A meta narrative collection of jewellery which retells the story of life during communism 30 years after its fall. The burden of the past
Life during communism told through narrative jewellery
A few years ago, I was invited to be part of an editorial project and write two short stories about my life during communism. I hesitated, firstly because I’m not a writer, but mainly because I didn’t want to go back there, to that period of time. I still don’t like to remember, and we don’t like to talk about it. But we must. The title of that volume is I also lived through Communism (Și eu am trăit în comunism), it has 95 authors and 360 stories that are funny, bitter, dark, familiar for Eastern European readers, absurd and encrypted for the rest of the world, maybe. Thirty years since Communism fell, people still play with Marx’s ideas, communism doesn’t look that bad for some, and we still carry the baggage of the past. Our silence feeds the indifference and the ignorance.
I’m a narrative jeweller, I’m interested in people and I’m inspired by books. When I started this Masters I had no idea what I was going to do, but after a semester of research and exploration and another one of reflection, practice, tutors’ feedback and more research, I decided that the only story really worth telling, now and here, far away from my home and from the ‘80s, is life during communism, as I witnessed it.
Therefore, my Major Project will consist of a collection of narrative jewellery (or rather meta narrative, because I will tell a story about a story) made with conventional techniques and tools, which will describe the atmosphere and the daily life during communism as I experienced and researched it.
This project needs three research directions: historical – books and testimonials (being an academic project, should not rely on my memories only), technical – textures, connections, fastening, mould making, casting, construction, and visual – photos, narrative jewellery context. And this is when my difficulties started. I couldn’t find many photos of daily life (struggle) from Communist Romania, other than the official ones. Very few photos of queues. A Bulgarian historian, Maria Todorova, edited a book about life during communism few years ago and one of the authors mentioned exactly that: „What seem to be lacking are the images of communist reality; not television programs, not fashion magazines, not propaganda, but everyday life images….it struck me that I have not encountered a single image of a queue.” (Bădică, 2014:202). This is why I extended my research to the whole Eastern Europe, and this is why some of my memories are represented by photos from Poland or Berlin. When researching narrative jewellery, the results were even poorer: the only exhibition about jewellery in a political context, doubled by a discussion, was named I Care a Lot; it happened in 2010 and was about Middle Eastern issues. Those issues though were more or less the same: lack of freedom, the daily struggle for living, terror, people without hope. I have, as of yet, not been able to find any narrative jewelers interested in life during communism. On the other hand, written stories collected and explained by academics are plentiful, and they will be my starting point.
Working with symbols: the bags, the people searching for food, the buildings, the books
There is no room for subtlety; I can’t afford to be subtle, or I risk that my message will be lost, I have to send a straightforward and clear message. Narrative jewellery is most helpful, because it can be figurative and allows me to play with objects and people in the most direct way: by drawing and making what I see in the photos of the time or build from my memories and feelings. After the exploring semester at UCA, and through my research, trying to find out how I can recreate the communist atmosphere, I identified few very specific elements, symbols of the daily life during communism, which are common and recognizable, present in most of the written or visual sources: the people, the queues for goods, the bags as permanent accessory, the buildings, the same grey apartment blocks all over Eastern Europe the people, in their most common hypostasis. In other words, people would be randomly walking down streets carrying a bag, obsessed with finding some food, the books would act as an escape, as a window towards freedom and a support for hopes. The collection I’ve developed so far from copper, bronze, gilding metal and brass is like a draft, a raw version, of what I intend to make from silver within my Major Project. Here are the symbols:
- The queue
„Sugar, butter, oil, and flour were rationed, while milk, eggs, and meat implied the same endless queues, before they would disappear altogether from Romanian stores.” (Vultur, 2014: 175). As I mentioned before, there are a lot of stories but not many photos, and one of the few photos that matches my memories is one from Poland (Fig 1). The communist ideology stands for equality. Well, it seems that we had been equals in misery indeed.
