“Cozticteocuilatl is the Aztec term for gold and it literally translates into ‘the yellow feces of the gods,’ ” says Swiss artist Otto Kunzli, who is standing before his work at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. “It’s the yellow poops of the gods,” he emphasizes as he breaks into a broad smile.
Now laughing, he continues: “It’s so beautiful. They found gold nuggets in the river and thought, oh this must come from the gods. The gods were pooping yellow s—-. That’s crazy. I mean, I know s—- happens, but I didn’t know that it fell from heaven.”
“Otto Kunzli: The Exhibition” brings together close to 200 works that span Kunzli’s 25+ year career as a jewelry artist. The gold and oxidized-silver pendants of his “Cozticteocuitlatl” (1998) take their forms from extensive research into the shape of Mickey Mouse, which Kunzli says he began because he felt sure the silhouette existed “long before the Disney thing.” The pendants include shapes inspired by pre-Columbian jewelry, a modern wing nut, even the McDonald’s golden arches.
“You could say this is conceptual, but it’s not really,” he says. “I have so much humor and so much fun and I never call myself as a conceptual artist. But it’s kind of been established, so I stopped fighting it and said ‘OK.’ ”
Although he shrugs off the categorization with a smile, his seemingly nonsensical concepts could easily be mistakenly lumped in with Dadaism, unless you learn the back stories, be they personal, abstract or philosophical.
“Jewelry is considered the earliest evidence of knowledge storage outside of the human brain, which means nothing else but the beginning of cultural activities — and that is set as somehow the beginning of being human,” Kunzli explains. “Before, older artifacts were tools, practical items — functional. (Jewelry) is the beginning of art.”
And yet, he laments, “So few people analyze jewelry.”
“One of the few principles of my life is to imagine opposites: I often question what I’m doing, or try to find out more about the possibility that I’m pursuing,” he says. “I like to question it, chase it around and look at it from a different angle.”
His unwavering determination to undermine our assumptions about jewelry started with a little drama: In 1976, he took a box of paper scraps, string, wire, tape and bits of wood into a photo booth at Munich Central Station, where he began documenting experiments with various shapes by attaching them to different parts of his torso. Suddenly, the booth’s curtain was drawn and he found himself surrounded by armed police. They thought he was making a bomb.
Since then, Kunzli has never ceased exploring unconventional materials or finding unorthodox approaches to traditional materials.
Of gold, the ubiquitous and yet still coveted material, he says, “It’s now used in such an arbitrary way. Literally bulls—- has been made in gold just because people are crazy about it.” He wanted to return it to the darkness of rocks and so, he says, “I enclosed it in a black band — so you can’t see it.”
That bangle, “Gold Makes You Blind” (1980), challenges the status value associated with the gleaming precious metal by concealing it in thick, black rubber. Similarly he made a life-size replica Swiss-gold bullion bar and turned it into a lapel pin — a piece of “statement jewelry” that literally comments on gold adornment as a form of investment.
He constantly reminds us that jewelry always had a purpose — whether symbolic, functional, religious or purely decorative — before he deconstructs those values to rebuild them in ironic and often humorous forms.
During the mid-1980s and ’90s, as he traveled to teach new jewelry design, he also took on ideologies, re-interpreting familiar symbols, including those of racism, culture and religion in America for his 1992 “Oh, Say!” exhibition in Zilkha Gallery in Connecticut. Titled after the opening words of the U.S. national anthem, the show — which significantly took place on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America and a year after the outbreak of the Gulf War — included a gold brooch that elegantly used an amalgamation of a heart, Mickey Mouse, the Christian cross, a five-pointed star and a skull to evoke a Klansman-like visage.
It was during this time that Kunzli first came to Japan, making his amusing “Miki Motto” Mickey Mouse pearl earrings in 1993 and later returning to create “Tokyo Nikki” (2003), a pendant inspired by the metal fittings of an antique tansu (traditional chest of drawers). The later Japan works further highlight Kunzli’s ongoing exploration of materials, with the bulk of “Tokyo Nikki” comprising sheets cut from manga books, and the ring “Hana-bi” (2008-12) carved from Ubame oak charcoal.
“Material is very important,” he says. “It helps you ‘materialize’ ideas. It’s not always an intellectual thing, but material itself is often an accumulation of history and aspects.”
Such history and culture can be observed in the new “Komainu” brooches inspired by the guardian lion-dog statues outside the museum and decorated with the turquoise hair of a Hatsune Miku wig that Kunzli found in Akihabara. But it is “Kagami” (“Mirror”), another new piece, that perhaps exemplifies Kunzli’s exploratory nature and brings attention to one constant of his work: jewelry as a medium of communication and connection — whether it is physical, through the transference of ideas or in its nostalgic appeal.
“Kagami”is made from 25 squares of polished binchotan charcoal, an incredibly difficult medium to craft. The charcoal’s property as a filter, says Kunzli, gives it two sides, a “here and there,” similar to a mirror. And the “there” is represented by the lacquered imprints of 25 inkan (Japanese signature stamps) of people who have passed away.
It’s a work that was made in collaboration with the Living National Treasure lacquer master Kazumi Murose and one that undermines all conventions about jewelry but one: the desire to wear it. In a twist of irony that accompanies so much of Kunzli’s work, the desire to wear “Kagami” is fueled by the fact that it is unwearable — not just because of the fragility of the binchotan, but because of the thought, time, care and craftsmanship that went into constructing it, the friendships forged in collaborating on it and the sentimental value of the families whose inkan were used — all of which also make it priceless.
“Otto Kunzli: The Exhibition” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs until Dec. 27; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Dec. 9 and 24. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.