BY Lorna Lee Leslie in Profiles | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Of Mice and Men

Ted Noten

BY Lorna Lee Leslie in Profiles | 05 MAY 02


The Dutch jewellery designer Ted Noten is a traveller. He roams the world looking at everyday objects owned or used by ordinary people, who sometimes tell him extraordinary tales and do extraordinary things. Noten himself makes extraordinary objects from the ordinary: a pair of black and white sling back shoes with 24 carat gold insoles (Object, 2001), for example. The precious metal radiates its warmth from the unassuming plastic footwear; walking on gold, the wearer experiences in secret a hidden treasure. Noten recounts meeting a stranger on a train, a Jewish man who spoke of the horrors of being in Auschwitz during the Second World War, about money, poverty and death. He explained that gold and diamonds were the only real currency and that he still carried gold inside his shoes for security against the next rainy day. Noten's well-heeled shoes provide the wearer with transport, adornment and security, like the beautiful shoes worn by Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz (made in 1939 at the start of the war), who knows that they will protect her from danger and take her to safety.

Jewellery is something pretty that we like to wear. It makes us feel beautiful and sexy, or, if it is valuable, makes us feel important. In advertisements it is worn by the attractive and the untouchable. It completes our vanity. But what if jewellery could make us question why we wear it at all? What if we were made to feel uncomfortable, taken away from the decoration, away from the nostalgia?

There is a dead mouse lying on the floor of Noten's studio. The tiny creature has been looking for food, keeping warm, raising a family. She was an uninvited guest, yet the studio was also her home. Noten decides to bury the mouse. For Princess (1995) he lovingly made a pearl necklace and placed it around the neck of her stiff body. He encased her in a block of clear Perspex and transformed her into a necklace. Princess is a memento of a deceased mouse, crystallized in time. Whoever dares to compete with the beautiful mouse, who also wears a jewel created by the artist, will honour Princess' past and guarantee her immortality.

There is something primal in the way we collectively make choices. We wear a wedding ring to show that we are married. We wear a cross to show that we are religious. We pierce ourselves to show that we are anarchists. These are symbols of joining the club, a group of people who want to be identified as having commonality. We call it being an individual. When the stone age hunter gained territories and, in time, wealth, power and status he adorned himself in jewellery made from the bones of slaughtered animals in order to display this power. In 100 Pieces (2001) Noten took a section of a new Mercedes Benz and divided it into a 100 fragments, each unique in size and form. By wearing one you can be part owner of a new Mercedes Benz whose function is now a brooch. The wearer becomes the vehicle and the brooch becomes the passenger. Noten's visual metaphorical dialogue queries why we buy into luxury items and why a few become powerful status symbols.

Likewise, Noten elevates the banal and the mundane into objects of value. We nearly all chew gum. However, that's not all we do with it: we make bubbles with it; use it as sticky tape; turn it into string by stretching it; press it or knead it. Gum helps to alleviate boredom, to fill a gap, to exercise the cheek muscles, to have fun. Noten has produced a project called Chew Your Own Brooch (1998) in which he provides you with a chewing kit. You chew your gum, return it to him and get back a replica brooch cast in sliver or gold - a small sculpture fashioned by your mouth. Noten has given the chewer a creative influence on the end product and the anxiety of being an artist for a few minutes, tapping into the creative child within us and poking fun at our silliness.

Noten's work reinterprets the conventional attributes of jewellery and absorbs materials previously foreign to the medium. The mundane and the precious are fused into a dialogue and much of his work is concerned with mutation: gum becomes a brooch, a dead mouse becomes a necklace, and, in Sweat With Horse (1992), a chess piece becomes a ring. The chess Knight must be constantly held in place by the wearer - the ring is concerned with the tension and pressure of the game; with how the player concentrates and anticipates, through calculation and ruthless intimidation. There is horsehair attached to the side of the piece to absorb sweat from the finger it is in contact with. Chess moves are randomly placed around the head of the horse to distract your opponent.

I Am Being Nice to My Colleagues (2001) is Noten's design at its most conceptual. It consists of an A4 sliver plate, blank except for two indented concentric circles. This first ring is ready to wear. When the buyer wishes to have a new ring made, they can commission another designer to create another ring from the plate. Eventually only the shadows of previous rings will be left. Responsibility is placed on the owner to decide whom to commission next - Noten unites designers by inviting them to share his concept and create their own work within given parameters.

Design has arrived as a serious cultural artefact, in the sense that handmade contemporary objects are acquired by private collectors and museums. But there seems to be only a tiny space for work such as Noten's in the world of art. Is this jewellery pretending to be art? These pieces certainly transcend their size and are indeed worn on a moveable gallery - the body - whose context changes according to the movements of the wearer. But Noten's work never stops being jewellery. While the art establishment continues to have an uncomfortable relationship with design, Noten travels invisibly and easily between the two worlds.