Fig 1. Shop Queue in a Communist Poland, early 1980s https://ro.pinterest.com/pin/565694403193371183/ Fig 2. Engraved wax sheet casted in bronze, riveted on sanded gilding metal sheet
In this case, because the image is so powerful, heavy and uncomfortable, I try to reproduce it with fidelity, creating an object similar to a fresco, with the same purpose, keeping alive the memory of those times (Fig 2)
- The bags
The bag was an indispensable accessory, as you didn’t know when you might find food or soap or toilet paper, so you had to be prepared. You couldn’t see people who were not carrying a bag, but you could see bags without people, representing them, precisely because nobody knew when supplying will happen: „you may also stumble on occasional hilarity such as: shopping bags queuing silently in place of their owners” (Smartarse, 2017)
Fig 3. The Romanians woke up in the middle of the night for queuing https://www.click.ro/news/national/va-mai-amintiti-ce-mancau-romanii-pe-vremea-lui-ceausescu Fig.4. Serie of bags made of wax or felt reinforced with shellac or wax casted in bronze, copper and brass
- The people
As Giustino notes, „for ordinary people living in Communist Eastern Europe during the Cold War era, a great part of everyday life consisted of searching and waiting for basic material goods… away from home each day for long stretches of time.” (Giustino, 2007). Inspired by the few existing photos but also by my memories, the people I draw and make are mostly old (the younger ones had to work), they are carrying a bag and they have lots of clothes on (due the electricity and heat cuts, in the theatre hall or our own bed, we faced a permanent ruthless cold).
Fig. 5. Saw cut, drawn and engraved copper sheet
These are the first people I made. The next step was to start making small three-dimensional sculptures, casting models made in wax or felt and wax.
- The buildings
No need to research the archive to find out how communist buildings looked like, people still live in those apartment blocks. They are the main features of most Eastern-European cities (see Fig 6). As Bucica points out, „the social homogenization was one of the key points of the communist ideology, and the urban landscape offers an accurate translation of this social ideal in the material terms of the urban form.” (Bucica, 2003: 3) Maybe this is the reason why some artists are inspired by or even obsessed with these blocks. Berlin-based Tore Rinkveld, aka Evol, keeps reproducing them, painting carboard and concrete pieces found on the streets or underground and turns them into miniature apartment blocks (see Fig 7) while Jessie Brennan makes them from graphite and paper and display their collapse (see Fig 8)
Fig 6 Communist blocks (1989) Fig 7 Spray painted boiler plant foundation (2009) Fig 8 A Fall of Ordinariness and Light (2014)
The buildings I’m making are from copper now with saw cut windows, after some failures with glass casting. I’m also considering the painting and the concrete.
- The books
In a time when scaffolding was everywhere due a permanent and endless construction of socialism (the communist party’s goal, which was supposed to explain all the bad and weird decisions from massive demolition to food rationalisation), the only support that we had were our families, few friends and the books. The books were our real scaffold. The books which I remember were not new, since we borrowed them from each other, even copied them sometimes. I made the books look fragile and old by sewing rice paper, shaping them with shellac and cast them I bronze and copper. I create compositions using the scaffold suggestion (see Fig 9). I will develop this idea further in my MA Project.
Fig 9 The building books ring (2019)
Something is missing: the absurd dimension
After first approaching the subject and finding some solutions to help me recreate the atmosphere of the era I intended to tell the story about, I realized that something was missing from my narrative: the absurd dimension of that regime, the way we lived beyond normality in so many ways and the fact that we got used to it and adapted to it that was even more unnatural. I decided to draw and make the grotesque people who we became pressed by the heavy way of living using three of the symbols I mentioned before: people searching for food, carrying a bag, under the pressure of the blocks of flats. (see Fig 10)
Fig. 10 The absurd life during Communism (2019), drawing and execution from a wax model of a bronze & concrete object representing a person transformed by the communist regime into a less human creature
What else? The lack of freedom
Some things are so obvious for the people who lived during communism that we don’t mention them, we think them implied or common knowledge. But we should detail and repeat until everybody hears and understands: we were not free, we did what we were told, we had interdictions. I cannot list them all, but I can suggest the lack of freedom using barbed wire and metallic fences in my work, inspired by this powerful photo of the Berlin Wall below (see Fig 11), making a copper net, patinated and casting it in concrete
Fig 11. History Fragment Bus Berlin Wall (2016) Fig 12 Berlin Wall Earrings
Why people will wear this jewellery, who is the audience
Jewellery making helps me to express my ideas and feelings and, as Liesbeth Den Besten said, contemporary jewellery is not „only there to adorn a person for the sake of the wearer’s enjoyment or to show their wealth, but to transmit meaning or content similar to the way that fine art does – with one difference: that it is worn by a human on the body.” (den Besten, 2012:60). Who is going to wear my communism inspired collection is not a simple question, and my hope is that I will reach the people who think and feel alike, because „what is true of the producer is true of the perceiver” (Dewey, 2005:112).
