For many years Sigurd Bronger was an outsider in contemporary art jewellery, but now he enjoys increasing attention. In this interview by Reinhold Ziegler we learn about Bronger's way to jewellery, and how expressing absurdity has become his hallmark.
Over the last 25 years, Sigurd Bronger has used things like eggs, balloons, sponges, pieces of soap, and glass lenses as materials for making jewellery. His works are often ingenious, technical constructions that remind us less of conventional jewellery and more of instruments for scientific or medical research. He thinks of them as condition-measuring devices, communicative devices, and wearable devices. Examples in the latter category are devices for carrying a goose egg, a drain pit, gallstones, a magnifying glass, and a transistor tube.
‘My jewellery is not meant to be decoration,’ explains Bronger.
‘This decorative stuff many people equate with jewellery causes me to sometimes say I hate jewellery.’
But then why do you present your works as jewellery? Why not present them as objects, sculptures or fine art?
‘They would not be as interesting. To the extent that I have a philosophy, it has to do with expressing absurdity. The jewellery concept allows my works to fall into a category that creates certain expectations, and when they break with these expectations, the off-the-wall ideas become even stranger, even more absurd.’
Is it about provocation?
‘Maybe it has more to do with surprise; that the works become difficult to relate to, difficult to understand, because they don’t fit in, because they don’t “follow the rule book”.’
Like his jewellery Sigurd Bronger, as a person, has also had some difficulty fitting in – he's never completely followed the rulebook. This is in fact why he, after middle school, ended up studying to be a goldsmith. Due to dyslexia, he had difficulties adapting to the school system. After finishing middle school, he chose practical rather than theoretical courses, and ended up, more or less by chance, studying to be a goldsmith.
‘I loved fiddling with small things and suddenly liked being in school. And over time, things started going better in the theoretical subjects like languages and maths.’
After the first year of practical education, he decided to move to the Netherlands and continue his education there, at MTS Vakschool in Schonhooven. Once the obligatory courses were out of the way, he moved to Amsterdam and started an apprenticeship.
‘That was actually where it all started. I lived right near the Stedelijk Museum, and it was there that I first encountered modern art. I bought a season ticket and went there every Sunday. Sol le Witt, Bruce Nauman, and Mario Mertz are some of the artists who made a great impact on me. The Bauhaus school and De Stijl also.’
‘Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl artists were important, but Van Doesburg was perhaps even more significant, because he worked in dynamic directions; he painted diagonally, while the others painted horizontally and vertically. From the Bauhaus school, it was Oskar Schlemmer who fascinated me most, particularly his absurd theatre costumes.’
Was this your art education?
‘Yes, in a way. But I was also strongly influenced by the people I hung out with at the time. We lived in, or rather, we occupied houses, and we met many interesting people: art students, musicians, and other alternative types. We partied and went to lots of exhibition openings. It was a wild, groundbreaking time in my life, with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.’
Galerie RA as goal and standard
In Amsterdam he also discovered that jewellery could be art. When introduced to Galerie RA, which at the time was a radical gallery for contemporary jewellery art, a new world opened up for him.
‘This was in the late 1970s, when radical jewellery art had gained a foothold in Europe. At RA I saw jewellery made with unconventional materials such as steel, plastic, and textiles. I immediately felt this to be something I could identify with. And I eventually began developing my first independent jewellery pieces.’
Having finished his formal education, Bronger had difficulty renewing his residence permit. His case failed in a Dutch law court so he returned to Norway in 1983.
‘It was shocking to encounter the Norwegian arts and crafts scene. The first time I went to an annual exhibition of Norwegian arts and crafts, I thought I had come to the wrong address. The works generally reminded me of hobby products. And the jewellery resembled what was sold by Amsterdam’s street merchants.’
After trying out several cooperative workshops, none of which felt like home, he joined a cooperative called Trikk, and took over a space previously used by the jewellery artist Liv Blåvarp. The workshop members were young, aspiring artists with solid craft backgrounds and well-grounded opinions about art. They held many exhibitions and gained attention, as well as good sales figures.
‘Even though I had become a part of this group, I was still perceived as an outsider. I worked in a completely different way than Norwegian jewellery artists, and my grant applications were never successful, nor would any gallery exhibit my works.’
How did you survive?
‘Early on I decided I wanted to be represented by Galerie RA in Amsterdam. After seven refusals, I finally succeeded in getting my work in there. This was in 1987. In terms of motivation, it was as good as winning a stipend.’
