The Metamorphic Ornament: Re_Thinking Granulation_2009

- Huycke, D., 2009, "The Metamorphic Ornament: Re_Thinking Granulation", Zhuangshi Art and Design Magazine, 4, 66-70 (Article in preparation of PhD, 2010)



Despite growing scepticism regarding the idea of obligatory knowledge of traditional materials and techniques - a phenomenon that has already been in existence for several decades - there are still a large number of contemporary craft artists who concentrate exclusively on traditional media. These artists search for new ways of using traditional techniques, they look for other qualities in their materials, for new approaches aimed at unlocking new metaphors, alternative interpretations and new methods of expression. This results in a new visual language with a different kind of artistic vocabulary; one that can make the invisible visible when the language we know is no longer sufficient. It is obvious that more words will result in more complex and interesting stories.


Within this problematic context, the Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst in Hanau, Germany, organized in 1996 a competition and exhibition called Granulation ’96. Granulation is an ornamental technique in the goldsmiths’ art in which tiny metal spheres, also called granules, are heat-fused to a metal surface without the use of solder, generally in an ornamental or figurative arrangement. It is considered to be one of the most important and magical techniques in the history of goldsmithing. The technique originated in the 3rd millennium B.C. in the Middle East, but reached its technical and artistic peak in Etruria, between the 7th and 4th century B.C. From the moment of its conception to the present day, granulation was almost entirely used for decorative purposes, mainly in gold and on small objects, most often on jewellery. The question the Gesellschaft für Goldschmiedekunst put to the artists was whether they could formulate a new approach to the very old technique of granulation, independent of traditions but without losing the classical idea of granulation. The major goal was clearly not to imitate the traditional technique, but to reinvent it and apply it to contemporary jewellery or objects.


With the exception of my own submission, almost all entries were jewellery, which gives a realistic idea of the use of granulation. I submitted two objects (Pearl Sphere, 1996) in line with other works I had made during the same period: clear vessels, in simple geometrical forms and freed from any kind of ornamentation. The Pearl Spheres arose in that spirit and the goal was to create a bowl constructed solely from granules, so the little spheres would form structure and artistic impression at the same time. In hindsight, this structural use of granulation within silverwork at large was an important innovation which formed the impetus for a doctoral research project in the visual arts I began some years ago in collaboration with the PHL University College in Hasselt and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, both in Belgium.


This project, The Metamorphic Ornament: Re_Thinking Granulation aims to discover, with the technique of granulation as a case study, new possibilities, meanings and metaphors in traditional processes and media with a view to implementing them in another discipline, namely sculptural metalwork. As a consequence, granulation is transformed from a two dimensional, pictorial and graphic technique into a three dimensional sculptural technique. Rather than the actual technique of granulation, the main object of this research is the process of transformation itself.


The metamorphosis takes place at two levels, both of which impinge on how the original ornament was transformed. Parallel with this metamorphosis, the works produced within this framework can be divided into two main categories: first there are the objects where granulation forms the construction of the object and second, there are the objects where granulation is situated in, or actually is the subject matter of the object itself.


Granulation as the building blocks of the object


Considering the fact that granulation was almost always and entirely used for decoration and seldom for structural purposes, the first aim of this project is to call this ornamental status into question and to concentrate on granulation without reference to a supporting surface. In this sense the small granule - the original ornament - loses its primary, decorative function of pure visual pleasure. It grows from a grain into a sphere and changes into the essential building blocks of the object. The ornament is detached from its basis; it becomes structure as well as the independent support of the work.


In the context of traditional granulation it is contradictory to speak about mass in the meaning of weight, since granulated artefacts are usually light and small in scale. Mass can only be used in the sense of a mass of granules, in the sense of quantity, as in ‘a mass of people’. In this project, mass can be understood in both ways, mass as weight and mass as quantity. This idea is clearly illustrated by the object Fractal Object (2007) that was constructed from more than 20 000 individual silver granules with a diameter of 3.0 mm. The object has an exceptional weight of more than 4.5 kg. This spherical object is constructed from spheres, which are in turn built up with smaller spheres, the granules. In this way, the smallest parts become recognizable in the larger parts and in the shape of the whole object. In nature there is an endless number of examples where the whole reflects the nature of its parts, e.g. in ferns, a phenomenon that is recognized as fractals. Fractal Theory was developed by the French-Polish scientist, Benoît Mandelbrot and published in the The Fractal Geometry of Nature in 1977. It can be considered a new kind of geometry that allow us to distinguish order where previously, within Euclidian geometry, we could only see chaos.


Granulation as the subject matter


The objects in the second category are not necessarily constructed via or even use granulation. Instead, they search for the conceptual and metaphoric potential of the world of granulation, such as the technical process or the geometry that arises between the granules. Granulation here evolves into the subject matter or concept, one which reaches beyond the technical aspects of the technique towards a more poetic dimension. The objects made within this framework magnify the whole microscopic world of granulation with its technical, functional, formal and conceptual features, and present them as metaphors for more universal ideas.


The crucial moment of granulation when the spheres melt together and fuse - Oppi Untracht calls this “the moment of truth” in his standard work Jewelry. Concepts and Technology (1982)- is explored in the work Kissing Bowls (2007) in which two black silver spheres push against and appear to pass through one another to create a new dynamic form. The evident sensuality of the piece, emphasised by the title, is balanced by the intellectual enquiry into the possibilities of the process: the form also recalls mathematical illustrations such as the Venn diagram and the Kissing Spheres.


