“Enfant Terrible”: Ted Noten

Agnese Čivle

An Interview With the “Enfant Terrible” of Contemporary Jewelry Design - Ted Noten


The exhibition “A Retrospective of 25 Years of Ted Noten's Work / Gold, Sweat & Pearls” can be seen at the gallery Putti in Riga, through October 11

In Amsterdam's red-light district he set up automatic dispenser from which, for 2.50 euros, one could buy rings that he had designed. “Gentlemen callers” were given the opportunity to impress their “ladies of the night” with a lovely red laquered Ring. “Be nice to a Girl, Buy Her a Ring” was the title of this project. Later, a limited number of the rings were sold for 300 euros each.

On the main page of his website, there's a gold ring with a pig (“EVENINGBUTTERFLY”), set on a scale. Depending of the price of gold for the day, the 14-carat pig's price has fluctuated from 7,968 euros to all the way up to 14,291 euros. Leaving the gold pig aside, using 3D technology he has produced the same ring in nylon, in a shade of poisonous pink; titled “Miss Piggy”, he uses these pink rings in the installation “Wanna Swap Your Ring?”, which he sets up in various cities and uses to swaps rings with anybody who shows up with a ring of their own.

So, who is he? He's Ted Noten (1956). After having worked in bricklaying and in a psychiatric hospital, Noten studied at the Academy of Applied Arts in Maastricht, and then at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. He has since become internationally renown as the “enfant terrible” of Dutch contemporary art.

In 2008 Noten held a fashion show for his jewelry at Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch (a museum of modern art in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in The Netherlands). The choreography was planned so that the models would leave the jewelry lying scattered on the runway – so that museum-goers could get a closer look. Museum employees were up in arms about possible theft of the pieces, and finally forced Noten to at least have the pieces covered with glass domes. Last year Noten had another exhibition at the same museum, “Framed by – Ted Noten”. In this one he placed cheap facsimiles and million-dollar pieces by Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons right next to the originals, thereby addressing the issue of how the art market sets its prices.

One of Noten's most iconic pieces is “Turbo Princess” (1995) – it's a dead mouse (that was found in his studio) wearing a miniature pearl necklace, and the whole thing is encased in a block of clear acrylic. For some reason, it is slightly reminiscent of the work of the scandalous British artist Damien Hirst, who, in the same time period, was fond of creating artworks featuring dead animals floating in formaldehyde.

The value of jewelry is a central theme in Noten's works, and not only conceptually, but in terms of materials as well – as can be seen by his combining of cheap materials with valuable ones. Another central theme in his works is women. Brought to the forefront are issues such as gender (in)equality, the cult of beauty, and the delirium surrounding social status.

Atelier Ted Noten / 7 Necessities / Amsterdam, NL / 2013.  Photo: Peter Cox/SM's

In the collection “7 necessities” (2012), Noten plays with the theme of “objects that are vitally necessary to women”. Alongside lipstick and sunglasses, included in this “survival kit” are a vial of inject-able botox, a chastity belt, and a crystal ball with which to see into the future... A few years earlier, Noten came up with the project “Haunted by 36 Women”, a series of 36 female archetypes most often known by such labels as “fashionista”, “suffragette”, “femme fatale,” and “girl-next-door”...

The artist currently finds himself neither here nor there, or in a “Tarkovskian mood”, as he jokingly calls it himself. Soon he will have his studio packed up and moved to Rotterdam's Boijmans van Beuningen Museum. This will happen in May of next year. By then, his latest book will have already come out, which will cover all of his works since 2006 to the present (his previous book, “CH2=C(CH3)C(=O)CH3”, featured all of his creations up to 2006). The new book's 286 pages are being made to be read back to front – “Well, the way people normally do it!” he says.

Noten observes the water that has just been poured into our glasses, and comments that it is as clear as vodka; he certainly is direct. We sit down in a sunny spot on the curbside, across the street from the gallery Putti, where his exhibition is still being set up. We laugh a lot; Noten is quite witty.

Atelier Ted Noten / ‘Art is a Cultural Affliction’/ Amsterdam, NL / 2014.  Photo:  Atelier Ted Noten

Have you ever done classical jewelry?