Three years later, in 1990, Sigurd Bronger made his Norwegian debut at Kunstnerforbundet (an artist-owned gallery), and finally achieved his Norwegian breakthrough. The exhibition consisted of a series of silver jewellery clearly inspired by architectural constructions.
‘At the time I was searching and trying out many different technical and visual solutions. I was also concerned about presenting the works in the most suitable way, and I invested much energy into the exhibition architecture. I was the first to make my own vitrines.’
Achieving good reviews and much attention, the exhibition was probably a contributing factor to Bronger winning a three-year work grant the following year. He then started a new phase, working with three-dimensional organic forms. This resulted in an exhibition, in 1994, of ten rings made with lacquered hard foam and silver. All the works were sold. The following year he won the prestigious arts and crafts prize for 1995, with the brooch Aldri mer flyskrekk (No More Fear of Flying). The prize consisted of money and the promise of holding an exhibition at RAM Galleri in Oslo.
‘I needed to make something completely new, so I used a long time and had to postpone the exhibition twice.’
In 1998, he was finally ready to present the exhibition Bæreinstrumenter (Wearable Devices). The project included an exhibition catalogue and professionally made vitrines.
‘I heard from people I respected that this was the finest exhibition in RAM Galleri’s history, but I sold nothing. It was probably too new and too radical for people.’
The following year the exhibition travelled to Galerie RA in Amsterdam, and neither there did anything sell.
‘I consider these carrying instruments to be a high point in my career. But it would take five years for most of them to sell. Incidentally, a brooch was sold in connection with the current retrospective exhibition. But there are still two pieces left – perhaps the finest.’
It is important, says Bronger, for each new exhibition to be an artistic renewal, and this entails a time-consuming work process: first, finding an interesting idea, then checking to make sure it has not been used before, and lastly, finding the optimal aesthetic form.
‘I spend so much time on this process that I can’t manage to make more than three or four works per year. When I finally do start a work, it often needs to be put into a drawer to mature. Altogether, I use about three years to prepare an exhibition.’
And in 2001, precisely three years after the exhibition of carrying instruments, he was ready with a new series at Bergen Kunsthall. This time he focused on practically shapeless materials such as air and water. The works consisted of air pumps and balloons, as well as spray pumps and sponges that squirt water.
Photos courtesy of Sigurd Bronger.
Many people saw this exhibition as silly, Bronger admits, but if the exhibition architecture is built to specification, in every detail, and if the craftsmanship is perfectly executed, the exhibition should be able to convince the viewer that it is seriously meant.
‘Craftsmanship is an important part of my art. If a crazy idea is thought through to the last detail, then executed with utmost precision, this makes the absurdity in it stand out even more. In order for the idea to be taken seriously, it is absolutely necessary that craftsmanship be perfect.’
Is this not obvious?
‘Apparently not. I see that this is a dimension which recent graduates lack.’
Do you mean in Norway or internationally?
‘Both at home and abroad, but especially here at home.’
The relation between ideas and craftsmanship was the focal theme when the National Museum in Stockholm, in 2005, invited Bronger to participate in the project Crafts in Dialogue. The museum invited six artists to present solo exhibitions and give lectures.
‘This was my international breakthrough. And after the event, more and more people from other countries started contacting me.’
In 2009 he was invited to give a lecture called All about me at Die Neue Sammlung, the design museum in Munich. This event is held annually in connection with the jewellery happening Schmuck.1 The organisers give one artist the honour of presenting his or her artistic practice.
‘Internationally speaking, this is the apex of my career thus far.’
Here in Norway, his retrospective exhibition Balloon Voyage at Lillehammer Art Museum is undoubtedly also a high point. It showcases approximately 120 works from his oeuvre, borrowed from Norwegian and international museums and collectors. The works are presented in 20 vitrines designed and constructed by Bronger himself.
‘It was a daunting task to fill this big, beautiful room. To find the right spot for the large yellow balloon and to paint a smiley face on the wall – this is one device – but also to try to situate the vitrines randomly in the room, without order and symmetry, then to place the works in the vitrines helter-skelter, without following chronological order.’
Why was this disorder so important?
‘It made the exhibition a bit wilder and less predictable. Using these means, the public must do a bit more work. The whole thing is simply a little more absurd.’
So is absurdity perhaps a leitmotif in your art?
‘Yes, in both art and life. I live in a small two-room flat with my wife, daughter, aquarium fish, and a large dog, and I find it wonderfully chaotic. I am inspired by the chaos around me. Absurdity makes life worth living.’