I’m confident that my audience is out there, waiting to wear jewellery that makes sense, that is worth being worn, that conveys a message which they feel is right and they want to share. To further cite den Besten, „author jewellery… can never be worn naively, It will always demand some understanding, involvement and commitment. When the maker of a piece of jewellery is an author, the work is loaded with a meaning that is neither commonplace nor middle-of-the road.” (den Besten, 2012:61)
Another part of the audience I target will be the viewers, of course, as „it takes three people to complete the narration: the maker, the wearer and the viewer” (Cunningham, 2007:11). The viewers will ask questions and try to understand what the jewellery stands for. Some of them will, at least., because, as Mark Fenn said „the beauty of narrative jewellery is in the levels of engagement, from the first view” (Fenn, 2017:6) They might not want to wear the jewellery themselves, but they will listen to the story and learn that the story of Eastern European Communism was not a simple one. Moreover, they will also learn that this is also recent history that concerns us all, and the consequences of which still affect us today.
How my jewellery should be worn?
This is a question that my tutors have asked me to think about. The first answer was: in ways they enjoy. For the wearer, to feel and see my jewellery, holding it in the palm of their hand, as a two-sided ring, as bracelet or pendant on a long chain or cord; for the viewer’s joy, mostly as brooch, cufflinks, pin, necklace or tiara. These are also conventional ways to wear jewellery, in general. I would give the brooches and the pins a useful role, though, to pin a dress waist or sleeve. I cannot go further now, as it depends on what kind of finished jewellery I’m going to make in the end.
My intention is to get create powerful compositions from the elements of my narrative, because
„a powerful… composition embodies the energy and thoughts of the artist and draws the viewer in. Curiously, sensing that there’s more to know, the conversation begins.” (Pond, 2017:8).
My aim is to provoke and make people ask questions and get interested in the story. And the story is not nice, it is heavy, uncomfortable and absurd. So, the jewellery must look heavy, uncomfortable, strange, to make people stop, look, ask and think.
To create the strong composition I am thinking of and in the same time keep the jewellery wearable will be a challenge. This is why I will continue to research how contemporary jewellers use connections and joints, how they compose their pieces. And for the sake of balance, I wouldn’t make it all rigid, and frozen in time, some parts will move and have flexible articulation, which will enable the wearer to play with the piece and constantly remember what it stands for.
The Major Project is the start of a longer journey
The research for my project seems to be endless, as each new artist I discover sends me further, each idea and technique makes me start another direction, each book I read reveals another story I wish to tell. The plan is to focus on those ideas which are clear now, after two semesters of exploring, research and reflection, to spend as much time as I can in the university workshop, making and finishing a number of relevant pieces, enough to give the narrative consistency and coherence, with much attention to details. As it looks now, I believe that my Major Project will be the start of a longer journey. I want to continue and use my research to make a difference within the narrative jewellery landscape. The issues my jewellery stand for are still present, if not in Eastern Europe anymore, somewhere in the world; if not all of them, some. Making jewellery that stands for people’s life stories is meaningful, makes sense to me
I haven’t forgotten though what I’ve discovered within the Reflective Practice, that I function well in a creative group and collaboration with museums helps me to push my limits. After the MA Project, I will invite some artists from Eastern European countries to tell their communist stories and join me in a collective exhibition, an itinerant one, touring cities and the galleries. Afterwards I’ll look for museum collaborations and move on, towards other stories.
