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Jewellery or Art?

TALLINN – 22 January – 28 March, City Gallery



The world of craft or applied art has been wrestling with this question for decades. Can the work of craftspeople or applied artists also be viewed as art in the same way as the work of those working in the fine arts? If this is possible, then when are we looking at art and when at craft and how can we know the difference with any certainty?


For some, this problem is already ancient history in the sense that enough boundary crossing has occurred to make the line so blurred that it no longer matters. I can remember as an English teacher attempting to stimulate discussion around this topic with art academy students in the naughties only to fail abysmally. No matter how hard I tried, they could not see why this was even a worthy topic. Later, it emerged that part of the problem was that, while in English the divide was clearer since one was called craft and the other art, in Estonian they all took the Estonian word kunst as part of the noun group used to describe these quite different areas. It is a shame that at the time I did not have an exhibition of work like the current show by Maria Valdma at City Gallery as a basis for the discussion.


The exhibition Memory Palace would have been an ideal class excursion for getting the students to talk about whether they thought this exhibition – held in a gallery normally for exhibiting contemporary art, and containing objects made by one of Estonia’s foremost contemporary jewellers – was, in their view, art or craft.


Valdma studied in the jewellery and blacksmithing department at the Estonian Academy of Arts under the matriarch of Estonian contemporary jewellery Kadri Mälk, and on graduating made a necessary break from this ‘school’ with four other jewellers to form the collective known as the five Fs (F.F.F.F.F.). The collective worked and exhibited together for a number of years and have by now gone their separate ways although they (at least four of the five) still design, make and exhibit contemporary jewellery.


Valdma’s exhibition currently on at City Gallery and curated by Siim Preiman is presented, as hinted above, very much like an installation of contemporary art. The space has been remodelled using large dark grey panels to form a reduced space in the front room of the gallery for exhibiting several series of small objects. So the question is what are they. How should we look at these small objects? Are they art or jewellery?


Since I am fully aware of the artist’s background, then I know exactly how to look at her work – as soon as I enter the gallery, I walk up very close and look at the works as if they were all jewellery – wearable small objects that conform to a range of norms both creative and technical that only a contemporary trained jeweller would know or care about and a contemporary artist would not. I am therefore not viewing Valdma in the same way as I would artists like Jaanus Samma, Jass Kaselaan or Holger Loodus – contemporary artists that have all been known to make small intricate objects.


However, the plot thickens, since while the beautifully crafted objects, all measuring no more than 4 x 4 cm, could be worn as brooches, they do not in fact have pins on the back with which to do so. So is this exhibition presenting the objects as if they are art? If for some reason someone would like to buy one of them with the intention of wearing it, the artist has said that she will add a pin to the back. But otherwise they are complete as they are.


In the end you will have to make up your own minds. I have made up mine. Whether you think Valdma’s pieces are art or craft, at the end of the day, I think many will agree that if they are anything they are beautifully crafted, delicate objects and carry with them a poetry of form and space (albeit a shallow space) lifted from life to form a kind of a meditative purity.


See Memory Palace until 28 March.



City Gallery

13 Harju tänav, Tallinn

Wed – Sun 11.00 – 18.00

Posted by Michael Haagensen


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