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What's the formula behind a great jewellery exhibition?

Slick and steady

What's the formula behind a great jewellery exhibition?
Don't make it all about the jewellery, says Bulgari's curator Lucia Boscaini on the brand's 'SerpentiForm' exhibition at ArtScience Museum in Singapore

When Taylor Swift was caught in an infamous feud that involved Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in July 2016, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom had to step in to device a filter that removed the snake emoji from Swift's comment feed. The pop star was facing an avalanche of harassment from West's fans, and all it took was a simple snake emoji to shake things up. If you're called a snake, you're a snitch or a scheming backstabber — and in some books, you're Taylor Swift.

Even Lucia Boscaini, Bulgari's brand and heritage curator, wasn't a fan of snakes as a child. The symbol's been regarded both favourably and otherwise, right from its humble beginnings as the instrument of temptation between Adam and Eve. Apart from its rich history in ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian traditions, the snake also had starring roles in the Eastern and Scandinavian fronts as the Naga and Jörmungand respectively. 

Lucia Boscaini
"I hated them," said the Rome-based Boscaini as she sat across me, her delicate hands showing off the fish motifs in a Bulgari Naturalia bracelet from the '90s. "I couldn't see any kind of reptile, even the small ones. But now I'm getting used to it." She very well should. In town to oversee the finishing touches of 'SerpentiForm', Bulgari's exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, the curator is responsible for the heritage arm of the 133-year-old Italian brand. After staging its first edition in the Museum of Rome last year, Bulgari's moving the exhibition from a 400sqm-sized Renaissance palace to the bigger, contemporary comforts of the third-floor gallery of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore — more than twice the size.

Before finding its next home in Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, visitors can explore the snake's artistic symbolism in Singapore and learn how it's inspired artists, photographers, fashion designers and ultimately, jewellers. Bulgari first reinterpreted the snake symbol in a bracelet watch in the '40s, immortalising the icon in its heritage. When Bulgari announced their new brand ambassador last September, model Lily Aldridge made her entrance with the house's iconic Serpenti fine jewellery coiled around her neck.

Lily Aldridge, Bulgari's brand ambassador

I spoke to Boscaini as the exhibition was being set up, in a space where photographs of Bulgari's female icons — such as Bella Hadid, Elizabeth Taylor and Gong Li — loomed high above. Before meeting her, my eyes had already scanned through a stained wood snake mirror, a comical Keith Haring piece and a Japanese scene that depicted a boisterous dance between a bat, a snake and a fly in brocade and ink. As this was happening, a multimedia projection of a fiery snake wound its way through the gallery, keeping watch. Comprising of antiquities, vintage frocks, movie costumes, objets d'art and contemporary works, you can tell right off the bat that Bulgari didn't want to create just any other jewellery exhibition.

Another luxury jeweller had previously made its mark in the ArtScience Museum — last April saw Van Cleef & Arpels stage 'The Art and Science of Gems' exhibition. Last month saw the final visitors to Chaumet's 'Imperial Splendours: The Art of Jewellery since the 18th Century' exhibit in Beijing, where the brand told its story through jewels, paintings, drawings and objects of curiosity. In a time when both art and jewellery enthusiasts are spoilt for choice, how does Bulgari make its 'SerpentiForm' exhibition stand out?

Serpenti “Melone” evening bag, 1970

Why was Singapore chosen as the next city to host Bulgari's 'SerpentiForm' exhibition?
Lucia Boscaini: Singapore, to us, is an emblem of a nautical kind of society, and that's something that we like. There's also another element, which is the continuous innovation. We moved the exhibition from Rome to Singapore because we want to celebrate the universality of the snake, which is actually so representative in every kind of culture, heritage, legend or religion. We wanted to create an exhibition that is modern, technological, unusual and really mixing East and West. Where else, if not in Singapore?

