This summer was truly a summer of firsts! I launched the Tuning Collection online, ushering in my first everyday, minimal collection. I also participated in not one, but TWO new shows. The Renegade Craft Fair was bursting with color and joyful noise and provided decent dog-watching opportunities, too. I also got the chance to showcase my new and improved displays.
I was also thrilled to be selected as an emerging artist for the Hip Pop mini-booths at the American Craft Council Show. The American Craft Council has been around for more than 75 years, publishing magazines, offering public lectures, and hosting high-end craft shows in four different cities. The best thing about ACC? Not only do they cultivate a culture of making, they are also committed to inclusion and equity.
ACC designed lightweight, easy-to-assemble cardboard shelves for the Hip Pop booths. It took a few more hours than expected to figure out how to work with cardboard, but I got everything set up right before the show. I also revealed this one-of-a-kind pendant at the show.
Last but not least, I'll be adding these oxidized beauties to my shop soon, so stay tuned!
The traditional diamond ring might simply not be you, and that's ok. Diamonds come with baggage, from conflicted sources to rampant overpricing, and even as a jewelry designer, I'm terrified of carrying around something so small and expensive. The good news is, showing your commitment to a loved one doesn't need to be weighted down by these worries.
Lily of Leela Threads recently renewed her marriage vows with her husband on her 10th wedding anniversary, and the lovely couple decided to mark the occasion with a gorgeous photoshoot!
The photoshoot was an incredible collaborative project, with photography by Ashley, haircut and color by Zhanna Koryaka, lush blooms by Blooming Mira Designs, lashes by Natalie, and original wedding dress modified by David's Bridal. Lily even modified her original wedding dress for this rocking bridal shoot with an attitude!
Instead of wearing diamond bridal jewelry like most brides, why not go with lightweight acrylic jewelry? The truth is, you can choose to not worry about losing overpriced diamond jewelry or getting irritated earlobes from wearing heavy earrings for a whole day. If you're looking to make a statement with bold, eco-friendly jewelry, the Black Gold Collection is for you.
And here is the happy couple photographed against the backdrop of Sacramento Midtown before sunset. Happy anniversary, Lily and Nick!
I was recently interviewed by the Metal Arts Guild in SF as their Featured Member in March, and they've graciously allowed me to repost the interview here!
Tell us a little about yourself.
Born in the US and raised in Taiwan, I’m an artist, jewelry designer, and writer currently based in Oakland, California. In my conceptual work, I explore the imprint of sexism on our daily habits, often through alternative materials paired with metal armature. Questioning the construction of gender and reinterpreting feminism are the driving forces behind my work.
I know some artists say they aren’t interested in political or confrontational issues, but identifying as an artist is a political act in itself. Instead of valuing the financial stability and familiarity of a 9-to-5 job, an artist might choose a part-time gig with little upward mobility in exchange for more creative running room. The artist values flexibility, creativity, and ultimately, freedom of expression, which is intrinsically political.
As Aristotle aptly puts it, humans, by nature, are political animals.
Your recent jewelry collections are a big departure from your conceptual artwork. What’s the story here?
At this point, I feel as if I’ve been in school for too long, and I want to explore the world outside of academia. My jewelry business is one of these ventures, and although there is no apparent link to feminism, the business is inspired by inquisitive women who speak their own minds. The carved acrylic collections, in particular, inject an undeniably bold presence into everyday life.
Which materials do you create with most and what is your attraction to using them?
With my conceptual work, I enamel white tiles and secure them to metal armatures with grout. Mass-produced tiles were the texture of my childhood in Taiwan, and I’m fascinated by its conflicting nature. Tiles were introduced to Taiwan as an implementation of modern hygiene; it is an uniform and easily cleaned surface–the visual equivalent to white noise. Due to humid weather and frequent earthquakes over the years, these tiles have peeled off or gently bulged out on walls, taking on almost human characteristics.
In my jewelry business, I utilized the belt sander in carving wax, moved onto carving wood, and ultimately, to acrylic. The more I work with acrylic, which is a type of plastic, the more attracted and repelled I become. Plastic has permeated every aspect of my life. This material is alluring in its shiny, bright newness, its ability to be molded into practically any object, but plastic also converges into floating islands in the middle of the ocean. How should we react to this addictive material?
How long have you been working in metals and what brought you into this field?
After I got my bachelor’s in creative writing in New York, I realized that I never felt like I belonged in that city. So in 2012 I pivoted and headed to the west coast, where working in metals really grounded me. Making an object with my hands gave me focus, and the bay area gave me an open-minded and welcoming community. It surprises me to this day how supportive and sharing the people in the metals community are!
What piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out in metals?
Make mistakes! If you never melt a bezel or overfire enamel, you will never know what the limits and potential of these materials are. As my professor Deb Lozier says, if you can repeat a mistake to create a consistent result, the mistake becomes your technique.
