdened? Do tell, dear wearer. Makers have much to learn from your experience.

1 Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Chichester, England: Wiley-Academy, 2005, p. 22.
2 Staal, Gert. “In Celebration of the Street: Manifesto of the New Jewellery.” Metalsmith 27:5 (2007): 52–53

During Touching Warms the Art visitors were invited to try work on, to view themselves in a mirror and to take pictures of themselves at a photo kiosk. All pictures were uploaded to a Flickr site, from which visitors – and artists – may better understand the relationship between object and wearer, display and portability.

Artists Forum: Touching Warms the Art
Saturday, January 19, 2008
The Lab, 12 pm

Extending the Conversation: A Call and Response Exhibition
Saturday, January 19, 2008
The Lab, 2 pm

Excellence in Craft Lecture: Arline Fisch
Elegant Fantasy: A Journey Through Textile Techniques in Metal
Thursday, January 24, 2008
The Lab, 7 pm

Action/Re-Action Runway Show
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
The Lab, 7pm

Workshop: Fiber Freak Jewelry
Sunday, February 17, 2008
The Lab, 12–5 pm

January 19, 2008 – March 03, 2008

Curated by: Rebecca Scheer, Rachelle Thiewes and Namita Gupta Wiggers

Despite being made in relation to the body, the use of precious and delicate materials prevents museums from allowing visitors to handle – let alone wear – contemporary art jewelry. As a result, the physical experience of such work often remains in the hands of the privileged few.

Developed in response to an exhibition review written by Rebecca Scheer in Metalsmith magazine 2006), Touching Warms the Art provides a new approach to the exhibition of art jewelry. Here, jewelry created by artists is available for visitors to touch and to try on. Visitors can photograph themselves wearing works on view and can make their own jewelry at the Art Bar.

A challenge was put forth, asking artists to create work using unexpected materials and construction techniques, nothing precious or inherently fragile, and to consider a design capable of being physically handled by thousands of visitors. Juried by Rebecca Scheer, Rachelle Thiewes and Namita Gupta Wiggers, selections by 67 artists from around the world are on view, generously donated by each artist to the Museum’s Teaching Collection for use in this exhibition and for future educational programming.


Additional support provided by: Rotasa Foundation