UNBOXING METIS – Silvia Weidenbach’s jewellery as performance at the V&A

Unboxing Metis, performance by Silvia Weidenbach at the V&A

Silvia Weidenbach is the V&A’s first Gilbert Collection Resident at the V&A, exploring a collection that embodies the luxury, extravagance and precious beauty of the 17th and 18th century ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Feeling at the beginning like a kid in a candy shop, Silvia has spent the past few months thinking about those elements of the collection that resonate with her own practice and thinking of ways to materialise the intersection between the two.

The many snuff boxes (a prominent highlight of the Gilbert collection), for instance, have been one of Silvia’s main source of inspiration; objects of incredible beauty and craftsmanship, which reveal strong social and functional values by means of their highly performative agency. Their wealthy owners carried and displayed them at all times in order to offer snuff to their guests at just the right moment –  clasping them open and shut with a characteristic “click”, and letting the light dance on their precious metals and stones.

Snuffbox, gold, mother of pearl, diamonds, rubies, hardstones and foil snuffbox and case, Berlin, circa 1765, LOAN:GILBERT.413:1-2008

Interested in performance herself, Silvia designs her pieces with bodies and movement in mind, and she thinks deeply about the presentation of her jewellery as the owner wears it and moves with it. To further explore this idea, but also take advantage of a programme that encourages resident designers to step out of their comfort zone, Silvia Weidenbach organised a dance-theatre performance in the Globe, the structure built by Los Carpinteros in the V&A’s Europe Galleries.

Unboxing Metis, performance at the V&A by Silvia Weidenbach

The piece, directed by Pedro Caxade and performed by dancer Teneisha Bonner, was an occasion for different artistic disciplines -music, dance, poetry- to express the performance of the jewel: the choreography was structured around the wearing of a broach, a bracelet and a necklace, all designed by Silvia. The audience sitting in the Globe was later invited to take part in a discussion.

The performance was recorded and edited by Andrew Jonathan Smith to create a short video piece. In an exploration of Silvia’s creativity – dancer Teneisha Bonner embodies Metis, the goddess of wisdom and craft, moving unpredictably and freed from the constraints of logic – with the Globe representing the brain of the designer. ‘Unboxing’ Metis is the liberating moment of freeing creativity, at the same time reminiscent of the correlation between Silvia’s pieces and the Gilbert collection boxes. The performance follows a structured narrative that mixes poetry, choreography, sound experimentation and design by Miguel Ramires and original music material by Sigi Schwab.

A highly collaborative experiment between a designer, an actor, a dancer, a composer, a sound artist and a filmmaker, this performance was an unprecedented opportunity for Silvia to reflect on the interdisciplinary nature of her practice, and how the input from different artistic forms can influence her thinking during her residency.

Here is an extract of the discussion that took place after the performance and a Q&A with the author:

Q: How did this performance originate? What was your first input?

Silvia: My first idea was about doing something new – thinking outside the box. I wanted to get outside of the workshop where I sit and make jewellery, and explore the jewel’s power to create a direct dialogue with the body. No other artistic medium has quite the same quality, to have it directly with you, to control the way you present it and interact with it. When I had the first conversations with Pedro, I understood he wanted to co-create something that had narrative and a structure. I think that is what has made this particularly interesting and inspiring for me, and hopefully for the audience, understanding that all the media involved; dance, music, sound, poetry, film, jewellery… they all have different processes, and part of this exercise is to give some control of the performance away to other actors and create a creative dialogue. So Pedro came up with a strong structure and narrative, because this is part of his creative process. And the whole performance revolves around the complexity and unpredictability of creativity. For me the structure and narrative has been a great prompt to think about the presentation qualities of jewellery.

Unboxing Metis, performance at the V&A by Silvia Weidenbach

Q:  What has been the most interesting element of the performance for you, and of the way it has been documented in this short video?

Silvia: I would say that what is so interesting for me is the action and movement that the video conveys through Teneisha’s dance. When jewellery is behind glass in a display case you can only appreciate it from one perspective, while in the video you can have a sense of it from all angles. Something that I found particularly interesting was seeing how she wore the pieces after picking them up -it really highlights how you as wearer perform with the jewel.

Unboxing Metis, performance at the V&A by Silvia Weidenbach

Q: What would you say is the element that bridges the aesthetic of this performance, the video, and the Gilbert collection that you’ve been exploring so far?

Silvia: The collection is about luxury, and about performance – it iss about laying down a precious box on a pillow, and a lot of other theatrical elements that are part of the history of the collection. This performance is supposed to be a photograph of my brain and my creative process, but similarly, is also about the rituals around the jewel, and  the idea that jewellery can be brought alive with movement and bodies.  And this can exist in the museum context alongside the more traditional display methods.

Musician Sigi Schwab, who offered a selection of his works to use for the performance, has provided the following statement – a perfect summary of the ethos of the performance and by extension of the V&A Residency Programme more generally:

“Silvia’s decision to bring together practitioners from different art disciplines, different nations, different generations was an experiment in itself, created in a very short time. This performance teaches us something about the power of communication, the power of fantasy and creativity with astonishing results, if we all were willing to learn from each other and respect each other.”

Unboxing Metis, performance at the V&A by Silvia Weidenbach

This article was written by Andrea Foffa, a graduate of MA History of Design at the V&A and the Royal College of Art, and a researcher and writer on interdisciplinary design practices and knowledge exchange processes.


Andrea Foffa, Pedro Caxade, Teneisha Bonner, Miguel Ramires sound design, Sigi Schwab, Andrew Jonathan Smith, Moea Creugnet

Supported by the Gilbert Trust for the Arts