My second piece of advice is to try everything. This means interning at a gallery, working as an artist’s assistant, volunteering at a conference, etc. Each opportunity is a chance to see what truly fits you. Think of it as trying on a ring. You won’t know if it feels right unless you try it on. Taking on different roles in the metals field will also give you a feel for how the industry works and where your niche is.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now I’m focusing on building my jewelry business and writing for Art Jewelry Forum, but I might consider grad school in a couple years. It would be incredible to return to an environment custom made for explosive creative growth!
The season of giving is upon us, but before you purchase from a big box store or e-commerce giant, consider shopping small this year! Here are 5 good reasons to shop small and local:
Keep the dollars in your local community
When you shop small and local, the sales tax goes back into public schools, parks, and roads in your community. As a small business, I also put my revenue back in the local economy when I shop.
Better product diversity
Unlike big box stores, small businesses cater to the interests and needs of their local customers and niche markets. Olivia Shih Jewelry offers custom jewelry services, too.
Buying a Christmas gift from a local business means less transportation and fewer long distance deliveries, and this translates into a smaller carbon footprint. Olivia Shih Jewelry also uses acrylic scrap and recycled materials whenever possible.
Instead of dealing with a customer service representative, you receive genuine attention from small business owners and their team. Have a question? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for something fresh and new? Entrepreneurs are the people who take risks, innovate, and bring creativity into our lives. Your support means the world to me as I tackle the life of a solopreneur!
This holiday season, Olivia Shih Jewelry will be popping up in Oakland, Richmond, and South San Fransisco! Visit us at any of these events to receive a holiday surprise!
11/5: Lucente Studio Pop-Up
"Featuring limited edition and on-of-a-kind jewelry, textiles and accessories form our favorite independent designers. These gorgeous goods are perfect for holiday giving or getting. Drop by, enjoy a glass of wine and put a dent in your holiday shopping list."
11am - 4pm
187 Utah Avenue
South San Francisco, 94080
11/25: First Friday @ OMCA: Black Friday Edition
"Enjoy the best street market in the Bay with OMCA and Off the Grid! Savor California beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages around the Koi Pond at the Blue Oak beer garden. Enjoy half-price admission, live music, hands-on activities for kids, a pop-up art market in the Redwood Burl area, and extended OMCA Store hours. Bring friends and family for a taste of local music, food, and culture at the Oakland Museum of California!"
1000 Oak St
Oakland, CA 94607
12/3: California College of the Arts Annual Holiday Fair
"CCA’s idyllic Oakland campus turns into a bustling arts bazaar for a day. The public is invited to shop for one-of-a-kind, handmade, affordable gifts created by the CCA community: paintings, drawings, prints, cards, jewelry, ceramics, hand-blown glass, clothing, photography, textiles, ornaments, and more. Discover unique gifts while enjoying live jazz music and holiday treats."
11am - 3pm
Oakland, CA 94618
12/4: Richmond Art Center Holiday Arts Festival
"The Holiday Arts Festival is an annual tradition at the Richmond Art Center. For 54 years, artists and craftspeople have shared their best work with our community.
Purchase handmade art, gifts, and food! Meet our Community Partners, who bring so much to the Richmond community and beyond! Decorate your own canvas tote bag, perfect for carrying gifts and art supplies for class! Celebrate the holiday season with us!"
11am — 5pm
Special members' preview hour:
10 — 11am
Richmond Art Center
Main, South, West, and Community Galleries
2540 Barrett Avenue
Richmond, California 94804
Hope to see you there!
Recently, I sat down with April Higashi, founder of Shibumi Gallery in Berkeley, California. Founded in 1993, Shibumi Gallery is known for its uniquely curated space and for showcasing contemporary jewelry, fine art, and textiles. The phrase "shibumi" is a set of Japanese words that imply an "aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobstrusive beauty" (1).
April Higashi, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood
Olivia Shih: April, you have been working in and with contemporary art jewelry for over 20 years, but I would love to hear how you began your affair with jewelry.
April Higashi: I was actually working at Esprit de Corp in the textiles department but ended up working at a computer most of my work day. I needed to work with my hands again, so I found myself at a jewelry class at San Francisco City College. Although I had always loved making in general, metal arts was very challenging--the thought process was so different from textile and fabric, and this drew me in. The medium was an endless source for learning, so here I am still!
April Higashi, Furattā, 2015, 22k yellow gold, leaded enamel, black onyx,
steel chain, 2 7⁄8”Pendant, 33" steel chain, photo: Shibumi Gallery
OS: Is there an artist or a few artists who influenced you the most, whether it be in jewelry or life?
AH: Yes, a few people in particular have greatly inspired me. June Schwarcz, who passed away this year, was a strong influence both in the way she created work and the way she lived her life. She not only created amazing sculptural enamel vessels, but she surrounded herself with beautiful things and creative people. I was her assistant for a few years, and we remained friends until she passed away at 97 years old. Susan Cummins, who isn’t an artist per se but owned The Susan Cummins Gallery, was a mentor. I worked for her when I was 25. She taught me that you not only have to have a strong vision that is unique to yourself, but also that your business needs to make money to stay afloat. I learned so much, watching her form a strong community around her vision.