Yes, that was what I started with. I did classical jewelry for three years, but then I felt the urge to say something more, and I couldn't do it with gold and stones. I enrolled at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and there people were talking about “message”, “meaning”, “concept”... “Concept”. What even is “concept”? – I thought. And can I realize it through jewelry? Great!

I recently spoke to an artist who switched from sculpture to the medium of video – for the very same reason. He felt that he needed something more with which to express his ideas. How do you feel now – is contemporary jewelry sufficient for you?

Definitely. In relation to civilization, it carries an unbelievable amount of connotation. More than art. Jewelry has a much closer tie to people; it has a much larger database. For instance, do you remember the first ring a boy ever gave you?

There you go! Look at your face! A piece of jewelry has a strong link to a person's emotional side, to traditions – to historical, political and economic conditions. But art has grown proud, and it raises itself above everything. But let's remember that in the 20th century, in the time of René Lalique and Fabergé, the art of jewelry making was in a much stronger position. In the middle ages, even kings were jewelers because they had the gold, they were the alchemists.

Jewelry has no boundaries. That's the way I see it. And I'm lucky in that I've learned the skills and the foundations of the craft, which have allowed me to move forward, but with a much more artistic approach.

But you know, if someone starts from just an artistic position, then he is only able to create nice compositions like this... (Noten positions his cigarette pack, lighter, and my recording device into various different arrangements). And so, they spend four days just arranging and rearranging, and in the end, all they've come up with is bullshit!

Atelier Ted Noten / 7 Necessities / Amsterdam, NL / 2013.  Photo: Peter Cox/SM's

What sort of a place for contemporary jewelry do you see in the world of contemporary art?

In my opinion, the art world has been very late in perceiving jewelry seriously.

Jewelry artists must use the opportunities handed to them by other systems; it is necessary to squeeze into other disciplines. And that's what I do. I participate in fashion shows and I'm introduced as a fashion designer! Good!

I also create pieces in the field of art. If I put my ring in a small box behind glass, no one will appreciate it. In art, people are used to looking at bigger things. That's why I use, for instance, a robot, and I make a whole performance of it. The robot goes tick-tick-tick, punches in a code, and takes a ring out of the safe... And that's how I have successfully shown the ring to an audience. I use a language that comes from other disciplines, but I hold on to jewelry. That is my field, that is my passion. I'm not trying to create art.

As a jewelry designer, how do you feel in the market?

It's not easy. You see, the art world has more benchmarks that can support why one painting or another costs, for instance, 15,000 euros. But if I show a bag that I've made that costs just as much, the art collectors don't have anything to compare it with. In modern jewelry, there are no databases containing information on what is worthwhile, what is of good quality, what is important, or why this or that piece has such a price. And especially – Why pay that much if the ring isn't even set with a diamond...? Of course, one has to take into account that the greater part of the jewelry market deals with gold and diamonds. The market is not about meanings or design.

I'm trying to break this stagnated way of thinking, and I do it in various ways.

And how do you do that?

For instance, at my last exhibition at Stedelijk Museum ‘s-Hertogenbosch, I was asked to find things that inspire me, that are important to me – in art, design, literature, video art, skilled crafts, wherever... I made a sort of mix from the big names in the art world – Koons, Hirst, Bacon – and in the exhibition, I placed next to them, for example, a small wolpertinger (a mythological hybrid animal from Bavaria – A. Č.). I put this small, weird, 100-euro creature next to a piece costing two million. People were confused, they thought the creature was a Hirst piece and that it must be expensive.

It's no secret that they tend to buy artworks as an investment, and not because they have truly fallen in love with them, or because the piece has truly moved them. Of course, it's always been like that, but in my opinion, there used to be more of a true allure and passion in collecting.

Atelier Ted Noten / Haunted by 36 Women / exhibitions / 2009. Photo: Atelier Ted Noten

One senses a decent dose of irony and humor in your works. Is that also the way that you look at the world?

