3 Questions with Ben Lignel
Jeweler Ben Lignel on becoming visually fluent, self-reflexivity, and making room for good work.
3 QUESTIONS is a series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“Surround yourself with people whose criticism you value, and engage with them as often as they will tolerate.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
I would offer two series of advice. The first series concerns your creative practice: Give yourself the room (mental and otherwise) to make good work. If you are in it for the long haul, keep close to you those texts and images that once inspired you: you’ll come back to them (as they’ll come back to you). Surround yourself with people whose criticism you value, and engage with them as often as they will tolerate. Sharpen you own critical instruments on exhibitions, books, and more books. Get to know your own work: identify what makes it strong, and what makes it banal. Learn to describe it and know the difference between a work that is good, and a work that is good in pictures.
The second series concerns your other practice – i.e. all that happens once you’ve put down the blowtorch, turned off the pickling machine, and hit the light switch:
Get acquainted with the different visual strategies that co-exist in your field. Become visually literate, or better yet, fluent. The challenge of (re)presenting your work is especially relevant for jewelry makers, who will need to choose between different forms of fiction (the white cube, the fashion shoot, the style page). Take ownership of your communication. This means photography, of course, but also text: force yourself to write an artist statement that is precise, informative, and relevant to your practice. Know the art scene that you are destined to navigate: not all galleries are good for you, not all exhibitions are an opportunity. Try to decide beforehand how you want your work exhibited. You won’t always be asked for an opinion, but unless you have one, you won’t be able to participate in the discussion. Pack your work well: if you don’t care for it, there is a good chance others won’t either.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
A have a friend called Fred (an old friend, you might say: I met him when I was five) with whom I have been having an ongoing conversation for as long as I can remember. He holds a Doctorate in history of law, and I hold an MA in furniture design. Each new work I produce is like a new move or added pawn in our conversation: sometimes it makes the conversation more interesting, sometimes lighter, sometimes glib. (He adds to the conversation as well: a thesis here, an article there…) This form of interaction (with him and a few others like him) has been the best way to maintain my creative practice (I should add: this works for me, but law historians are hard to come by, so you may want to replace this model with one of your own).
What keeps me motivated? I find myself – like you – in the privileged position of creating things that define their own modes of existence. This is exceedingly groovy, in my book.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
Before I started making jewelry, I got to know – quite well – the work of American artists Ida Applebroog, whose political and gender-centered agenda was an eye-opener. Her paintings dealt with domestic violence, the subtle oppression of the everyday, or the authority structures that are built into our relationship to the medical body (for example). I was sixteen, and it was the beginning for me, I think.
And then, at some point (while reading Calvino, or Perec, or Borges) I was made aware of the fact that writing, for these guys, was not only a means of expression, but also a subject of enquiry. “What does it mean to write?” they would ask or, “How does this medium work?” or “How much can I stretch it before it breaks?” (In the case of Perec, this translated into “Could I actually write a whole novel without the letter ‘e’?” And he did, he did.)
In the contemporary jewelry field, this change in perspective has been described as self-reflexivity and what this implies is to treat the history and conventions of jewelry as your subject. Understanding this made the game much, much more interesting for me, and changed its rules of engagement as well.
BENJAMIN LIGNEL first trained in philosophy and literature, then in art history, at New York University and finally in furniture design in London. Most of his time is devoted to creating jewelry, but the laws of gravity have recently been steering him back towards desktop adventures, including, but not limited to, curatorial, associative, and writing endeavors. In 2007, he co-founded La Garantie, Association Pour Le Bijou, a French association with a mission to study and promote jewelry. He became a member of Think Tank: A European Initiative for the Applied Arts in 2009. He became editor of Art Jewelry Forum in January 2013.