OS: Both June and Susan are innovators in the contemporary jewelry field, but have you ever been inspired by artists in other mediums?
AH: When I was younger, I’d have said Frida Kahlo. I finally got to visit Casa Azul in Mexico City this past year, and I was reminded that she was a true individual. She created her own style and community of creative and intellectual people. She didn’t have an easy life, but it was definitely interesting and inspiring. She loved, lived, and created. She knew what she wanted and went after it, even if she didn’t always get it.
April Higashi, Ambā Ki, 2015, amber drops, 4.64 ctw diamonds,
18k and 22k gold, 2”, photo: Shibumi Gallery
OS: I love that. It's clear to any visitor that Shibumi Gallery is a work of labor and love. What was your vision for the gallery when you first opened?
AH: As I mentioned, I had worked for Susan Cummins at her gallery. I’d also been one of the early artists at Velvet da Vinci and had done display work for De Novo Gallery. What I took away from these experiences was this: show work beautifully. Show new work that hasn’t been seen by everyone. Show work from colleagues you respect and from upcoming talent you feel have unique vision. Show artful but wearable work. Always pay the artist before you pay yourself. Make the clients feel comfortable and welcome in your space. Connect them with the right piece that looks good on them. Listen to who they are. Share the things in life you love.
April Higashi, Matte Black Onyx and Bronze with Black Diamond Bead Necklace,
2015, black onyx, bronze, black diamonds, 19”, photo: Shibumi Gallery
OS: Those are inspiring values to live and work by. You’re currently based in Berkeley, California, right? Can you describe what your environment is like and how it influences your life and work?
AH: I am an extrovert inside an introvert’s body. I created an aesthetic environment in the gallery where I hope the beauty will draw one in. I want the space to speak for itself, so I don’t have to. The jewelry is usually displayed with twisted branches and driftwood and metalwork by my son’s father, Eric Powell, who is a metal sculptor and made all of the displays and the gallery doors. My gallery is connected to my studio and a larger design open space where my six year old son loves to draw. There is a modern earthy flavor to the space with organic elements--accents of walnut, steel and art that I have collected or traded over the years. I’ve been told that the space seems creative and considered. I love that description.
Furattā II, 2015, 22k & 18k gold,black onyx, diamonds, 1 5⁄8”,
photo: Shibumi Gallery
OS: Shibumi really does resonate with Berkeley, with its respect for slow, considered craft and embracing nature. What is a working day at this East Bay gallery like?
AH: Every day is different. If I’m lucky I’ll go for a short run or go get my new favorite coffee drink, a Gibraltar. Then I’ll do a few emails, check the calendar for client appointments, then browse and post to Instagram before heading to the gallery. Once there, I check in with my goldsmiths, look over and comment on completed work, and go over the day’s priorities to form a game plan.
OS: And that’s just your morning?
AH: Yes! Afterwards, I’ll check in with my staff who has usually set up the gallery and is working away. I might see clients, do custom designs or quotes, work on new pieces, check in with galleries or artists, or work on upcoming shows. It’s never dull. Somewhere in there, I am usually doing a little coordination for my six year old son, and there you go. My day in a nutshell as jeweler, gallerist, and mother.
April Higashi, Topography Rings (Women’s), 2015, Silver, 18k,
mackel diamonds, 4mm & 2.5mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery
OS: What are the most difficult challenges you have had with being an artist and gallery owner?
AH: Honestly, finding the right mix of talent for my staff and building a creative team where the dynamics are in sync has been the biggest challenge. I feel like a conductor for an orchestra. Everyone needs to work together and understand that we are a creative whole. That said, when the dynamic is good, we can create anything, and I feel so fortunate to do what I’m doing. Every day is a challenge, and I feel lucky that I can juggle it all. Some days I do better than others. I just consider myself fortunate that with my work and the gallery I can support myself, my son, my staff, and the artists I show.
OS: I have no idea how you do it, but you pull it off so beautifully. It’s been such an insightful interview, and thank you for talking with me.
April Higashi, Topography Ring ( Men's), 2015, silver,
mackel diamonds, 10mm, photo: Shibumi Gallery
Shibumi Gallery, 2016, photo: Cynthia Wood
Find out more about Shibumi Gallery and its founder, April Higashi, here.
(1) Wikipedia contributors, "Shibui," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shibui&oldid=730217827 (accessed August 10, 2016).
In my studio, I recycle precious metals and use eco-friendly chemicals when possible. And my acrylic comes from scrap and end cuts from a local plastic business. Ethical metalsmithing is important to me as a maker.
But what exactly is ethical metalsmithing?
To me, ethical metalsmithing means choosing socially and environmentally friendly metalsmithing practices. These include:
-recycling the metals I use
-using secondhand gold and gemstones
-opting for cultivated diamonds instead of mined diamonds
-supporting local businesses and services
-practicing eco-friendly studio methods
When I was still a student at the California College of the Arts, I learned from visiting artist Gabriel Craig that gold mining and the sourcing of precious gemstones such as diamonds can create ethical dilemmas for metalsmiths and consumers.
