Sefiroth installation view, presented by Ornamentum at MassArt, Boston, 2008
The re-enchantment of jewellery art
"Religion more taboo than sex”, read the headline in an art journal about current trends in the art world. In contemporary art, the word "soul" triggers more embarrassment than all kinds of physical excesses. Ruudt Peters must be a brave man, then. In his new jewellery series and the exhibition Sefiroth, he invites us to join him on a journey through the inner labyrinths of the soul and the emotions. He is neither afraid of spiritual themes nor of highlighting esoteric traditions. For an art historian like myself who has been educated to take a critical attitude to everything that is unexplainable, supernatural and mystical, it is not without a certain awe that I approach objects that openly seek insight along paths that can no longer be reckoned to be scientifically valid. But, on closer examination, it turns out that Ruudt Peters is not preaching about the correct path to the Light. The references to magic and the mystical that can be found in his work should not be read as the Truth, but more as the result of a non-dogmatic search for a visual language that can express complex life experiences.
As the title Sefiroth indicates, the cabbala is the most important philosophical reference for his most recent jewellery pieces. The word cabbala comes from the Hebrew word “kibel” which means to receive, and it is a tradition with roots in Jewish mysticism. Cabbala has had a great influence on European intellectual life, and one of its most important symbols is the Tree of Life. In some traditions, the tree consists of ten and in others of eleven Sefiroth or spheres. They are organised in a fixed geometrical pattern, in which 22 roads or paths bind together the different Sefiroth. Roughly speaking, each Sefira represents a property or attribute of God and a universal, cosmic energy which it is possible to come into contact with and receive power from through meditation. Through the cabbala it is possible to gain access to a philosophy of life and a magical system that can be used for personal, spiritual development.
Signifiers of meaning
In Ruudt Peters’ jewellery series Sefiroth, the schematic pattern that expresses the Tree of Life is used as a basic structure, and the individual brooches in the series have been given titles that derive from the names of the different Sefiroth. This makes it natural to read each brooch in light of the attribute and energy that the individual spheres represent. On examining the brooches, however, it quickly becomes clear that we cannot use the cabbala like an encyclopedia to decode the meanings assigned to these jewellery objects, but they can serve as clues in our own efforts at interpretation. In Ruudt Peters’ system, the first Sefiroth, Kether, which represents the highest plane, the crown in the cabbala, the manifestation of the energy emitting from God as a pure and clear light, has been given a form that is reminiscent of a brain. The human head or human consciousness is thus the central point of departure in his narrative. The material is thin, clear glass, but it is attached to a cabbala structure made of dark metal that turns out to be gold. Its preciousness is camouflaged, but it is present as a core. In this context, the use of transparent glass may invite reflection on the relevance of concepts such as purity and clarity, but it can also serve as an allegory of the willingness to lay ourselves bare. And as a symbol of a self, the fragile glass speaks of vulnerability.
The references to the cabbala are not without humour and irony. In terms of form, the piece entitled Chochmah, is reminiscent of a spinal column with a lung placed on each side. The spinal column is black while the lung-like shapes are sooty, which triggers associations to smokers’ lungs and all the disease and death that smoking can result in. In our health-conscious age, this piece bears witness to precisely the opposite of what its title indicates, because Sefiroth 2, Chochmah, is the plane where wisdom is expressed in its highest and purest form. Here, the title therefore has an ironic function.
The third Sefiroth, Binah, is the sphere of understanding. The unification of male and female aspects is central here. Perhaps that is the reason why the predominant material in Ruudt Peters’ eponymous brooch is thread, a material abounding in feminine connotations? The threads are gathered into a colourful bundle with many loose ends – an expressive metaphor in itself. Order and chaos struggle against each other, and this struggle is an overriding theme in the whole Sefiroth series.
These three examples can serve to illustrate how I see these jewellery pieces. With the cabbala to hand, I have established a dialogue with them, but what they reveal above all are paths leading us to the artist who has created them, and to the thoughts, feelings and experiences he wishes to share with us.
The well-known American professor of literature Harold Bloom interprets poetry on the basis of the principles in the cabbala, and he claims that what we can learn from the cabbala is that all meaning tends to wander. It roams from text to text or, within a text, from metaphor to metaphor, and in this process a creative misreading often takes place that forms the basis for new meaning. It is in this light we must see Ruudt Peters’ use of the cabbala. It does not represent a closed system of fixed meanings. Instead, he uses the cabbala’s iconography and symbolic language creatively to capture “wandering meaning”.
Sefiroth Abba, brooch, 2007, silver, glass
Sefiroth Ashim, 2006, silver, polyester
Sefiroth Chasmalin, brooch, 2007, silver, glass
Sefiroth Nogah, brooch, 2006, silver, agate, polyester
Sefiroth Shabbathai, brooch, 2006, silver, renoband, polyester
Sefiroth Elohim, brooch, 2006, silver, polyester, limonite
Sefiroth Sefarim, brooch, 2006, silver, polyester, paint
Beginning in the 1970's, Ruudt Peters, a pioneering Dutch conceptual jewellery artist, challenged traditional definitions of adornment by pushing the boundaries of context, wearability, materials and presentation. A leader in art jewellery in Holland, Peters exemplifies a mode of expression that is unmistakably Dutch.
He has exerted a strong influence on the development of contemporary jewellery as an artist and as a professor at some of the most prestigious universities in Europe, the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and Konstfack University of Arts and Crafts in Stockholm, where he was teaching till 2009. At the moment Peters is professor at Alchimia Contemporary Jewellery school, Florence, Italy