What cannot be seen
Over the summer of 2018-2019, Munich-based contemporary jeweller and object-maker Peter Bauhuis launched a solo exhibition at The National in Christchurch, followed by a tour of lectures and master classes around the country. While he was here I talked with the Artist about his practice for Art News New Zealand.
How did you come to the field of contemporary jewellery?
After high school I didn’t know what to study, most likely as a result of my wide-ranging interests. My favourite subjects were mathematics and history, but eventually I decided to work with my hands with a hope that the rest would follow. In the mid-1980s I enrolled in a technical jewellery course at the Staatliche Zeichenakademie in Hanau and landed up working in fine jewellery-making, which had a big emphasis on precision. Over this period I first heard world-renowned contemporary jeweller Otto Künzli speak. The way he underpinned his craft with a conceptual framework seemed like a path I could also employ to integrate my left-brain interests with my making. I followed him to the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München – the Munich Academy of Fine Arts – where he became a lecturer, and from there my career really began. I’ve only recently realised that mathematics and history have continued to influence my practice.
What is the relationship between your jewellery-making and vessel-making?
These are co-dependent in that I share my technical findings of each line of enquiry with the other.
In both I also draw from the mathematical field of topology, which asks questions about where objects are found in three-dimensional space – a natural feature of sculpture in general and in jewellery more specifically in relation to the body.
My jewellery explores a broader range of formal compositions and concepts, like the necklaces and rings from series such as Orifice (2010 to present) and Mathematicians (2013), which deal with voids and surfaces that relate to the study of topology. In turn, the topology of a vessel offers a greater surface for experimentation with oxidisation and colour, and is defined by its inherent function of containing and standing upright.
In the past you’ve used the Armillaria or honey fungus as a metaphor for your practice. Can you explain this comparison?
The Armillaria, like many other fungi, only reveals its fruits, or mushrooms. But underground, what cannot be seen is how the fungus is connected with a network that can spread for many kilometres. Conceptually, it’s an analogy for my wider practice, which further to jewellery, includes installation that responds to museum collections, publishing and vessel-making. The combination of my technical skill and research interests form the hidden network of my output as an artist.
In 2012, in Deutsches Goldschmiedehaus, Hanau, you developed your first installation that referenced the wunderkammer. How does this display mechanism sit alongside your research into biology, mathematics, archaeology and museology?
Admiration is a driving force of collecting. The collection, collation and attempt to identify ‘things’ in the first museums and wunderkammers of the courts of Europe were no exception.
Wunderkammers exhibited a mixture of opposing attitudes: acquisitiveness, showing off and humble admiration. They connected the found with the made; praised the special; and expressed amazement towards the peculiar. They questioned how and why ‘things’ are linked to each other.
In presenting my work alongside found objects from the natural world, as well as real and fake artefacts that derive from my research interests, I construct personal wunderkammers, which drive me to keep being curious and look for the next challenge. These installations are like the object-based versions of my catalogue ABECEDARIUM (2012).
This publication is unusual in that it is like a personal dictionary, where short, sharp texts responding to your practice are arranged in alphabetical order by their titles. Why do you think this kind of experimental publishing is important?
It’s an opportunity to consider aspects of my practice that won’t necessarily make it directly into individual pieces. The approach enabled my work to be contextualised with a robust network without being didactic.
A catalogue can also capture the process of ephemeral work. In my project On melting (2006), I photocopied a chocolate rabbit until it melted. It was light-hearted, but just like my metal work it explored my interests in experimenting with the integrity of materials. Unlike my metal projects, however, the piece had no physical outcome: a jewellery performance that didn’t involve wearing. So the documentation became the work.
On melting then becomes about how you present your work, and highlights your interest in the relationship between the treatment of material and the social readings of objects. Can you explain your interest in exploring the relationship between context and presentation?
The world is a peculiar place and I enjoy mirroring this to my audience. I’ve done it several times within the museum setting. When you exaggerate or edit a narrative within an authoritative setting, unlikely rumour becomes believable fact. It reflects how much human beings want all the answers, even if you give them bizarre ones!
One such intervention, called Gallium Treasure (2011), was staged at the Archäologische Staatssammlung, the Archaeological Collection of the Bavarian State, in Munich. It was a neo-scientific sketch where I created an archaeologist character called Johann Niederpointner, who discovered a series of artefacts from the Bronze Age in Obertraun, Austria. These items were made from a metal called gallium, which has a very low melting point – below the temperature of the human body. Gallium is a real metal, and I made the objects, but I created a whole narrative within a faux-documentary and archaeological framework. It raised many questions and theories about why a Bronze Age community would make objects that could not be worn or used. I found it remarkable the way people believed something so incredulous. Placing it within the context of an archaeological museum, rather than an art space, took the conversation away from the contemporary jewellery rhetoric of wearability, focusing instead on human nature.
You are here! at The National was your first solo exhibition in New Zealand. What themes did it explore?
As an introductory exhibition, I wanted to show a variety of pieces developed over the last few years to give a feeling of my overall oeuvre. The exhibition is however named after one of my newest works, which looks like a digital map indicator but was modelled on an air puffer. It’s an unexpected shape to see on the body, which generally raises curiosity and encourages people to touch it. It relates to my brooch Dust Pin (1997), which looks like a speck of dust, often leading to people trying to pick it off the wearer. The way You are here! (2017) is read like a digital location pin shows how our eyes are trained to respond to signifiers that shift alongside technology. I travel a lot as an artist, as do many other people these days. As a result, some can forget where they are, where they belong and what’s important to them. This piece could be read as an antidote to those feelings, like a visual point to ground you.