Something as small as a 18-karat gold wedding band can leave behind 20 tons of ore and waste rock. Gold mining also kickstarts chemical reactions, which result in acids or toxic chemicals that seep into the groundwater. Diamond mining, on the other hand, is less destructive than gold mining is but can lead to violent conflict and forced labor.
Everyday, we make choices as consumers, and our choices have lasting impacts. As both consumer and maker, I try to make choices that align with my beliefs. Although practicing ethical metalsmithing means spending more time researching suppliers, using slower processes, and spending more money on recycled metals and ethical gemstones, I believe it's worth it.
Did you know that cultivated diamonds are more perfect than mined diamonds are? Mined diamonds always have flaws, such as small inclusions, but a cultivated diamond can literally be perfect.
As you probably know, I launched my online shop in September last year, and since then I’ve been hard at work scrutinizing, changing, and building my one-person eponymous jewelry business, Olivia Shih. It’s been a bit of an identity struggle, especially since I went to art school with the intention of becoming a jewelry designer and graduated from art school as a bright-eyed jewelry artist, invested in thorny subjects like gender issues and alternative jewelry materials such as reclaimed plastic.
After graduation, I found myself struggling to reconcile the gap between “real life” and “making a living off of my art.” Like any sensible, aspiring artist, I hunkered down and found two-part time jobs.
With two part-time jobs and my own jewelry business, I was too busy to stop and consider exactly who I was becoming. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I could see myself as a creative entrepreneur—someone who handles all aspects of her creative business, from designing to making to marketing to accounting. The truth is, the well-trodden career paths for artists and jewelers simply don't cut it anymore; as essayist William Dereseriwicz puts it: the birth of the creative entrepreneur has been the death of the solitary, genius artist. And so cultivating the skills to run my jewelry and art business has become incredibly important to me.
Left: Vinyl banner for craft and art shows.
Right: The beginnings of my wholesale catalogue.
So here's my challenge to myself: I want to invest time everyday into learning about how to run a business and into building eficient business processes the first time around. If you're also amid the chaos of starting a small jewelry business, I would love to get coffee with you and brainstorm!
It’s all been a haze since I graduated from art school, but now it’s summer, and I finally have time to play catch up! While I’ve been transitioning out of school, I’ve also applied to and was accepted to a couple exhibitions. So excited to share my work with you!
May 10 – June 9 | Earrings Galore @ Heidi Lowe Gallery, Delaware
“Heidi Lowe Gallery hosts the sixth annual Earrings Galore exhibition, featuring the earring in all its glory. The earrings in this show come in every size, shape, material, and concept. The exhibition highlights earrings made by over 40 artists from the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, Argentina, and the Netherlands.”
I know this one just ended, but as a freelance writer for Art Jewelry Forum, I actually interviewed Karen Vanmol and Courtney Kemp for the group show, “Home,” at Heidi Lowe Gallery a little while back. I wasn’t able to drop by Heidi’s pop-up gallery in her hotel room at the SNAG Boston Conference, but you can see and read about it in AJF’s top ten displays at SNAG Boston by Bella Neyman.
June 13 – June 28 | Art Olympia @ Toshima City Hall, Tokyo
“[The] Art Olympia competition is an open art [competition] held as a biennial event with the goal of discovering talented artists around the world and supporting their activities. Artworks of approximately 240 artists selected from three location bases in Tokyo, New York, and Paris, will undergo the final review in Tokyo by a panel of judges invited from around the world. “
My first public venture into the 2-dimensional art scene! I applied for this competition mostly for the chance to have my work seen by jurors Brett Littman of The Drawing Center and Professor Gregory Amenoff of Columbia University’s MFA program. If you’re in Tokyo, you can see "Pixelated Yellow" in person!
June 14 – August 23 | California Now: Juried Exhibition of Clay, Glass & Enamel Art
“California Now showcases 85 contemporary and innovative works in clay, glass and enamel art that are being created today by California artists. The exhibition will include functional and non-functional, two-dimensional and three-dimensional works that illustrate a wide scope of artwork.”
Definitely do not miss the chance to see work by Nick Dong and Curtis Arima! I wouldn’t be where I am now with my work if it wasn’t for these two inspirational artists and professors.
June 4 – July 18 | International Chasing & Repousse Exhibition
“Outnumbered is a new Art Gallery in historic downtown Littleton, Colorado. It is a warm inviting space that offers a wide variety of artwork from artists around the nation.”
July 12 – September 6 | Botanica: All Things Plant Life
“From 16th Century Flemish painters, to Cezanne and the Post Impressionists, the color and variety found in plant life, as well as the potent symbolism, has made it a popular subject for still-lifes and artist studies. Botanica asks artists to draw on these themes to create artwork that explores how plant life can be represented in a diverse reach of media. Botanica is an exhibition juried by Ken Harman, Director of Hashimoto Contemporary and Spoke Art, San Francisco, CA and MacKenzie Stevens, Assistant Curator of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA.”
