"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”.
The use of materials, on the other hand, is entirely his own, and in the Sefiroth series, the materials are used in a very free and expressive manner. There are beads and bubbles in bunches, and elements with clear traces of having been both depressed and compressed. Some elements are hard, others soft, some tranquilly white, others aggressively red. This is a mechanism that calls to mind many of the verbal metaphors of everyday life. We talk about being “depressed” and “under pressure”, but we can also be so angry or happy that things are “boiling” or “bubbling over”. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out in their book Metaphors We Live By, it is in the essence of metaphors to understand and experience one thing on the basis of another. It is with the aid of metaphors that we think and understand, and they govern our actions and our lives. Ruudt Peters’ use of materials and colours reminds us of this when, as is the case here, he creates a metaphorical language for aggression, fear, pain, anxiety and longing, to mention some of the states of mind highlighted here. He thereby manages to generalise the private and personal experiences that are the starting point for his work.
Many of the pieces of jewellery in the Sefiroth series are very delicate, and thus unsuitable for use. But they have all been made as brooches, and in principle can be used as such. Worn on the person, jewellery reaches far and wide. The pieces are thus not limited by the walls of the gallery or museum, but can reach all the different places where people roam. This makes jewellery an interesting means of communication. Through the references to the cabbala in the titles as well as in the motifs, these brooches tell us that they wish to break with conventional perceptions of jewellery as purely decorative objects. Instead, these brooches present themselves as both communicative objects and objects of meditation, and their beauty lies as much in their inner qualities as in their outer effects.
Re-enchantment has recently become a key term in contemporary art. While the sociologist Max Weber in his day characterised the modern world as disenchanted, the time has now come to restore what has been lost. Disenchantment is about the process of rationalisation that resulted in the world being revealed and demystified. Magic and belief in the supernatural were replaced by scientific explanations; the secretive alchemist was transformed into a predictable chemist. Re-enchantment is about giving the world new spiritual or holistic meaning, in which there is more room for feelings, desires, dreams and mysticism. Ruudt Peters’ jewellery pieces are very much in line with this tendency in contemporary art. By using features from the cabbala, he opens for mysticism as a possible path to greater wisdom, and this is further emphasised by the way in which the pieces are displayed. Instead of plinths, each object is displayed on a meditation cushion and in the background hang transparent lengths of grey fabric in three layers as references to Ain, Ain Sof and Ain Sof Aur which are the designations of the “negative existence” which eternity manifests itself as in the cabbala. But as art objects, the pieces in the Sefiroth series also point to art as an enchanted field. In secularised, Western societies, art has taken over the place of religion to a great extent. The power to change is attributed to it, and it has an aura of magic about it. It is not surprising, therefore, that many artists see a structural kinship between the creation of art and alchemical processes aimed at transforming baser materials into pure gold. Ruudt Peters’ earlier jewellery series contained several references to alchemy, and in his laboratory all kinds of prosaic materials are transformed into elevated poetry. Seen in this context, the Sefiroth series is about the constant struggle to reach a higher level. As a medium, jewellery is seldom used to express such a wide range of feelings and bodily experiences as is the case here, and perhaps Ruudt Peters’ foremost achievement is that he shows that jewellery too can be used to perform one of the prime duties of art: to make visible what would otherwise be invisible.
Translated from Norwegian by Douglas Ferguson