Otto Künzli

Last year Otto Künzli was awarded with the Swiss Confederation’s Grand Prix Design.[i] We can trace the roots of the social and political commentary so characteristic of his work to transformations in European society brought in by economic development in the second half of the twentieth century.[ii] In post-war Europe social changes influenced art education and transformed the perspective of goldsmiths who trained at art school – which became a fertile ground for the cross-pollination of applied and fine arts. Jewellery departments encouraged self-expression and individuality, an objective more often pursued by fine artists. Instead of simply copying and adapting the formal models from the past, applied art students were encouraged to delve into new materials and concepts, reflecting their own time. The role of the goldsmith as simply an executor of a designer’s idea began to change.

Otto Künzli (b. Switzerland 1948) trained as a goldsmith in Munich under Hermann Jünger (b. Germany 1928) in the 1970s, a time when the traditional view of the goldsmith – as mainly a very skilled technician – was still being challenged. More importantly, the preceding decade was a time of social unrest, manifest in the counterculture movement. Anti-establishment radical artists used new media, such as performance and body art, to react against an apparent apathy in the art world.[iii] Art became politicised again and it carried a message. In parallel with this, jewellers started questioning their own field of practice. Künzli is part of a generation of European jewellers, including Gijs Bakker (b. Holland 1942), Caroline Broadhead (b. England 1950) and Bernhard Schobinger (b. Switzerland 1946), who felt uncomfortable with the conventions that surrounded jewellery making and wearing and its long held connotations of luxury and wealth. They started using non-precious materials to reject elitist values and connotations. They also began to use photography and performance as part of their practice and to produce multiples. This could be seen as a response to a desire of democratizing the work and a reflection of the discomfort that some of them had about using precious materials, especially gold. This generation of jewellers sought to create work that challenged assumed notions of preciousness and wearability; exploring the history and tradition of the field critically in order to contest it.

Although Otto Künzli’s work reflects a wide range of concerns within and outside the arena of jewellery,[iv] it is the exploration of jewellery’s history and the materiality of gold that inform the work shown here.

Otto Künzli. Gold makes you blind, 1980. Rubber, gold.
Künzli declared that gold had lost its appeal to him in part due to the arbitrary production of meaningless gold jewellery. What once had been “a reflection of the divine” and was imbued with mythical lure had become empty and unappealing. Perhaps this could also have been due to social and political circumstances, such as the extraction of gold in South Africa during the Apartheid regime. In 1980 he decided to make his “final work with gold”, a black rubber bangle encasing a ball of gold – Gold makes you blind. This, for him, was a way of returning gold to the darkness from whence it came and allowing him to “reappraise gold”.[v]

Otto Künzli. Chain, 1985-1986. Gold. L: 85 cm

When Künzli returned to using gold, he explored the narrative potential of an archetypal jewellery piece embedded in ritual: the wedding ring. The result was loaded with moral issues, for Chain is constructed from 48 second-hand gold wedding rings.[vi] Although it is ‘classical’ and aesthetically pleasing, it was, in the words of jewellery critic and author Ralph Turner, “unwearable”:[vii] who would want to wear a chain composed of rings that were once part of other people’s lives, some of them with personal engravings? Wedding rings are charged with cultural connotations. They are very intimate pieces of jewellery and one would like to imagine that they would be cherished even after the death of its owner, or maybe have been buried with them. To see that, in the end, most of them are recycled, melted down to produce yet more jewellery is to have the romantic notion of a precious personal object destroyed. In the catalogue of Künzli’s The Third Eye exhibition the following question was posed: “How much gold from antiquity, from the Aztecs, from marvellous cult objects and art works lives on in some ordinary piece of jewelry today, or how much from the teeth of Nazi victims in concentration camps…?”.[viii] Chain makes us reflect on the fundamentally transient nature of life and relationships, on the transformation of matter and jewellery’s place in all of this.

[i] This text is intended as a brief introduction to the work of Otto Künzli in response to NOVAJOIA’s post of his latest award, and is not a thematic essay.
[ii] For a discussion of these changes, see Ursula Ilse-Neuman, ‘None that Glitters: Perspectives on Dutch and British Jewelry in the Donna Schneier Collection’, in Zero Karat: The Donna Schneier Gift to the American Craft Museum. New York: American Craft Museum, 2002.
 [iii] Piero Manzoni (1933-63), one of the fathers of Conceptual Art, created a limited edition of cans containing the artist’s shit, in 1961, to comment on the “cult of personality in the Western art market”. See Robert Hughes. The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980, p. 382.
[iv] Künzli has produced multiples (The Red Spot and Colour brooches), used alternative materials (e.g. hardfoam, wallpaper), made political, social and cultural comments (Oh, say exhibition focusing on U.S.A. society and its icons; Gold makes you blind and Chain) and used performance and photography to support and articulate the ideas behind his jewellery (Swiss Gold – The Deutschmark).
[v] See Liesbeth Crommelin and Otto Künzli. Otto Künzli: The Third Eye. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1991, p. 20.
[vi] The wedding rings were obtained through a newspaper advertisement.
[vii] See Peter Dormer and Ralph Turner. The New Jewellery: trends + traditions. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
[viii] Otto Künzli: The Third Eye, p. 92.

posted by Dionea Rocha Watt

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