Granulation and simulation


Given that some objects consist of tens of thousands of individual granules it is not hard to imagine that granulation is a very time consuming, sometimes boring, activity. Consequently, it is much quicker to conceive and designing new objects than to actually realize them. Working with models can solve this problem. Here an interaction takes place between the imagination (the concept) and the image that arises in the model (the visual). The execution of the object therefore no longer occurs according to a certain preconceived plan, but is the result of a dialogue between the initial design, the imagination and the newly made model, which stimulates creativity and fantasy. Another advantage is that a model can quite easily bypass the limitations of a two dimensional drawings and the limitations of techniques. If we can find the model on one side of the original, then on the other there is the imitation, a phenomenon that is present throughout the history of goldsmithing. People often sought cheaper, easier and faster methods to achieve the same visual results as traditional techniques that were sometimes too difficult or too time-consuming. They also looked for new materials because the ones to which they were accustomed were too expensive or too scarce or simply too difficult to manipulate. Even though both model and imitation have totally different intentions, according to this rationale the model and the imitation are not so distant from each other. This third category of objects is partly congruous with the previous two and is characterized by a search for the artistic potential of simulation. The objects in this category are not made of silver or built up via granulation. Instead they exhibit a much less inhibited use of materials and adopt shapes that bear no relationships with traditional silverware. A good example is the welded stainless steel object, Fractal Chaos (2007).


A critical step in this research project was the recognition of these different categories of objects and their visualization within a typology. The discovery and the ability to name this classification is the result of a constant alternation between the act of making and taking distance from the object, literally as well as figuratively. The intention of this visual conception of the classification in a schematic typology is twofold: first it is a communicator, which aims to clarify the design process and reflection on it, comparable with the verbal thesis. Secondly, this typology is a functional, ever-evolving tool that has developed into the major methodological framework of this project. The continuous oscillation between being ‘in’ and being ‘out’ of the work, by simultaneously doing and thinking, offers the artist a privileged position for reflection on his own work. Allowing himself to take mental and physical distance, the artist will be able to permanently evaluate his work and eventually develop and make explicit his own methodologies.




The Master Program “Jewellery_Art_Object” of the PHL University College


Artistic Resaerch Lab


In de masteropleiding Juweelontwerp en Edelsmeedkunst vragen we de student op een meer autonome manier gedurende één jaar via zijn persoonlijke interesse, visie, inzichten en ervaring uit de bachelorjaren te komen tot een eigen project, de masterproef. De studenten worden hierin o.a. ondersteund door de masterstudio ‘Kunst/Object en Ontwerp’. Hier worden thema’s als materiaal, techniek, functie, state of the art van het juweel en object, … via teksten en discussies kritisch behandeld worden. Deze ondersteunende masterstudio vormt het fundament voor hun uiteindelijke masterproef.


Deze masterproef is tweeledig: enerzijds is er een artistiek luik waarbij de studenten,  nu meer zelfstandig en autonoom t.o.v. de bachelorjaren, via diepgaand onderzoek, grondige reflectie en de nodige organisatie komen tot het realiseren van een reeks ontwerpen (masterproject). Anderzijds is er een theoretisch reflexief luik in de vorm van een scriptie of een onderzoekspresentatie die de studenten  voor een jury communiceren en


Through this kind of research, the artistic ‘space’ can grow: artistic dimensions and possibilities can be augmented, leading to the discovery of new expressive insights and parameters, such as colour, shape, material, technique, meaning, historical content, etc. Consequently, new and unexpected connections can be forged between the new information and the information we already possess. The role of the researching artist, as owner of an amalgam of practical and theoretical knowledge, wide interests and sensitivities, is integral to this story. He is a gatherer of information, about his own artistic practice and the practice of others. Through this attitude, he creates his own context and the possibility to position himself in relation to and in dialogue with other artists, disciplines and fields.


Lecture series


The Master Programme at the PHL University College in Hasselt, Belgium


This is one of the principle convictions behind the Master programme at the PHL University College in Hasselt, Belgium. The Master programme for jewellery and metalsmithing is divided into two parts: artistic practice and the Master Studio Art/Object. During these seminars/ workshops, we search for fertile ground between theoretical knowledge and artistic practice, between head and hand, via the careful reading and analysing of theoretical texts, visits to exhibitions and lectures, and via small practical exercises, related to the theme under discussion. Among the themes discussed are the importance of material and technique, the creative potential of function, the significance of concept, tactility and colour, etc. These concepts are discussed in relation to the work of the students and to other artists’ work. Contextual factors such as spectator, wearer, exhibition context (museum, gallery, body, public space, etc.) and social function are also treated extensively.


These newly shaped insights are fed back into the students’ own artistic practice through reflection and discussions of their own or other people’s work or by immediately applying these insights in their own artistic work. On the one hand, we stimulate the integration of the ‘new’ knowledge, at a meta-level, in their own artistic practice. On the other hand, we encourage the practising of a number of skills with direct or indirect relevance for the students’ own artistic work, such as mental/ artistic reflection on their own work, or appropriating a vocabulary and theoretical framework to speak and write about their own work for a public. This dual exercise can be extremely useful for Master’s students, particularly for the development of their Master’s project and the focus of their artistic choices.


We are convinced that this kind of attitude to research is essential for the contemporary Master’s student. Crafts in general and metalsmithing in particular have a very strong connection with technical skills and materials. However, they lose a lot of their value when they are applied without critical reflection.


David Huycke, 2009.