PLAYTHINGS – A Spin on the Merry-Go-Round of Contemporary Jewellery
Jewellery is in good heart in New Zealand. Of all the craft practices, it is jewellery that has the strongest dialogue, one that has evolved, stretched and keeps pushing boundaries. It has gone from being serious and grown up to infantile to more profound than one may always want. Questioning itself and pushing the wall down and kicking in the doors.
Jewellers, those obsessive makers who fixate on every millimetre and spin out over fire stain and any imperfection, have thrown their toys out of the cot and looked up several times in the past few decades to say, “hey what’s it all about?”. The questions keep coming through our educational institutions, galleries, symposiums, co-op studios and workshops, through our artists and their work. Up and down the country, from Northland to Otago, dedicated tutors, established and mid-career artists and committed students are jumping on the merry-go-round we call contemporary jewellery. And we are not just talking to ourselves, or to our friends next door, we are taking our conversations to the world stage, connecting with our jewellery peers in Europe, Australia and the Americas. The fascination with this place at the edge of the world (yes, despite the global economy and the world-wide web, we are still seen as something exotic – not always something we relish) brings an eye to our craft practice which enables us to observe ourselves through several lenses. And it is this talent for observation, our particular way of seeing, that situates us firmly in an ever-developing dialogue through our jewelled objects.
PLAYTHINGS came about through the collaborative efforts of Ann, Lee and Stella, who had a conversation and decided to start a dialogue with a Nelson audience about what contemporary jewellery can be; to expand understanding of this craft practice; to engage an audience with curious, humorous and thought-provoking objects that are to the viewer ostensibly jewellery – but not as they know it. The PLAYTHINGS jewellers are from throughout New Zealand: some are mid-career, honing their craft, making sure and adventurous work; others are finding their way through their student studies, testing the ground. Adventures involve taking risks, and sometimes that may mean crashing off that merry-go-round to land on ground that spins underfoot. Seven of these twenty-two jewellers are Nelson-based and it is exciting to see their response to the PLAYTHINGS concept. They approach with different making styles and as such engage their audiences in a variety of ways. There isn’t a one-rule-fits-all methodology here and we are pleased to see this.
Disruption and the Jewellery Object
So why PLAYTHINGS? Jewellery is a word that conjures immediate visions of diamonds, gold and dollar signs – status, value and preciousness. What else does it say? Sentiment, memorial, tradition, time. Of all objects in art practice, it is jewellery, due to its intimate relationship with the body, that easily travels outside the ‘art gallery’ – in fact, some would say due to its ‘common’ nature. It has no place speaking in the art world (except when it’s the darling of the art world). It is a commodity, something to own and sell, something to value monetarily or be an emotional measurement. But it is, in fact, this ability to speak to us that gives it voice, the common constrictions that define it that intrigues those of us who play in this field. While we may harvest from other art or craft methods – we sometimes even dabble in ‘fine arts’ (and in this show we see jewellers using installation, photography, and other fine art practices to converse with audience via their objects) – it is jewellery that speaks to us most clearly: we understand it immediately, whether we are maker, wearer or audience – it has a common language.
And it is this common language that PLAYTHINGS fools around. That may sound fickle, but an overwhelming aspect of the work in this exhibition is its ability to be both wonderfully serious in intent and incredibly funny in outcome. What happens in a disciplined environment if we invite chaos to be a guest? The jewellery-making process is pedantic and particular: the scale of the jewellery object demands a high degree of control, precision and attention to detail; it is dominated by technical procedures such as soldering, annealing, stone-setting, filing and polishing; and its materials are traditionally ‘precious’ – gold, silver and rare gems.
Materials, what are they good for?
An aspect to be considered was the exploration and collision of materials with the making process. Looking at the work in PLAYTHINGS, there are common themes in material choice. Several artists use ‘found objects’ and detritus. In the installation work of Kelly McDonald and in Raewyn Walsh’s Jewellery Things, we are exposed to the magpie qualities of both these jewellers, seeing the worth in found, abandoned and gifted materials. And whilst these two jewellers use similar methods, the collections have different purposes and speak to us with their own rhythms – with their own personal songs. McDonald’s work is more urban and industrial, re-imaging the purpose of utilitarian objects whilst retaining their former purpose; whereas Walsh’s collected objects feel like a walk on the beach, or more accurately saunter around her workshop, her hand instinctively reaching for a ‘precious gem’ – what she calls the unmade or failures. Both McDonald and Walsh then arrange their ‘finds’, sometimes altered, reconstituted as new objects. Others use their non-precious materials in a traditional manner, employing conventional methods of making yet still playing with us, altering our interpretation of the jewelled object. Materials carry with them their own words. Kay van Dyk’s use of the plumb line and lead weight suggests the builder and the meticulous nature of creating, reflecting her own care as a jeweller, and more interestingly, her pieces play with the concept of weight, asking us to contemplate the nature of this aspect in the jewellery object. What would it feel like to wear this necklace? Would I move differently? In the work of Didi Be, we see a direct use of non-precious organic materials to create rings that are reminiscent of childhood play and spontaneous making. Be is purposely asking us to abandon the stone as precious gem and see the ‘value’ intrinsic in her choice of materials, in a recognisable jewel that can be worn and admired in its own right. Amanda Flood uses slotted spoons and fish slices – they are immediately recognisable. She does not hide or alter these utensils to a great degree, but changing their purpose and using a jewellery method – in this case, enamelling – repositions her utilitarian objects and asks us to take them seriously as decoration. Fran Carter and Mia Straka both search out detritus from the beach and from their urban environments. Straka uses a ‘scribble’ technique: taking her rubbish from heap to mantle, what once was useless becomes displayable. Carter’s approach is a little different: it has a conscious and ethical component. Not wishing to consume any further materials, Carter has collected and sourced scrap from builders and tradespeople and asked for donations of broken or unwanted silver jewellery. By using casting, these materials are melted down and reformed into the new work.