My second venture into 2-dimensionality! I actually found out about the call for entry when I visited the Bedford Gallery with my Metal Techniques: Sculpture class to see a metals group exhibition that included work by my professor, Clay Jensen. Thanks, Clay! And below are some of his work we saw at the Bedford.
Aaaand, it’s a wrap!
Gift Shop Poetics:
The Art of Decommodifiying the Commodified Through Commodification
by Olivia Shih
In contemporary capitalist societies, people no longer speak in words. We speak in commodities. A disproportionate amount of our lives are spent producing and consuming commodities, and in Karl Marx’s words, this fetishism of commodities “converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.” Our language of commodities, compounded with an ingeniously designed cycle of production and consumption, creates a world of hyper-consumerism complete with its own language and raison d'être: to consume.
To break through the cycle of hyper-consumerism, one could, as Nicholas Bourriaud suggests, enter the art exhibition—“the arena of representational commerce,” which allows “inter-human commerce” that deviates from the social context of everyday consumerism. However, this break from the superstructure of consumerism in contemporary life is often momentary and site-specific. Upon exiting the exhibition, the viewer reverts back to the role of a consumer. On the other hand, “edible artwork,” in the form of the art exhibition gift shop, can surpass boundaries of time and locale. The average art exhibition viewer can leave the art exhibition gift shop with a physical object, an object that carries traces of the art and can cross over the exhibition threshold into everyday life. When created in an ironic or humorous way that subverts social context, souvenirs from the art exhibition gift shop serve as reminders of the consumerist superstructure.
The gift shop with its “edible artwork” becomes a space for relational aesthetics, defined by Bourriaud as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context.” As each visitor wanders into the gift shop, consumerist desires manifest, and consumers witness one another in this state of desire. In addition, what these consumers are buying into are not commodities, but art sugarcoated in a commodity-like appearance and condensed into the scale and form of gift shop souvenirs.
Already, the art world has produced influential artists who have successfully co-opted and subverted consumerism in their art, revealing the mechanism behind building value into commodities. “Brand name” artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami utilize marketing strategies to create brand recognition, simultaneously benefiting from and criticizing the system of commodification.
In this paper, I will present six artists who have co-opted and subverted consumerist desires through six distinct methods. Combined together, these methods can be utilized in the creation of relational aesthetics in a gift shop full of edible artwork.
Jeff Koons conflates the high with the low, the “craft” with the “high art.” In his “The New” series in the 1980s, Koons critiques what Eric Gibson highlights as “society’s habit of turning anything and everything into salable commodity.” Koons places pristine, new vacuum cleaners in Lucite cases and lights the cases from below with commercial fluorescent lights. The vitrines lit with “holy light” suggest that these vacuum cleaners are objects consumers adore and worship—participating in a religion of commodity.
Koons takes his critique of commodity to the next level with his “Balloon Animal” series, where he recontextualizes the kitsch, often found in gift shops, by co-opting the values of “high art.” He uses high art techniques such as casting to exponentially expand the commonplace items into exquisite, large scale sculptures, the quality of craft and scale of which allude to monumental sculptures such as Michaelangelo’s David. Koons then coats these objects with the shininess and gloss of luxury and places them within a gallery or museum context. Cultural critic Eleanor Heartney points out that when it comes to Koons’s work, “Taste becomes a matter of context, not content.” By creating value in the kitsch, Koons demonstrates that anything can be re-commodified into something of greater value and “class.”
Jeff Koons standing with his artwork. Photography by Luigi Costantini/AP
By creating and promoting his art according to the rules of consumerism, Koons has worked his way to a position in which he can now dictate value of his art. Koons has often been called an entrepreneur or businessman by the art world, and he does indeed operate as if he is the CEO of a brand name company, promoting his product through tactics designed to yield high returns. Koons plays into his public persona, “(embodying) the figure of the New York golden boy who has done Wall Street and is wonderfully at home with globalized society.” When a billionaire purchases a Koon sculpture, he is buying into Koons’s business-savvy image and definition of value—what French art critic and historian Philippe Dagen describes as “[objects] that [are] a direct homage to that collector's capacity to make money.”
However, even while Koons bends consumerist values to his own bidding, he unabashedly benefits from and celebrates consumerism, as if to say, enjoy consumerism, but recognize it for what it is. Dagen notes, in regards to Koon’s show at the Palace of Versailles, that Koon’s “sumptuousness can be an antidote to the clinical oft-sanctimonious austerity of modernism's more fundamentalist strains.” Koon’s brightly reflective balloon animals are seductive in form, texture, and nostalgia to a wide range of audiences in both optic and haptic aspects.
Appropriating the Language of Fashion
The art world has also drooled over and been repelled by Takashi Murakami’s dual identity as entrepreneur and artist, but Murakami comes from the distinct cultural and historical background of Japan. In an interview with Magdalene Perez, he noted, “Both by the culture and by the postwar economic situation, Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art.’” Murakami has argued that the line between commerce and art has always been more blurred in Japan. Murakami builds his work on the blurred line between commerce and art, creating art as a response “to what he perceived as a flattening of (high and low) culture in an emotional restricted society,” one obsessed with consumption.