How does the ArtScience Museum enrich the exhibition, and how does its unique space change or morph the exhibition from its debut in Rome?
We wanted to be in a museum with the right spirit and philosophy. The fact that they matched technology, art, education and science is really the perfect attitude for an exhibition like this. This place has a strong personality. After the first agreement [was done], I came here with our scenographer. For instance, in this room, we showed the pictures in an installation that I doubt would be reproduced anywhere else because it's really tailor-made to the high ceiling.

You used to be Bulgari's marketing director, and now you work in an eight-member curatorial team as the brand and heritage curator — a fairly new position established in 2014. Bulgari's importance on heritage is more than just a marketing tool, isn't it?
For Bulgari, it's really a very important strategic leverage. We say "heritage", because it's the most understandable thing. But for us, "heritage" doesn't mean past, it means identity. So the company really wants to communicate about the product, but strategically, to also communicate about the identity and values of the brand. That's what my role is for.

Yes, I was quite pleased that the exhibition wasn't a hard sell on Bulgari's products. In fact, Bulgari's heritage pieces don't kick in until a few sections. Could you share more about how you wanted visitors to journey through the gallery?

It can also be misleading — that's my concern, thinking of the flow and experience to offer. Clearly, we are jewellers. But to start with that would have been even more misleading. I prefer to have the visitor understand the inspiring icon, which is the common element from the antique sculpture created in 2 BC until something an artist created yesterday. We also have the best selection of jewellery and watches with that. But it's a path and I would like that at the end. So after having understood the icon, the power, the meaning and the different ways of interpreting this symbol, then they're ready to understand our interpretation.

'Serpent Yin Yang' by Niki De Saint Phalle

There's been a couple of high profile fashion, jewellery and commercial brand-led exhibitions this year. What do you think constitutes a great exhibition that's tied to a commercial brand?
An exhibition has to deliver content. We are full of events. We also have more media, more digital tools and more possibilities to communicate. But there's also a risk to be overloaded. So that's why a solid content is the element that makes the first ingredient. The second ingredient is the unconventional or emotional way to convey this content. Since we are quite overwhelmed by messages, we need emotion. So content plus emotion, in my opinion, is the best mix to make a good exhibition.

There's a sizeable collection of Asian art as well. Were these pieces specially brought in for Singapore, and was this something that you wanted to do to resonate with the Asian market?

We wanted to have a complete exhibition and we felt that living in Rome, we missed a big part of not having delivered Asian artists. In Rome, I have my personal background but the company is international and so is the snake. It's interesting that we found a Japanese artist who took inspiration from Mexico. I think this is another example of the richness that the multicultural approach brings.

Do you consider yourself a detective, having to find all these different artworks and heritage jewellery around the world?
A little bit. We have to find those jewels because we have pictures or sketches, but we do not know who's the owner today. If you go through auctions, we'll never get where we want to get, and so, like detectives, we scout based on what we have. It requires a lot of patience.

How much time was spent sourcing all the pieces for 'SerpentiForm'?

One year. For instance, the big Keith Haring piece was displayed in a show in Milan last year. My team went and said, "We want it!" So we were already in contact with the Keith Haring Foundation who helped us with a loan. It's another aspect of detective-like work. Through museums, we learn that they have their own collection of artists that we don't know about yet.

'19-82' by Keith Haring

What's an interesting thing you've learned about the symbolism of snakes in Asia?
99% of the time, they are a positive sign. The legend of the White Snake, for example, I didn't know of before studying this exhibition. It's a beautiful story, and it's romantic and poetic.

Although you're not born under the Chinese astrological sign of the snake, I'm curious to know if you share any personality traits. People born in the year of the snake are supposed to be intuitive. Do you think you have good intuition?
I think so, frankly.

Snakes are also known to be quite private.
I'm definitely private (laughs).

And they love to possess the best of everything.
Yes!

Bulgari's 'SerpentiForm' is running from 19 August to 15 October at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands.

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