Ulrich Reithofer

Sometimes Yellow, Sometimes Brown

Interview by Marina Elenskaya

CURRENT OBSESSION:

Imagine going back to Austria and meeting an old classmate who became a wealthy farmer. He is asking you what do you do?

Ulrich Reithofer:

I live in Amsterdam, I make jewellery. Mainly unique pieces. I use gold and also precious materials, but I also use a lot of other stuff like wood, glass, etc.

CO:

What would be the definition for you: I’m a contemporary artist, I’a jeweller, I’m a craftsman.

UR:

I am contemporary because I’m now. And I’m a jeweller because thats what I’m aiming for, is to be carried away, taken with someone. That the work is possibly given as a present with meaning of something related to jewellery: birthday, wedding, engagement… I just made a ring for a new born baby and his mother and this is how I’m a jeweller.

CO:

Why did you choose jewellery as a medium? Why not expressing yourself through sculpture?

UR:

Well, I anyway do sculpture, because a ring is a sculpture, brooch is a sculpture, parts of a necklace are always sculptural. But sculpture is based on the ground, there is a relation to the human body in size, but it is based somewhere and stays there. The jewellery is somehow worn and at a certain moment comes to the body and creates this personal relation with the body, it communicates only through the body. And the sculpture would not do that.

CO:

So the act of wear is important for you, its not to be sitting in the box or hang on the wall?

UR:

It is OK for me, but the object that I make, this sculpture has to imply the use. Even if its not wearable, even if it hurts when worn, then there is a statement about the non-wearability. But the human relation that lies in dimension to the body is important.

CO:

About the work itself, how it looks now and what it embodies, how did you come to this?

UR:

Its about putting things in a different prospective. Say, the chair, we know it as a furniture object in the room. What happens to the object in the room when its worn on the body? It’s the irritation that communicates. I think jewellery has to irritate to work. It has to be something that does not physically belong to you. It is not a pimple on your thumb, or a scratch on your cheek. It is something strange, but then does it communicate? Sometimes it just doesn’t. But sometimes someone will ask: ‘Why does she wear a fucking chair?!’ That would mean I achieved my goal – I started a communication.

CO:

When did this goal come into work?

UR:

I think it started in Idar-Oberstein. I made brooches with ready-made safety pins. It was an easy way out. I made pieces, but then I wanted to connect them to the body somehow. So what is the easy way? Take a safety pin and just stick your clothes! Then Theo (Theo Smiths, the professor at Idar-Oberstein) said, this is not true jewellery, because you use something existing and then put it to your artwork in order to connect it to the body. So then I decided to justify the safety pin as my means to jewellery. To prove that I’m allowed to do this, because that is what I wanted to do: use a ready-made together with my creation to get carried around on the body. And then I made a piece. It was a golden frame for a painting, on the back there was a safety pin, nailed with about 100 nails. And on the lower part, where you usually have a title of the painting it said, cut out of silver: ‘Ambitiously covered safety pin as a piece of jewellery’. So a lot of work invested into something that is just a safety pin. I realized I can do anything I want as long as it is a ’round thing’, as long as it makes sense.

CO:

So how did things proceed in Sandberg?

UR:

Idar-Oberstein was only about jewellery. Theres is only one academy dedicated to jewellery, and there was not much to talk about besides jewellery. And all art got somehow integrated from a point of view of jewellery. At Sandberg it changed completely. Suddenly I saw that concerns with the condition of the discipline happen in every field. If you are an architect, you also ‘find yourself’ in the field that is ‘dying out’ and there is ‘no future’, and the ceramists, glass artists, etc. have the same problem. You don’t see that this field is so much bigger then you, then your school, your education…My graduation piece for the Rietveld was a collaboration with a theatre school graduate. And she did a theatre performance and asked me if I could make a jewellery for her show, which meant making the stage. So I was hanging lamps, throwing cables around, had a little jewellery show at the entrance… Collaborations is what I do and I think is important for my work.

CO:

So if making sculpture or theatre design also counts, then its not about making only wearable work?

UR:

You’ve asked me to give you a visualization of the field, which gave me some pain… Because it very difficult to see us as a field for me. I see us more as a color. I see jewellery as a color, as much as architecture as a color, as much as painting as a color, as much as music as a color. We are a strong color and we tend to mix, we love to go with the blu, with the red, and the more we mix, the more we loose form our main source, main color.

CO:

Which is the color for you?

