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Jewellery that laughs

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Contemporary jeweller Moniek Schrijer talks to Mary-Jane Duffy, about memory, meaning and the language of materials.

Moniek Schrijer, Shrunken Rings, 2016, sterling silver, oxidised bronze, 46-52x20x20mm

I am wearing my Moniek Schrijer necklace as I write. She won’t like me telling you this because it’s one of her rejects. I bought it from her when she was still a student in the Whitireia jewellery programme in 2012. It is made of four Bakelite napkin rings in different colours joined by a grey compound flecked with silver wire, and hung on grey electrical cable. What I love about it — and in much of Moniek’s work — is a bold poetic eye for combining and reconfiguring materials. But not in a way that obscures their origins; in a way that relocates them as jewellery with a gutsy, experimental elegance. And an anarchic wittiness.

Moniek is part of the contemporary jewellery community that has been developing in Aotearoa since the seventies. These days it’s connected to the international network of jewellers, and a number of practitioners regularly go overseas for exhibitions and projects. In Wellington the presence of heavyweight internationals Lisa Walker and Karl Fritsch lends experience and support to the local jewellery community. An exhibition of Lisa Walker’s work will re-launch the new Te Papa art spaces in 2018.

Thanks to the hard work of Peter and Hilda Deckers, a pathway for emerging jewellers has been forged to international exhibitions, especially the annual showcase of international work, Schmuck, in Munich. The bar is high.

Last year Moniek won the prestigious Herbert Hoffman Prize at Schmuck alongside two other international jewellers. The winning work was a smartphone-shaped necklace called Tablet Of, inscribed with a series of personalised symbols on its ‘screen’—symbols for tools, music, love, sadness etc. Ursula Ilse-Neuman, one of the four jury members who selected the winners, noted in a 2016 New York Times article that ‘Moniek does a lot with symbols, mixing old communication systems with new ones. Maybe her tablet in the future will be an archaeological find.’

This year thanks to Asia New Zealand and the Wellington City Council, Moniek has a residency on Xiamen, an island off the coast of China. The residency is based at the Chinese European Art Center (CEAC), which was established by Icelandic couple Ineke and Sigurður Guðmundsson in 1999. She told me they were still coming to terms with her work and what sort of artist she was. There’s not much contemporary jewellery produced in China yet—but you can bet it’s coming.

Before she thought of applying for the residency, she had an exhibition at The National in Christchurch, called Double Happiness, which is the translated name of the Chinese character for joy and marriage. It is used by Chinese companies to brand everything from soy sauce to cigarettes. This exhibition included a series of mutated symbols suggestive of maps, signage, objects, shadows, floor plans, diagrams or landforms. Each iteration of the symbols was a different size and in a different medium; the collection included rings, necklaces, sculptural objects, 3-D prints, and wall projections. Old and new symbols seemed to collide and become a new industrial language or a codification of an old one. As wall projections, the symbols evoked strange urban and rural landscapes, and as rings and necklaces, mementoes of a distant, lost past. These ideas have an obvious pertinence to China with its ancient modernity and culture of mass production.

Moniek Schrijer, Double Happiness, 2016, projection image

I asked her if being in China has affected her work in any way. She wondered if Xiamen is giving her a true experience of China, whether it was in fact China-lite, but valued the range of materials she can access via the internet. She has discovered, for example, that she can buy the ceramic sunflower seeds used by Ai Weiwei in his Sunflower seeds (2010) shown at the Tate Modern, as well as any other number of ready-mades.

An exhibition at the CEAC that will mark the end of her residency there. Called Diamonds and Rust, it opened on 25 November 2017. This exhibition examines memory through works made from computer hard drives, found and cast brass, ceramic sunflower seeds, painted bone, Ch’ing Dynasty coins, and miniature shopping carts. This list of materials itself is redolent with ideas about memory—ancient memories, found memories, memory storage, bought memory, collective memory, and the memory of materials cast in other materials.

And there it is, the thing that is so interesting about Moniek’s work; the way that she expands meaning and creates new meaning, often metaphorical, in the language of materials. There are quieter themes too: our careless consumerism and the ephemeral memory of the digital age. These themes don’t hit you over the head — they laugh at you.

Connecting materials in fresh, metaphorical ways—the hard-drive pendants in the shape of the Ch’ing coin; the delicately painted blue bones called Bone China; the flakes of found brass threaded like a lei — she makes the voices of ancestors and wifi radio waves bounce off each other. And she shows, to quote Ursula Ilse-Neuman again, that ‘jewellery makers are not only body ornamenters, but thinkers’.

Moniek Schrijer, Smiley, earring, 2017, holographic glass, silver, gold plated brass, Pounamu

First published ArtZone #72


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