Olivia Shih: Hello Tobias! In previous interviews, you mentioned that studying gender and queer theories, with a focus on masculinities, has really transformed your work as an artist. Why do you think contemporary art jewelry has potential for exploring gender issues?

Tobias Alm: The world of jewelry is heavily gendered, and its history is filled with symbolism and traditions that take an active part in the gender structures of societies. I believe that jewelry artists and makers have a great opportunity to critically address problematic gender issues, and that this is already being done by many great artists with different approaches. A lot has been done, but much more could be done.

The perplexing relationship between jewelry and masculinity is something that I especially think should be addressed more.

Tobias Alm, The Châtelaine no.11, gilded sterling silver, leather, steel,

photography by Tobias Alm

 

OS: I agree with you and would love to see more contemporary work that takes a crack at masculinity in jewelry. Could you name one or two artists who address gender issues? Why do you think their work tackles this topic successfully?

TA: I am very impressed by the work of Suska Mackert. She has made a series of photographs that I think tackles the topic of jewellery and masculinity in a very interesting way. The photographs depict male politicians giving each other medals or other honorary pieces of jewellery, but Suska has manipulated the images and erased the pieces of jewellery. What is left is images of these politically powerful men touching each other in an intimate and gentle way, for no apparent reason. This work is one of my absolute favorites within contemporary art jewelry.

Tobias Alm, The Châtelaine no.1, gilded sterling silver, leather, velvet, steel,

photography by Tobias Alm

 

OS: In your Master Essay, you write: “Jewellery is, and has been throughout history, deeply involved in the construction and maintenance of gender and class differences.” Could you give an example of a piece of jewelry that does so, specifically in relation to gender, and explain how it achieves this effect?

TA: The writings of Rebecca Ross Russell have been very important for me while writing my Master Essay, and her knowledge on this topic is vastly bigger than mine. I can only recommend reading her book Jewelry and Gender, which is the best source I have found so far for gaining knowledge on this topic.

One fascinating example in her book is the history of the diamond engagement ring, where she describes how smart marketing focused on getting men to buy diamonds for women and made the diamond into the strong symbol of unequal heterosexual love relationships that it is today.

Tobias Alm, The Châtelaine no.2, gilded sterling silver, leather, steel,

photography by Tobias Alm

OS: Of course, the infamous De Beers marketing campaign in the early 1900s. One of their tactics was to convince men that buying a diamond ring with two months’ salary was a mark of true success and manhood. How does your work approach patriarchal gender structures and norms of masculinity?

TA: In many ways, my work is personal. I deal with my role in these structures through focusing on these issues in my artistic practice. My recent body of work takes off from the argument I made in my Master Essay, that the tool belt is a piece of jewellery. I merged the tool belt with the Châtelaine, aiming to make a kind of hybrid-object, active both in the masculinized world of the tool belt, and in the feminized world of the Châtelaine. I wanted these worlds to collide and crackle, but also to create bridges between them and dissolve imagined borders.

Tobias Alm, The Châtelaine no.3, gilded sterling silver, leather, velvet, steel,

photography by Tobias Alm

OS: So, in a sense, you are opening up a space for embracing ambiguity in gender?

TA: That is a very nice way of putting it!

OS: The chatelaine--commonly known as an 19th century set of short chains on a belt worn for carrying keys and other household items--is the framework for your collection, “The Chatelaine.” What is it about the chatelaine that piqued your interest?

TA: My eminent professor Karen Pontoppidan, who is now the head at the Munich Academy, was the one who introduced me to the history of the Châtelaine. I was intrigued by how this object could be both a piece of jewellery and a fully functional set of practical tools. The Châtelaine is a crowbar that opens up for new interpretations of the definition of jewelry.

Tobias Alm, The Tool Belt: The Belt, silicone, polyurethane, cotton,

photography by Tobias Alm

OS: The tool belt, which overlaps with the chatelaine in its location on the body and its functionality, also plays an essential role in this collection and your previous body of work, “The Tool Belt.” What does the tool belt signify to you?

TA: In my view, the tool belt plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of a mythology around an idealized masculinity. It is used as a symbol for a set of practical skills and know-hows that has a high status within certain patriarchal environments. For me as an artist working with jewelry, it is especially interesting to study the jewellery-like aspects of the tool belt.

In my view, the wearing of tool belts is not only motivated by the practicality of having one’s tools close at hand, it is also a vibrant practice of body adornment, loaded with cultural, social and political meaning.

Tobias Alm, The Tool Belt, mixed media, photography by Tobias Alm

OS: What do you think about male anxiety about feminization when wearing jewelry? Do you see this anxiety and male relationship with jewelry shifting in recent times?

TA: The relationship between masculinities and jewelry is complex, and as you say it is filled with anxiety for loss of masculinity and risk of feminization. It is part of a hegemonic gender structure that is very problematic. Reading some of the work by great researchers like Raewyn Connell, Susan Faludi, and of course Rebecca Ross Russell has guided me while trying to understand this relationship.

I’m not far enough in this understanding to analyze the recent shifts in the relationship, but I really hope that we are on our way towards breaking free from these and many other structures of masculinity that are so detrimental for us all.

OS: I hope so, too. Thank you for your time.


Tobias Alm, portrait, photography by Tobias Alm

Find out more about Tobias at his website.

 

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