With Beautifully Bejeweled Animals as His Cast, Robert Wilson Built a Stirring Noah’s Ark for Van Cleef & Arpels

Robert Wilson's installation for Van Cleef & Arpels's
Robert Wilson's installation for Van Cleef & Arpels's "L'Arche de Noe" collection. Photo by Lucie Jasch, courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

“Throughout my career, animals have been quite important,” the theater impresario Robert Wilson said during the press preview of Van Cleef & Arpels’s latest high jewelry collection in New York on Wednesday. Thinking about the way animals experience the world around them inspires him, he explained. For instance, “animals feel sound, they don’t only hear or listen with the eardrum.” It is this insight that allowed Wilson—who has produced extraordinarily imaginative collaborations with fellow artists like Philip Glass and Marina Abramovic—to create an installation to perfectly complement the French jewelry house’s haute joaillerie pieces inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark.

The Biblical tale, in which God spares Noah, his family, and a handful of the world’s animals from the Great Flood, has been the subject of many historical works of art. In fact, it was a 17th-century painting, Jan Brueghel’s The Entry of the Animals Into Noah’s Ark, that Van Cleef & Arpels CEO Nicolas Bos saw at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum and became the seed that eventually grew into the house’s full-fledged collection.

A pair from the "Noah's Ark" collection. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

A pair from the “L’Arche de Noe” collection. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

“We always try to identify artworks that could be a starting point of a collection,“ Bos said of his encounter in the museum. “There was a sense of something benevolent about the painting, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we try this in jewelry?’”

The three-year process, which encompassed conceiving the design, sourcing the stones, choosing the metals, and employing traditional jewelry-making techniques to bring it all to life, resulted in 60 extraordinarily crafted sculptural brooches.

Each brooch portrays a pair of animals, rendered in distinct materials and styles. For example, an elegant pin of two deer made from yellow and white gold, diamonds, yellow sapphires, garnets, onyx, and letterwood (for the bodies) is finished quite differently than another pin of a faun duo forged from yellow gold, diamonds, pink sapphires, and a large iridescent opal stone. A certain tenderness is captured between each animal pairing; for example, the squirrels are nose-to-nose, two monkeys are exchanging fruit, and a mother duck embraces her offspring.

Another pairing. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Another pairing. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Another playful touch in the collection is the inclusion of mythical animals, such as a phoenix and Pegasus—the Greek winged horse that aided heroes on their quests—made with white, pink, and red gold, violet sapphires, coral, and “Mystery Set” rubies, a type of setting the house is renowned for. Because these fantastic beasts weren’t actually on the ark, they are shown singly, not in pairs.

Meanwhile, the installation that Wilson created to house the bejeweled creatures provides an enchanting mise-en-scène. When walking into the black-box gallery setting, one immediately feels a certain lightness and serenity. Estonian composer Avro Part’s soothing “Speigel im speigel,” echoes throughout the space while several video screens wrap the room, giving the appearance of a vast body of water. “We’re entering this room to look at jewelry, so it couldn’t compete too much but rather put me in a certain state of mind,” Wilson said of the space. “It took a while to find the right value of the color and the right movement of the water.“

To craft the right mood, Wilson first mused upon the story of Noah, probing its philosophical implications before translating it into space. “I was thinking about the number two,” he said. “It seemed to me that the idea of two is actually one. Like the left hand and the right hand are two parts, but from one mind.” To play on this idea of duality, Wilson created a room that is “calm and tranquil,” he explained, “and then I thought to disturb it by something that would be the opposite”—dramatic thunderclaps that are interspersed throughout the musical score, during which the whole room suddenly darkens and vibrates. The setting then returns to its state of tranquility.

Another duo. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Another duo. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

Intriguingly, the ark itself—which is technically the largest object in the story—is reduced to a miniature, skeletally white wooden version suspended in the air. That’s because Wilson, who usually works on a much vaster scale, is here be embracing the small and intimate: the animals themselves, and their connection to the natural world, are what is central to the story.

“L’Arche de Noé racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels”is open to the public from November 3-19th, 2017 at Cedar Lake, 547 West 26th Street.

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