It is no wonder then, that Murakami chose to participate in a well-publicized collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2003. In this crossover of fashion and art, Murakami redesigned the Louis Vuitton logo and included a slew of his own cartoonish symbols, such as eyes with exaggerated eyelashes and cherry blossoms, in bright colors on leather. His pattern was and still is printed on Louis Vuitton’s designer products: luxury bags, wallets, and luggage. Instead of critiquing commodity from the outside, Murakami works from within an advanced system of consumerism: the fashion world.
Under the guise of fashion and with the blessing of the fashion world, Murakami’s “edible artwork” makes its way out of the art exhibition and into everyday life. When a consumer of the Murakami-Louis Vuitton handbag meets with friends at a cocktail event, the handbag sparks discussions about who Murakami is, what does he do, and why is he important?
Handbag from Takashi Murakami’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
Photography from Louis Vuitton’s official website.
Andrew Nairne, director of Modern Art Oxford, suggests that Murakami has tapped into “the possibility of an artist making new work using fashion as a medium.” And indeed, by utilizing the collectible status of Louis Vuitton products, and he efficiently hijacks the fashion brand name as a vehicle for disseminating his own language of commodity into a “shallow consumer culture.” By injecting a new visual language into the pre-existing visual language of fashion commodities, Murakami inserts himself and his art into everyday conversation.
Unfortunately, despite gallery owner Marianne Boeskey’s claim that there are democratic implications in this collaboration, and that “For Murakami, everyone should have access to art, especially those who are not necessarily cultured,” brand name designer handbags are simply not affordable for everyone. These products are far less expensive than Murakami paintings are, but these products are “edible artwork” for the rich, built on exclusivity and hype around the brand name.
Damien Hirst, on the other hand, provides access to the average consumer through Other Criteria, his online gift shop. In this online shop, Hirst churns out signed prints, mugs, t-shirts—edible artwork for the average consumer.
As with Koons and Murakami, Hirst is no stranger to creating and monetizing a brand name. In fact, Hirst’s work is so well known that Majorie May Haight wrote an article for the “American Economist” highlighting how Hirst’s work functions in the art market: Do “scarcer, unique works exhibit higher rates of return than repeated series works”? Is there value in “producing enough similar work so that a style becomes recognized as iconic of an artist, in other words, a brand”? The fact that an economist selects Damien Hirst as her case study is evidence of Hirst’s marketing strategies to commodify and monetize art.
Screenshot from Damien Hirst’s online store, Other Criteria, on December 1st, 2014
Hirst takes production work into the realm of the gift shop, where images of “high art” are plastered on mass produced items, items that are “reassuring to an art audience that knows the chain stores and the suburban malls far better than the galleries and the museums.” In Other Criteria, Hirst exhausts various marketing strategies: categorizing items as “New” or “Unique” in red letters, creating box sets, selling both signed and plain prints, selling prints as “prints” instead of “posters,” using free shipping to tempt buyers, offering t-shirts in four colors, and more.
Screenshot from Damien Hirst’s online store, Other Criteria, on December 1st, 2014
By selling posters of “For the Love of God,” a diamond studded platinum human skull, in two different colors, some with one skulls, some with four images of the skull from different angles, Hirst questions the value of authenticity. If authenticity is a handwritten signature on a print, then you can purchase a signed print for a couple thousand more dollars. If authenticity does not matter, simply purchase the plain print. Both are options on Other Criteria. Either way, the print will be packaged carefully and sent to your house.
Manifestation of Desire
What Hirst fails to do with Other Criteria, however, is to manifest desire within a physical space, where consumers can witness one another consuming. In 2004, Amsterdam based jewelry designer and conceptual artist Ted Noten exhibited a funfair machine, Mr Claw, at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Visitors were allowed to operate the funfair machine via a joystick to grab plastic bubbles with jewelry inside. A 1 kg silver bar, calibrated to be too heavy for the grabber, was also placed within the machine as a special attraction.
While the funfair machine and the jewelry within the plastic bubbles plays into Hal Foster’s “political economy of design” nicely, creating desire even in an oversaturated market, the placement of these objects within a museum creates a sense of jarring unfamiliarity and cognitive dissonance. The visitor simultaneously experiences the happy calling from the funfair machine to interact with the joystick and the unsettling feeling for closing the physical distance between viewer and “art” within the museum context. More importantly, the audience of Mr Claw plays two roles: that of a product consumer, and that of an art viewer. The consumer desires to have the jewelry within the plastic bubbles and inserts a coin to utilize the funfair joystick to obtain the jewelry. The viewer sees the consumer in a haze of desire in the museum context, unconsciously participating in a political economy of design, and hopefully recognizes the manifestation of mindless desire cultivated by design.
Ted Noten inserting a coin into “Mr Claw.”