UR:

Sometimes Yellow, sometimes Brown. For me all the jewellery schools are one color. And some want to blend with the Red of Sculpture, so someone goes into the sculpture, someone goes into architecture, someone goes into fashion, music etc. But the stronger you realize your own color the stronger you can blend in with other colors. Without loosing your own. And so thats why I try to blend in with these purple theatre people, blue architects and orange photographers, because its interesting and it comes back into my own discipline. I think its very important that each individual finds its own blending. I think there are so many more jewellery intellectuals now compared to the time when Otto Kunzli started. Pigment became so much stronger, there are so many particles in our color. And of course we can blend easier with other colors.

CO:

So you see it as a virtue?

UR:

Yes, absolutely. Many of these attempts might not be successful, and maybe I will find myself blending with too many other colors that my original color either will fade away, or… I will find my own in-between color that is only mine.

CO:

So you are not concerned with loosing ourselves at the mercy of these great fields who might not even recognize jewellery?

UR:

No, think about it. I am sure there is now somewhere in the world a young painting student talking to another more experienced painter. They are having exactly the same conversation as we have. I don’t think we have to be insecure. This exists much more in fashion for example, because it is so much bigger. To get to the hight of Galliano who is a lot in the media right now, you have to fight so much harder than you have to fight as a jeweller! In the end we can say we came a long way and have a higher potential than Otto Kunzli had in his time.

CO:The struggles are different. For example Herman Junger. He had to break out of the german traditional school. Breaking symmetry, smooth surfaces. That was his main concern. Proving them wrong.

UR:

It could be we are further now, but maybe we are still at the same spot.

CO:

We came to a full circle. Herman Junger breaking off from the craft and tradition and our nowadays search to get back to them and revive the craft.

UR:

Nowadays we try to speed up the process a little bit, making things that are glued, and stringed together, but the expression is there. The piece has to be out, has to be seen and worn.
The excitement of creation is great. But now the piece falls apart because the primary concern was not finishing, but expressing! So now there is another step to be made: I want to keep the same look but how do I manage for it to become a durable piece? This is recognizable as a problem that every artist has. One step forward and two steps back. If you use new materials, as an architecture, it is possible that the house could collapse.

CO:

So, the way you relate to craft is more a way of shaping a message?

UR:

Well yes, but now I only start to regret that I cheated a little a bit on my education. I missed out on things that I got the paper for. Now I find out that some of these skills I really need.

CO:

Like what?

UR:

Cutting a straight line, finally fucking straight! Now I find myself calling someone to do it for me. Which is fine to the extend that you also have to find a way to supply that. The money and calls I need to make to get it done. Is that than also a craft? And if it is then I also need to learn a craft of how to arrange the money…

For me making a a good piece is about having a set of good skills. I don’t need to know them in the beginning. But in the moment I start to mess around a with stones, it gets interesting how people did it back in the day…In general craft is under-evaluated. Bauhaus was communicating the idea that ‘by saying you can’t teach art you are saying you have to learn the craft’. Walter Gropius said : ‘We train a new generation of architects by not teaching architecture’, but by teaching them how to make furniture, masonry, how to use wood, stone etc. They had a point I think. They go back to the basics of what makes you a good creator. There is so much confusion out there…I created a small brooch and it gives you, me, and someone who is watching a little piece of silence in this whole chaos. You want to take apart this big thing into smaller symbols, so it gets graspable. So you start to understand the world step by step: how blue and green work together, how triangle and a circle work together – and thats craft.

CO:

Where does the source of you work lay?

UR:

It is the chaos out there that I don’t know how to handle without making things I can grasp, making them visual and then communicate with others: ‘Do you see the world like me? Understand it like me? Oh, good! You see it different? Also good!’ This is the subject it all comes down to.

Hope
Conspiracy

CO:

You put a lot of meanings in your work. It is full of information. I chose these three of your works. For me the work is about the wearability, because something happens in the wearing.

