What is a precious material? A commentary and redefinition through the work of Katrin Spranger
By Purva Chawla
I walked away from studying Katrin Spranger’s work with a few, radical shifts in perception.Which materials qualify as being ‘precious’; what can jewelry look like; and finally, can jewelry or decorative objects be the channel for a broader, critical message? Each of these ideas was shaken up and restructured in my mind as I sifted through the work of this London-based conceptual jewelry artist.
From crude oil to fresh water, to honey, to cheap and disposable plastics and then traditional, precious metals–Katrin’s creations embrace and implement a diverse materiality. But common to each of her projects is the projection of a dystopian future where materials that we take for granted today (such as oil, water or honey) may be severely depleted, and would then become as precious as gold or diamonds are today.
In her quest to focus the viewer or user on these future scarcities and shifts, Katrin modulates and spotlights on everyday materials, by encasing them in glass or metal or by placing materials as opposing as disposable plastic pieces and diamonds or gold in union with each other. This sharp contrast amplifies the value of the lesser material in such compositions and raises awareness about issues of scarcity, pollution, and waste.
Originally trained as a goldsmith, Katrin’s hybrid practice has led her to collaborations with artists from many disciplines and often crosses over from jewelry into the realms of fashion, food, performance, photography and installation. From a gruff industrial aesthetic using old plumbing pipes to gilded finessed creations and even edible works, her varied artwork creates bold, performative experiences for the viewer.
In this way, none of her works are static or decorative really–they interact with the user or wearer, while communicating broader messages, and questioning notions of what is precious or valuable to our society today.
Read our recent interview with the Cockpit Arts-based artist and maker, whose experimental practice has benefited greatly from the support at the London-based business incubator.
MD: Katrin, how did your work with jewelry design begin to encompass elements of installation, performance, and fashion, among other disciplines?
Katrin: It was during my MA studies in Sweden. I was placed in a highly creative academic environment and encouraged to think outside the box really. Initially, I never intended to develop my practice into a hybrid one; it happened as a natural progression.
While attending a seminar during my studies, I began questioning materials that we have been using traditionally in jewelry-making, such as precious metals and gemstones. I understood that their popularity, demand, and perceived value have something to do with their scarcity. Wondering what materials we may use for jewelry-making in the future, I started to research more seriously what these materials could be, and how they would be perceived and valued when they become depleted. This led to the idea of working with crude oil.
Experimenting with crude oil, I decided to develop a material which is solid at room temperature and then starts to melt when being worn, close to the human body whose temperature is around 35-38 degrees Celsius. I mixed liquid crude oil with paraffin oil (a crude oil product as well) in a particular ratio to achieve this. Since oil is valued for its burning properties, I thought, in the future, we may want to use the last drops of it similarly, just not to fuel our cars, but rather wearing it and keeping it close to the body.
This, of course, was almost a science-fictional idea and naturally included “getting dirty” owed to the interaction with oil. That is when fashion got involved, and performance aspects for the wearer as well. I liked the idea of involving the jewelry-wearer differently, and I have repeated some of these elements again with my honey projects, where wearers can eat or consume the jewelry rather than simply wear it.
This naturally involves performance, and in the case of honey, working with food as a material. Developing the oil project, though was truly a turning point for me, as I felt being able to convey the idea was as important as the end product.
MD: Through your work, you comment on consumer culture and science, as well as highlight natural resources that are threatened today. When did you discover that your work is uniquely poised for these ideas, and can leave an impact on users?
Katrin: It was at the same time as when my work developed in a more concept or idea-driven direction. When I started my education, twenty years ago, I first trained as a traditional goldsmith. At the time, I never questioned my materials, nor was I aware of political meaning within the language of materials and consumption.
Then, during my MA studies, I started thinking more critically and felt the urge to express these ideas. When researching natural resources, I also started comparing them with precious metals and gemstones. I began to see common environmental qualities. For example, gold mining is everything but environmentally friendly–just as sourcing oil is. However, people are less aware of it. My aim is to raise awareness, but also to comment on material and resource consumption.
I think we all (including me) are sometimes a bit "short-sighted” when consuming natural resources. I was brought up in Europe, where at the time we never questioned the amount of water being wasted, since we had plenty of it, and took clean water for granted. Today I have a more realistic view, owing to an awareness of the world’s growing population, and the effects of global warming. Rather than sermonizing, however, I see myself as a storyteller, someone who has a dystopian outlook of the future.
MD: From familiar metals to crude oil, to fresh water and honey, and even common plastics–the spectrum of materials you work with is large. What materials are most stimulating for you, and which are playing a strong role in your work at this moment?
Katrin: Since my early jewelry studies, I have loved experimenting with different materials. No matter what I choose for my artistic work, I aim to develop the material into something unfamiliar and unique–this has always been my goal.
At the moment I am exploring the topic of fresh water. When I first started this project, my aim was to solidify water without freezing it. While one can easily solidify water with gelling agents, I later found myself asking if this was crucial to the story-telling of the project, and it wasn’t. The work has now naturally developed in a slightly different direction than originally planned, and I am quite happy with the results.
MD: ’Aquatopia-Waterobjects’ is your most recent work. What is the impact you hope to create through these curious objects?
Katrin: Aquatopia-Waterobjects deals with our fresh water resources, issues of growing demand and pollution. The aim is to highlight two essential aspects of water: consumption and hygiene. The project is still work in progress for me, though some pieces have been already developed. The eventual idea for the project is to create a performance in collaboration with a performance artist, in which the jewelry and functional pieces are shown in action.
This will amplify and dramatize the message of water being on the verge of depletion, and how it will, therefore, transform into a precious material. This fictional narrative will also showcase problem-solving ideas for how to deal with water scarcity in the future. I am currently applying for funding towards the development of large-scale performance objects, in tandem with the performance artist’s dramaturgical approach.
MD: In ‘Best Before-Extended,' you pair repurposed plastics such as zip-ties with traditional metals, gold paint and coating, and even diamonds. Does this stark combination of differently-valued materials help users to value them more?
Katrin: The inspiration for the shapes came from disposable plastics and every-day items. The first pieces for Best Before Extended were made from crude oil products such as Polyurethane, and a few of them have an additional gilded gold layer on top. The aim was to produce a more permanent collection, within the frame of the same idea. When I developed this work further, I decided at some point to use metals only. Most of these pieces are made from silver, and a few were made in gold with small diamonds. I like the contrast between recognizable cheap, disposable items and their precious metal appearance.
MD: What are you working on right now? What fabrication techniques are you exploring?
Katrin: As mentioned, I am currently working with fresh water as my focus. All pieces in this collection will be executed using electroforming. Having worked for many years with this technique, my recent exciting yet unprecedented electroformed work for this topic shows unique growth formations. This has led me to challenge the technique with regards to manipulating the electrolyte solution, to support, create and control these extraordinary metal deposits and growth. This will allow me to create truly unique pieces.
MD: How has being at Cockpit Arts helped your practice, and growth and an artist?
Katrin: Being based at Cockpit Arts has been really great for me. What I like most about it, is that it is much more than solely renting studio space–they offer a great deal of support, through business coaching and mentoring. In the future, I hope that the number of conceptual/experimental makers among us grows here.
MD: Thanks so much for speaking with us Katrin! We look forward to seeing more of your dynamic and thought-provoking work in the future.
Readers, continue to learn more about Katrin's work here.