Photography by Icon.
Furthermore, Noten disrupts the pricing system of art within the gallery context in two aspects. He brings in the funfair machine, an object typically found in arcades or at the country fair, into the gallery and allows people to purchase “art” with only a few coins. The coins contrast not only with gallery prices, but also with the jewelry, which are symbols of luxury and status.
Viewers surrounding Ted Noten’s “Mr Claw.”
Photography from Ted Noten’s official website.
Stephanie Syjuco combines Hirst’s virtual gift shop with Noten’s physical location in the form of a gift shop where consumers cannot consume. In 2012, as part of the International Orange event at Fort Port, San Francisco, on the occasion of the Golden Gate Bridge's 75 Year Anniversary, Syjuco put together a “commemorative store” full of typical gift shop souvenirs: notebooks, tote bags, key chains, mugs, and more. Each item contained the same exact color—a shade of red specific to the Golden Gate Bridge. However, not a single thing could be purchased.
To complicate perception of these commodities, every single item in the store was manufactured locally, and Syjuco even made some items herself. Syjuco subverted consumer expectations of mass production by hiring local studios and artists to make limited editions. According to Syjuco’s official website, this “installation both mimics and questions the notions of the notion of the souvenir store, where merchandise is meant to evoke, or even replace, the experience of visiting a place.” This concept can be applied to edible artwork, which serve as reminders of consumerism and highlight the tension between the different forms of consumption within the art exhibition and the art exhibition gift shop.
In Syjuco’s store, a visitor can walk in and pick up and examine a gift shop item that has distilled the experience of the Golden Gate Bridge to one shade of red. Being in the space of the gift shop elicits desire to purchase, and the visitor expects a reasonable price for a notebook or a tote bag. However, Syjuco renders these “edible artworks” inedible by refusing to sell, disrupting the consumerist behavior people unconsciously exhibit and follow. In this set up, visitors wander around the store, witnessing each others in a state of desire but stripped of the ability to consume— and begin to question their unquestioning loyalty to consumerism and their conditioned reaction to the gift shop context.
Image of products from Stephanie Syjuco’s “The International Orange
Commemorative Store (A Proposition)” in San Francisco in 2012.
Photography from Stephanie Syjuco’s official website.
In comparison with Noten’s Mr Claw, Syjuco’s commemorative store disrupts the cycle of consumerism by injecting a sharper jolt of consumer consciousness. With Noten’s funfair machine, visitors are purchasing the opportunity of winning a prize. The fact that the prizes include jewelry and a 1 kg bar of silver increases consumer desire, but the visitors are still purchasing an opportunity, a probability, instead of the objects themselves. Noten does not mislead his visitors in what to expect. When visitors fail to win prizes, they accept the outcome. Syjuco, on the other hand, sets up a situation in which visitors are encouraged to consume and visitors look forward to consuming in. The visitors feel as if they have the right to consume, and the beginnings of indignation arise from their inability to purchase anything. What can be more frustrating that having money in one’s wallet, a commodity designed for easy consumption within reach, but the lack of means to consume?
Libby Black, a sculptor and painter, also produces “inedible edibles,” but within the context of the gallery, outfitted to look like the store of fashion brand names. Black reproduces brand name products by gluing together paper and painstakingly painting the paper constructions with brand name logos and patterns. Black goes as far as to recreate whole Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade stores, complete with shelves and display cases. Black has sold out several of her shows.
Although Black, unlike Syjuco, allows viewers to consume her artwork, consumers cannot consume the artwork as fashion accessories. Black’s paper handbags reveal the absurd amount of control consumers surrender to desires designed by others; in Black’s store-like exhibitions, consumers instantly recognize and succumb to the value of designer logos, and collectors purchase not the object itself, but for what it stands for: the perverted superstructure of consumerism.
Exterior and interior images of Libby Black’s Louis Vuitton store at Manolo Garcia Gallery, San Francisco.
Photography from Libby Black’s official website
Conclusion: To Build a Gift Shop
For the “gift shop” to function as a form of relational aesthetics, it must contain “edible artworks” that can be purchased but that are “inedible” in the sense that the objects themselves subvert the values of consumerism under the guise of commodification; in other words, these objects should utilize elements of commodification to draw in consumers but simultaneously subvert and reveal mindless consumerism.
First, the edible artwork. These subverted objects should be plastered with the visual language of commodity, such as the succulent colors, high-polish finishes, and pleasing forms found in Jeff Koon’s “Balloon Animals.” These objects, like Takashi Murakami’s Louis Vuitton handbags, can also adopt the language of fashion in the form of luxury brands, but these objects will only be accessible to a certain socioeconomic class. The more democratic choice would be to create a range in prices, as Damien Hirst does with his t-shirts, mugs, plain prints, and signed prints in his online store Other Criteria. In addition, the familiarity of items that can be readily mass-produced lulls the consumer into a false sense of purchasing confidence.