UR:

Its interesting that you chose these three, because they all mark a period of time: one was the first after Idar-Oberstein, second one was my first after Sandberg, and the third is my first solo show. It shows what I’m looking for in the collier: its a closed circle, like a movie or a symphony: you starting somewhere, you give the introduction, then you develop the theme, you come to the main part and then you let it clean out – that’s a collier. And of course in each work I make, I try to emphasize one story. Sometimes I mess up and tell three. But if I manage, I tell one story. In ‘Hope’ its about two families, mama, papa and a daughter. You are raised by parents and now its time you are pushed out, suddenly you start waking on your own. That is how I felt at the time. I started to study at Idar-oberstein because I wanted to work with stone, but after two years the amount of stone work decreased and the amount of wood carving and sculptural elements increased. So here I have a big sculptural part that is wood and around it there are these stones, with hope that one day I’ll come back to the stone. Also, the concept of hope is always identified with the color green, but I’m not sure its correct, so I made a black collier with pink stones.

CO:

I think it is a heavy piece. In many ways. When I first saw it, I thought carrying such a heavy story on the body is somewhat groundbreaking.

UR:

There is a constant discussion in our field on when does a piece of jewellery become unwearable by carrying too much of personal information. And I’m very aware of that. Because the second piece is so fucking personal I don’t even want to talk about it..! But I was lucky that there is a certain element to it that made it more general.

CO:

But I don’t thing its luck or magic, its actually quite logical that if you are working with something highly personal and strong for you, the viewer can relate to this high concentration on emotional level without having to know the original story.

UR:

Its like Mozart’s Requiem. He is so emotionally wrecked by the death of his father, that Salieri knows he will die making this piece. And no matter when and where you hear this piece, it no longer relates to Mozart, it relates personally to you.

CO:

So you feel that you have achieved that somehow?

UR:

I’m working on it. Which means I create, I pile things up, and then I start to cut away, in the process I try to stay as communicative as possible and then show work to the people I trust. And they tell me what they see. Sometimes it does not tell the story, but sometimes HA..! It does not tell my story, it tells THE story! ‘Conspiracy’ was made in time of crisis. Its about the few big ones that tell us how we are so little. But the minute we create a group we a stronger. And that is what I see happening in our field. We don’t now where are we going, its because there is no compound, no group development, no manifestos. There is no giving up personal achievements for the sake of common achievements in order to understand what is important for the field. Instead we see individual points of view, personal understanding of certain problems. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century as a painter you were a part of a movement. And we are a part of a big movement, but no one knows what it is because no one can define it as a whole.

CO:

It happens because of the fact that there is no critical discourse in the field?

UR:

There is no hierarchy. No one is busy with analyzing facts as, for example: ‘So-and-so started this movement then and there, these people have followed, and made this development, and thats why this piece has certain significance’. It hardly ever happens in this way. And I feel that in fine arts of fashion the popularity of the field is so high that certain people instead of making start writing about it. And as a maker you are busy with communicating with the work, rather then communicating with words.So if one wants do dedicate himself to writing, he learns the skills and begins writing. But I’m not giving up my career, and it happens in all the jewellery schools. There are so many talented people there, but no one wants to swap over to the verbal, intellectual part. And thats why they founded the ‘Academia Del Disegno’ in Rome, the first school dedicated to teaching art. They wanted to create a verbal language to the language of art. They wanted to find a verbalization of what is happening visually.

CO:

Manifestos and writing about your position within the field made people like Herman Junger and Otto Kunzli more important and weighty.

UR:

Exactly. So if you had a manifesto you would be more appreciated. Its like the impressionists have put down into words that they want to paint outside because they are sick of the studio light. And people who perceive art through verbal language first will always dig something where they are more intellectually stimulated. So the Impressionism becomes immediately successful because there was a clear manifesto, where they stated their ideas. And thats the moment when it becomes more open to ‘mixing with other colors’. I start painting and I immediately call my writer friend to come over, drink some wine and talk about my work. We shall step out of our circles and deal with other people. We have to start involving others in order to grow. The future is bright. The field is infinite. You can learn and apply any science, craft, philosophy to jewellery making. The beauty is in these infinite possibilities and openness. You have Shcmuck in Munich, where you see latest developments of the contemporary jewellery, but few weeks before that there is Inhorgenta, a huge fair of craft jewellery, and it is also valid, it has its place.

CO:

What is a perfect piece of jewellery?

UR:

Perfect Jewel. For me the first perfect jewel I saw was a ‘Tear Bucket’ by Dinie Besems. It has a very simple shape. A black ring. On top of it sits a little black cup. And this cup is to contain a tear. And because of water’s qualities to round up due to its surface tension, the top becomes a perfect bead : on the bottom – metal, on top – water. ‘Tear Bucket’. The title and the picture make you cry when you see it. For me it is a perfect jewel.

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