Bădică, Simina (2014) ‘“Forbidden Images?” Visual Memories of Romanian Communism Before and After 1980’ in Todorova (ed) ) ‘Remembering Communism : Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe’, Central European University Press at http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4443130. (Accessed on 01.04.19)
Bercovich, Dana Hakim (2010), 2010 I Care A Lot at https://www.danahakim.com/2010-I-Care-A-Lot (Accessed on 15.04.19)
Bucica, Cristina (2003) ‘Legitimating power in capital cities. Bucharest – continuity through radical change?’, Department of Political Science / CÉLAT University Laval at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a894/e712ed8387afaee17b53d04f2178e24e7b9d.pdf and https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Legitimating-power-in-capital-cities-.-through-Bucica-Student/a894e712ed8387afaee17b53d04f2178e24e7b9d (Accessed on 14.04.19)
Cuningham, Jack (2005) ‘Maker, wearer, viewer. Contemporary Narrative European Jewellery’ Glasgow:Scottish Arts Council
Dahlén, Micael (2009) Creativity Unlimited : Thinking Inside the Box for Business Innovation, John Wiley & Sons [Online] At: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=514444 (Accessed on 08.10.18)
Den Besten, Liesbeth (2012) ‘On Jewellery, A compendium of international contemporary art jewellery’, Arnoldsche Art Publishers
Dewey, John (2005) Art as experience. London: Penguin
Fenn, Mark (2017) Narrative Jewelry. Tales from the toolbox. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd
Giustino, Cathleen (2007) ‘Everyday life in Eastern Europe’ at http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/exhibits/everyday-life/introduction, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media, (Accessed on 16.04.19)
Pond, Jo (2017) ’Identifying with the narrative’ In Narrative Jewelry. Tales from the Toolbox. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
Smartarse, Mr.(2017) At https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27865644-i-eu-am-tr-it-n-comunism (Accessed on 16.04.19)
Todorova, Maria (2014) ‘Remembering Communism : Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe’ ProQuest Ebook Central, Central European University Press http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4443130. (Accessed on 01.04.19)
Vultur, Smaranda (2014) ‘Daily Life and Constraints in Communist Romania in the Late 1980s: From the Semiotics of Food to the Semiotics of Power’ in Todorova (ed) ) ‘Remembering Communism : Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe’, Central European University Press http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucreative-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4443130. (Accessed on 01.04.19)
List of Illustrations
Figure 1 Unknown author (early 1980s) Shop Queue in a Communist Poland At: https://ro.pinterest.com/pin/565694403193371183/
Figure 2. Coman, M (2019), Engraved wax sheet casted in bronze, riveted on sanded gilding metal sheet In possession of: The author: Farnham
Figure 3 Dohi Marina (2017 ), The Romanians woke up in the middle of the night for queuing At: https://www.click.ro/news/national/va-mai-amintiti-ce-mancau-romanii-pe-vremea-lui-ceausescu
Figure 4 Coman, M (2019) Serie of bags made of wax or felt reinforced with shellac or wax casted in bronze, copper and brass In possession of: The author: Farnham
Figure 5. Coman, M (2019) Saw cut, drawn and engraved copper sheet In possession of: The author: Farnham
Figure 6. Unknown author (probably 1989) Communist apartment blocks At: http://gazeta-afacerilor.ro/intr-o-tara-europeana-blocurile-comuniste-se-vand-ca-painea-calda-sunt-considerate-active-sigure/ (Accessed on 20.01.19)
Figure 7. Rinkveld, Tore aka Evol (2009) Spray painted boiler plant foundation At: http://evoltaste.com/works/caspar-david-friedrich-stadt/category:Selected%20Works#caspar-david-friedrich-stadt (Accessed on 17.04.2019)
Figure 8. Brennan, Jessie (2014) A Fall of Ordinariness and Light At: http://www.jessiebrennan.co.uk/a-fall-of-ordinariness-and-light (Accessed at 21.01.19)
Figure 9. Coman, M (2019)The building books ring In possession of: The author: Farnham
Figure 10. Coman, M (2019) The Absurd Life during Communism In possession of: The author: Farnham
Figure 11. Creative Commons Zero – CC0 (2016 ) History Fragment Bus Berlin Wall Wall Berlin At: https://www.maxpixel.net/History-Fragment-Bus-Berlin-Wall-Wall-Berlin-3072545 (Accessed at 17.04.2019)
Figure 12. Coman, M (2019) Berlin Wall Earrings In possession of: The author: Farnham