Yes. There's no other way. If you become too serious, you become depressed. My attitude towards life is reflected in my work, yes. And there's also black humor in there.

Do you think people are ready for your world view?

My jewelry, I believe, is tempting, but it always has a subliminal meaning as well. A person buys it and then starts looking at it and thinks, there's something not right here...

If I would try to shock people from the start, they would reject it, and simply turn around and leave. Unfortunately, most people who buy jewelry don't want a story that goes along with it. All they want is a nice necklace to wear on Christmas Eve, and that will go well with high heels. With the aesthetics – I kind of try to catch people in a web, so they then have to think about it.

Tell me more about your creative working process. I saw a video in which you transferred a life-size installation (an office chair outfitted with a bicycle seat) into a miniature format – into a piece of jewelry. Do you often work like this?

Not always; I usually make sketches and then start to make the thing, but I wanted to learn a new way in which to work. I learned how to do 3D printing. With it you can print in metal, gold... I thought – now that's something! And so, with the help of a 3D printer, I created large objects which I later transformed into small ones. This way I could be fast and spontaneous! You can express yourself more with big things. Go crazy! Small things inhibit this passion.

What you saw was a piece from the series “Haunted by 36 Women”, in which I studied various female archetypes. From the more than 400 that I found, I selected 36 and made a corresponding sculpture for each; and from those I then made the jewelry.

A completely new language appeared from this because I had changed my working technique. It was a great discovery, but now I've had enough of it.

Why is that?

Because everything is possible with it. There are no limits with 3D printing, but one needs limits.

Ted Noten's atelier. Photo from his personal archives

What's next?

I'm in a kind of nowhere zone, like in a “Tarkovskian” mood. I recently met with the director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and that's what I told him – that I'm in a “Tarkovskian” mood, and that I want him to come to my studio with a truck and clean it out. And then to take it all and put it in a pile in the museum, with references to the Tower of Babel. The museum already has something similar to that, by Hieronymus Bosch. And he agreed to it. That will be my next exhibition, opening in the spring. Of course, everyone thinks that I'm going to be showing my works, but that's not the case – there will only be my tools. OK, one room in the museum will have my works – 3D prints made from yellow paper.

But meanwhile, I will be sitting in my empty room, watching what happens...

What can inspire you?

Daily life. People's behavior. Things that I see around myself. I don't go to museums to get inspiration for my work. I go to feel something special. A couple of months ago I went to see three works by Kippenberger. Wooooow! My heart beat like crazy! That's why I go to museums; not to see if I could do something like this or that...

Atelier Ted Noten / 7 Necessities / Amsterdam, NL / 2013.  Photo: Peter Cox/SM's. Chastity Belt. In collection of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen Rotterdam, NL

But in the “Haunted by 36 Women” series, you were inspired by another artist...

That was the Japanese artist Hokusai, whose works I saw in Tokyo. He depicted the wonderful scenery of Mount Fuji in thirty-six woodcuts. The piece is called “36 Views of Mount Fuji”. I thought – Why should I go mad every time I have to choose a new theme, when I can adhere to this one? I just replaced the mountain with women.

But women were angry with me after that. Especially the feminists. They accused me with: “You think that you, as a man, can understand what we women feel!?” I said that I am in no way attempting to do that; I'm just expressing my thoughts and my vision.

They also attacked me when I did “Chastity Belt”, from the “7 necessities” collection. I pointed out to them that now you are the masters, for women – not men – have the keys to the chastity belt. “Oh really...!?” they said, and they were happy.

Is it important to you that your work is understood correctly?

No, it's better if it is misunderstood, because then a discussion is guaranteed! Discussion and polemics on the different meanings in art are the main objectives.

I used to become confused when I was attacked like this, but now I know what to say. It's important for the artist to know for himself why he is doing something, and what he is putting into the work – otherwise the piece is flat, fake and boring.

Atelier Ted Noten / Haunted by 36 Women / exhibitions / 2009. Photo: Atelier Ted Noten

Now that you are getting older and are more experienced, could it be said that your works have become more complex?

Good question... I don't know.