Next, these objects should be placed within a gift shop. As shown by Ted Noten, utilize the gift shop as a space for relational aesthetics is to manifest desire—the gift shop should be outfitted as a familiar space of commerce, where people readily exhibit desire to possess and consumer. Follow Stephanie Syjuco’s lead and include items within the gift shop that cannot be purchased but elicit consumerist desires. These items can be items belonging to the museum or an anonymous collector—items intentionally placed above smaller versions of the real thing to cultivate desire. These items can also be showcase samples (that cannot be sold for reasons of quality control) of items that have sold out. Finally, create dissonance between appearances and content, as Libby Black does with her painted paper luxury items.
To illustrate a point, think of Jeff Koon’s immaculate vacuum cleaners in his “The New” series. Shrink a vacuum cleaner to the edible size of a necklace pendant. Etch Jeff Koon’s signature onto the back of the pendant. Plate with a glossy 14 karat gold finish. Showcase the necklace in a jewelry display case, complete with a necklace display, a pricey price tag, and other pieces of high-end jewelry with expensive-looking gemstones. What does it mean for a person to buy this vacuum cleaner necklace? How will other people view this necklace outside the context of the art exhibition gift shop? When a consumer wears this “inedible edible artwork” to a Sunday brunch, people begin to talk and question value. The gift shop object is not only a “statement piece” about consumerism, but also a meaningful conversation starter about conscious consumption.
The point of the gift shop, after all, has never been to dissuade people from consumption. The language of commodities is entrenched in capitalist societies, shows no signs of receding, and people are actively cultivating self-expression and fluency in the language of commodity. As virtual reality bleeds into physical reality, consumption becomes easier and easier. One-click purchases, two-day deliveries, enhanced user experiences, and every other tech start-up works toward creating the ultimate, frictionless consumer experience. Edible artworks, with the outward appearance of commodity and subverted inner content, remind people of the inter-human interactions that can take place within the art exhibition—these gift shop souvenirs are reminders of the choice to not buy, or more realistically, the choice to buy consciously.
 Karl Marx and others, Capital, a critique of political economy: the process of capitalist production (New York: Modern Library, 1906)
 Nicholas Bourriaud , “Relational Form” from Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses du Reel, 1998), 16.
 Nicholas Bourriaud , “Relational Form” from Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses du Reel, 1998), 14
 Eric Gibson, “What Jeff Koons has wrought,” New Criterion 33, no 1., September 2014, 43-46.
 Eleanor Heartney, “Further Notes on the Art/Craft Debate,” American Craft 70, no. 1, February 2010, 80-83
 Philippe Dagen, “Jeff Koons,” trans. Charles Penwarden, Art Press no. 350, 2008, 20-24
 Philippe Dagen, “Jeff Koons,” trans. Charles Penwarden, Art Press no. 350, 2008, 20-24
 Eleanor Heartney, “Further Notes on the Art/Craft Debate,” American Craft 70, no. 1, February 2010, 80-83
 Fiona McKenzie, “Artists vying for a spot on the fashion runway,” Art Newspaper 17, February 2008, 28
 Paul Mattick, “Takashi Murakami at Marianne Boesky,” Art in America I 92, no. 1, January 2004, 107-108
 Majorie May Haight, “Value in outsourcing labor and creating a brand in the art market: the Damien Hirst businesss plan,” American Economist 56, no.1, April 2011, 78-88.
 Jed Pearl, “The Artisanal Urge,” American Craft 68, no. 3, June 2008, 78-81
 Hal Foster, “Design and Crime” in Design and Crime (Verson, 2002), 22.
 Stephanie Syjuco, “The International Orange Commemorative Store (A Proposition),” http://www.stephaniesyjuco.com/p_theinternationalorange.html
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Dagen, Philippe, and Charles, tr Penwarden. 2008. "Jeff Koons." Art-Press no. 350: 20-24.
Foster, Hal, “Design and Crime,” Design and Crime (Venson, 2002): 13-26
Gibson, Eric. 2014. "What Jeff Koons has wrought." New Criterion 33, no. 1: 43-46.
Haight, Marjorie May. "Value in outsourcing labor and creating a brand in the art market: the Damien Hirst business plan." American Economist 56, no. 1 (April 15, 2011): 78-88.
Heartney, Eleanor. "Further Notes on the Art/Craft Debate." American Craft 70, no. 1 (February 2010): 80-83.
Johnston, Fiona McKenzie. "Artists vying for a spot on the fashion runway." Art Newspaper 17, (February 2008): 28.
Marx, Karl, Edward B. Aveling, Friedrich Engels, Ernest Untermann, and Samuel Moore. Capital, a critique of political economy: the process of capitalist production (New York: Modern Library, 1906)
Mattick, Paul. "Takashi Murakami at Marianne Boesky." Art In America 92, no. 1 (January 2004): 107-108.
Perl, Jed. "The Artisanal Urge." American Craft 68, no. 3 (June 2008): 78-81.
Syjuco, Stephanie, The International Orange Commemorative Store (A Proposition), 2012, http://www.stephaniesyjuco.com/p_theinternationalorange.html