What Determines the Value of Jewelry - the Material or the Concept?

The works by Attai Chen, now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, tackle this question.

Sigal Buhbut

“Attai Chen, a graduate of the Jewelry and Fashion Department at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem] (2002-2006), chose to pursue his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (2007-2012), which is known for its free approach to study.” This is the first piece of displayed information you find at Chen’s solo show – titled “In Between” – which opened in May at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and runs until October 25.

What can be gleaned from curator Meira Yagid Haimovich’s choice to inform visitors first of all where and when Chen did his studies? From the fact that he went on to an academy known for its free approach, both in general and in contrast to the approach that prevails at Bezalel?

The answers to these questions lie in Chen’s works. His jewelry does not glow and glitter; it bespeaks modesty. Indeed, this is not jewelry in the accepted sense of the term. You won’t find it in jewelry stores, it’s not easy to estimate the monetary worth of its materials, and in many cases it’s also difficult to imagine what it would look like when worn on the body.

In other words, that “free approach” can be read as a kind of warning, suggesting that what’s on view does not necessarily conform to the public’s perception of “jewelry.”

The titles of the works, and the materials from which they are crafted, do not make it any easier to “read” the exhibition and decipher the items on display. Among the titles: “The Free Radicals,” “The True Story of Prince Frog” [sic], “What’s New in Science” and “This Rat has Good Health Insurance.”

The materials Chen uses range far and wide, including paper, paint, coal, glue, linen, plaster, graphite, brass, oxidized silver, gold leaf, cotton, aluminum, stainless steel, nail polish and dried anchovies. Together, they create an imaginary, private world that is not easily navigated. Among its denizens are tiny structures on a piece of wood; nine small skulls with horns, a pointed nose and armor; a pile of twigs collected from the roadside with what looks like a bird’s wing; and a fossilized frog wearing a gold crown.

The wide range of materials attests to the underlying basis of Chen’s work: a focus on material, cyclicality and perishability, as well as on the question of what determines the value of jewelry – the material, or the thought that went into the making of the piece? “I think that in these pieces, the work and idea has more worth than the material the piece is made from,” Chen told Haaretz last year after he won the Andy Prize for Contemporary Art.

The judges who awarded him that prize also noted the conceptual element, describing Chen’s oeuvre as a “poetic body of work ... His works represent a visual world that references its own extinction as well as its resurrection.” But what is the solution when the final result – in this case, the works on display in the exhibition – doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t generate the glitz and glamour that the public associates with jewelry exhibitions? It’s necessary to invest in the physical layout, to find a way to make the works more impressive to the visiting public.

Most of the 59 works on show are displayed in glass boxes that are perched on cases made of plain wooden planks. The cases are scattered throughout the exhibition space, like architectural structures between which the visitor can move about. As a result, Chen’s modest-looking works take on pomp and circumstance, due in part to the disproportion between their small physical size and the far larger exhibition cases, and because they are placed in the museum space as full-fledged works of art.

This is not the first time the museum has exhibited jewelry. Because of the small scale of such works, and because the event is a museum exhibition and not a commercial show, it usually becomes necessary to resort to boxes and cases. In this case, though, doesn’t the way in which Chen’s works are displayed subvert their fundamental essence? Subvert Chen himself, who says that what should determine the works’ value is not the material but the idea? Doesn’t the idea get somewhat lost here, so that what we remember after visiting the exhibition is the impressive-looking display?

I tried to imagine a different way to show the works. For example, by hanging all of them on the wall, next to each other. If these items are being treated as works of art that are not to be touched, if it’s hard to imagine what they look like on the body, why not hang them on the white wall? What would they look like without the wooden structures?

My question was answered when I saw the catalog – beautifully designed by Michal Sahar. In recent years, a debate has raged in the international art world about whether publishing an exhibition catalog is justified. But it was only in the pages of the catalog – in photographs showing the works side by side, or on the human body, or even just on the white page next to the black letters of the text – that I felt the works were being presented in their proper proportions. Suddenly it became possible to appreciate the works as they are, without the exhibition adjuncts that steal the show, in the way that Chen himself presents his creations.

The exhibit “In Between” runs until October 25 
at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Sigal Buhbut