In Reality

“Illusion is a reality, if you choose it to be” accurately encapsulates the magical baby bunny universe Mette Saabye has created with Louise Hindsgavl in a collaboration that grew out of their winning the 2004 Danish Crafts and Design Biennial Award. In Reality is an exhibition that shines with lightness and allure, while also striking tremulous and unsettling bass notes. What kind of reality has the table been set for here? What is this banquet we have been asked to attend? With whom, and why?

            The Mette Saabye Project in the first gallery provides a clue. In the world of craft and jewelry, Mette Saabye is one of a kind. But, in reality, others have the same name. Here, four women, all named Mette Saabye, have each picked a material that has special significance to them, a material representing their particular life story, memories and identity. Out of these materials, Saabye has made each woman a large stone set on a princess ring, translating precious personal memories into concrete form. The rings are alike, but each has its own individual characteristics, nuances, surfaces and properties. Interrogating identity, her own and the four women’s, Saabye portrays the individual person as precious and unique.

This sets the table for a reality that asks questions. Nothing can be taken for granted. The universe is artificial, staged. We enter an illusory space of rococo abundance and trompe l’oeil effects that may or may not mimic the secrets of historical buildings, but don’t be fooled: maybe this is the real place for making statements about the reality that is not immediately visible. Maybe the difference between illusion and reality is not just a question of perspective. The Childhood Treasures series illustrates this duality: in the harsh light of adulthood, childhood’s most cherished possessions are revealed to be kitschy mutants that have long since lost their power to fascinate. Instead of denying the child’s worldview, Saabye shows us what we have lost the ability to see – that is, magic, the other reality. A gold dog gets a corona of beads with an attachment that looks like the tab on a paper doll, a coffee cup is draped with a necklace that resembles coffee and instantly the objects get new life. The stories start over, pretending and magic are restored and a link is established to the reality that once was. Childhood Treasures artfully erases the line between a child’s reality and “our” reality.

A similar kind of transgression marks the exhibition overall. The things we encounter are familiar, yet their meanings have shifted in all sorts of directions – to humor, madness, exaggeration and, indeed, the uncanny; as the doll whose limbs have been spread out in a classic three-row necklace. An artistic affinity to Surrealism and its representation of psychical levels of reality is evident in the resulting tableaux that, with deft incisions, inscribe objects into whole other logics than the original and expected. A crucial difference, however, is that Saabye does not work with stereotypically Surrealist libidinal imagery; she is not stripping bare the dark corners of the human psyche. Rather, her works can be seen to play around with meanings – always on the playing field of the jewelry category, that is, operating with things that are considered valuable, but also with the “remains” of material culture, things that have lost their value. Lost Treasures, aptly embodying a theme in the exhibition, enters unfashionable, scrapped gemstones forgotten by fashion into new constellations that, in such titles as Peas and Kinky Corny Carrots and Pheasants with Boiled Potatoes, evoke completely different images than their original context and symbolic meaning would imply. The fusion of title and work has an almost suggestive power. Sensory and intellectual experiences merge in an open-endedness that allows the viewer to continue the generation of images and invest his own personal reading and history.

Mette Saabye’s works accordingly call for a reading beyond an exclusively artistic or art-historical frame of reference. They are inseparable parts of the material culture, that is, of the object world that surrounds us. Take Grandfather’s Stamp Collection, a piece from the Family Treasures series. Her own grandfather’s stamp collection, it seems oddly alien as an heirloom. The value her grandfather put on his collection finds new expression as a necklace made in a paper-maché technique that illusionistically mimics a pearl’s calcium-layer structure. One set of values is converted into another, as Saabye fundamentally questions our ways of assigning value to things and, consequently, our ways of creating realities. In this case, she nearly veers into fields like anthropology or object-research that specifically deal with how people construct culture-specific perceptions of reality by attributing symbolic value to their surroundings.

Because of this shift away from the artistic legacy of Surrealism to the object-research emphasis on culturally and socially determined relations between person and object, Saabye is seen to operate in a field whose contours are only just emerging. In her work, craft enters new territory, both in terms of its own historical origin and the art and design fields. This shift is an important reinvention of the artistic field, because it deals with overlooked everyday objects that are closest to us and puts them front and center in laying bare a whole new reality. It then becomes clear how much that which we think of as real is essentially social convention, just one among many possible narratives and levels of reality inherent in colloquial objects.

Mette Saabye, then, hands enormous potential back to the reality of the individual person’s existence. Her statement that “illusion is a reality, if you choose it to be” implies not only a near-defiant insistence on a surreal universe but also an acknowledgement that reality is created and hence can be changed. The meaning we assign to things is the first step toward the reality we would like to see exist.

It is important in that regard to note that Mette Saabye’s premise is the jewelry category. Jewelry functions as a projection of desire, wishes and dreams. It represents symbolic power. Holding fast to value, working with extremely refined pieces in gold, silver, pearls and gems, she represents the value intrinsic to identity and worldview, highlighting it as something special that cannot simply be shrugged off as kitschy silliness. Even at their most rambling, as in the Real Treasures series’ “Sweets” – synthetic, drilled, asymmetrical gems that look so sweet you can feel your teeth aching – her pieces have a reference to a universe governed by entirely different logics than the existing ones.

My Crystal Garden, in that sense, serves to set off the exhibition. The Museum of Art and Design itself is represented as an artificial universe where crystal trees grow from the architectural ground plan, forming the contours of the “green yard,” Grønnegården. Escaping the banquet and the surreal glimmer of the disco-ball, we again go a step further, but here, too, reality has shifted – and that is essentially where Mette Saabye wants to take us: Reality is what we make it. Each of us, every second.


Louise Mazanti


Materials: Mix media
One of a kind, 2006
Photographer Dorte Krogh

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