In any case, things are much easier for me now. When you're still a student, you're a bit psychotic. You don't yet have a connection to your intuition. You haven't “docked” yourself yet. That can only be learned by working and getting to know yourself.

Do you work intuitively?

Of course, there's always some conceptual framework. In that sense, I'm very rational. But at the same time, I don't mess around with the material. There are people who buy tons of material, and they first have to feel it, smell it, and only then do they start doing something with it. I always start by working out a rational concept.

There are also these techno freaks... This is where I start to object to 3D printing – many become too dependent on it.

Then there are these super-super-conceptualists who are obsessed with the concept, but when you look at their work – you simply don't understand it. That's why museums have these explanatory A4 pieces of paper next to the works on display, and you have to read them to understand what the artist was thinking.

That's not for me. I do, of course, like intellectual discussions and art, but the work itself – not words – must tell the story.

This can clearly be seen in art magazines – sometimes I can't read them. I can't understand anything in them. They create their own cult, with only a small following that can understand it all. In that sense, I believe, art should be democratic. It can be super-intellectual, but it must be democratic.


Atelier Ted Noten / Lady K 6/7, Fur / Lady K serie, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / 2008. Photo: Ted Noten

You have your own atelier and team of people. How do you make sure that they are on the same wave as you?

I don't even try to do that. If you're working with people who have a similar way of thinking, you'll eventually begin to drown in discussions over little things. But you must discus the big things. It's good to have people around who have different ways of thinking.

How do you find them?

They come to me, or I notice them somewhere. I don't have all that many people. I'm not Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. I have four freelance employees.

It's a great gift if you have good people by your side. Many artists don't take advantage of this – they're afraid that they will loose their identity in this way. I think that's silly. I am the only jewelry designer with a team. Others go into their studios by themselves and work alone all day – until they become depressed because there is no fresh air, no fun.

For some people, working alone is a form of meditation...

That's perfect! Let's go to therapy!

Of course, I also need moments like that. On Fridays, there is no one in the studio but me. Just my atmosphere, my music.

What is your atmosphere like?

Silence. Or music – and it can be very loud. But if it's your favorite music, then it's just like being in silence. For me, that is African music, classical music... It depends on the mood I'm in. My head clears itself out, and things start happening on their own.

What kind of people are your clients?

Collectors, but mostly museums.

In terms of those that buy jewelry... They put on a ring and – yes, they like it, but it's too big and it will be difficult to wash the dishes... Because of that I once bought one of my clients a small dishwasher machine! She did, by the way, accept it. You know, people with their constraints force me to be creative (laughs)!

Ted Noten's atelier. Photo from his personal archives

About originality – how original can one even possibly be these days?

That is a problem, but not for me. I already have 25 years of experience and my own identity, but for students – yes, it is a big problem. It's linked to the internet. They have already seen so much before starting their studies, and once they're in art school, they no longer know where to start, or where to go. They are confused. There's too much information.

When I started my studies, I hadn't heard about Warhol. I didn't go to museums, which is why I was hungry, and I could discover something new every day.

In the design school where I teach, I try to somehow bring them back to the beginning.

Atelier Ted Noten / “Haunted by 36 Women” / exhibitions / 2009. Photo: Atelier Ted Noten

How do you do that?

For example, there's an assignment – create a chair. They jump to their computers and draw really beautiful things. When I ask them what will it be made of, they answer that it can be made of anything. “So, you want to say that there is no relationship between this design and the material? OK, and what color will it be?” “Well... maybe red, maybe blue,” they answer.

I was in shock! I got a load of wood pieces and said – Today, we're going to make three chairs from this wood. Now they were in shock. They started to panic – they had never touched a saw, had never hammered in a nail, had never held a piece of sandpaper, had never glued anything... I had to have a medical nurse standing by (laughs)!

Whatever you do, the material is important; otherwise, go and be a writer! Going back to skilled craftsmanship is very crucial. You feel the material, you smell it, perhaps you injure yourself... Good things come about not only in your head, but also in the material.

“A Retrospective of 25 Years of Ted Noten's Work / Gold, Sweat & Pearls”. Opening at Gallery Putti, Riga