It Ain’t Worth Much
Contemporary jewellers and collectors of objects have been questioning the ideas of ‘value’ for several decades, and this discussion flows from, and is reflected in, our socio-political environment (think the 1% debate, What is money?, commodity trading…) and the ethical questions related to the jewellery trade (blood diamonds, mineral extraction). As artists, we question the commodification of our tradition. When we throw our pre-conceptions about value into the air, what happens is often surprising and confronting. PLAYTHINGS jewellers use and misuse the rules to challenge our preconceived ideas of what is ‘good’ jewellery. Deborah Walsh is a rule breaker. Her work for PLAYTHINGS attracts and repulses us equally, as does the mystery behind Kim Brice’s work. They ask us to puzzle it out. We will be rewarded by mindful investigation. What do these artists say to us through their jewels? Do they intend to shock? Their intention is to make us fascinated and discomforted simultaneously. Eventually, we are in on the joke, a member of the club that gets the ironical positioning. Is this our new status symbol – intellectualised rather than worn glittering on our finger or around our neck?
Washing Out the Traditional
Working traditionally, in the sense that form is recognisably ‘jewellery’, Caroline Griffin, Nik Hanton and Tineke Jansen push against the confines – not so much breaking rules as bending them – a type of washing and cleansing that does away with expectation and asks the wearer to embrace something familiar, but different. Caroline Griffin, one of the few jewellers in this show to be working solely in metal, creates folded metal rings that on first glance look fairly traditional, but her manner of making is unexpected. They have the qualities of playing with paper, a kind of 3-D drawing. The artist’s intention is clear – her maker’s hands are obvious – the process rules the outcome. Nik Hanton delves back to ancient methods, using leather and binding, calling us to dig into our ancestral roots. Hatton juxtaposes this sentiment with clean, sparse modernist lines, honing her work down to the necessary, with minimal decoration – seemingly meaningful markings – creating her own ritualistic talismans. In contrast, Tineke Jensen’s work is more playful, with retro romantic fiction imagery, decorated with worthless baubles. Playing with concepts of femininity and fiction, Jansen makes these fake moments, where soaring romances are hung out on the line to be seen and admired, into enticing, pretty, overtly decorated necklaces that bring a wry smile to our lips, rather than a kiss.
Smiling with the Jewellery Object
There is much humour in contemporary art – PLAYTHINGS teases with its name and invites the participants to live up to the premise of play and chaos. The participants have responded with verve. Irony can be off-putting as an art concept: it relies on degrees of understanding or formal knowledge or language. Much of what we say, as artists, is layered and is a telling upon a telling. As such, unless we tell it well, the message will be lost. As a viewer, we cannot understand – nor should we want to – everything inherent in an art work with a cursory glance. Dependent on our own particular visual languages, we all come to an exhibition with a toolbox that carries some similar equipment but, even better, our own special tools. Because of this, we can have a shared experience coupled with a very personal response. As mentioned earlier, jewellery has a common language of form (ring, bracelet, necklace, brooch), material (metal, stone, bone), and of content (status symbol, significant marker, fashion accessory). With these tools we can start a dialogue, even when the first question is – Is that jewellery? PLAYTHINGS invites this question with open arms. In so doing, the jewellers have communicated a sense of fun through their objects – jewels that in turn toy with us, the audience.
Sarah Read is obsessed with gold-leafing. Walking on Sunshine, a group of gold tin-can stilts, brings to mind the 1985 hit song of the same name by Katrina & The Waves: “I’m walking on sunshine (whoa ah), And don’t it feel good”. And this project does feel good. Tin-can stilts stir childhood memories and take us back to a what we think of as a simpler time of home-made entertainment. But the juxtaposition with that gold leaf leave is a bit confounding and makes us a little nervous – should we be playing with these precious objects that so obviously call out to us to jump on and walk around? Cans of sunshine – if you could bottle it you could sell it. Read’s messages are layered: not only does she discuss value, tradition and the inherent nature of what jewellery is, by creating these jewelled objects, she also wants us to participate, to awkwardly move around, altering our body’s movement and hence bringing into play that other aspect of jewellery: its relationship to the body. Sharon Fitness plays another game: a game of look-and-see. Fitness creates a change in point of view: the observer looks out from the jewellery. The recordings anthropomorphise the object: an observation of the observed jewellery observing other jewelleries.
Time to Play
Play leads us to new discoveries. As children we play to learn, as artists we need to play to unlearn. We play to discover something new about our materials and our responses to our working environment, to disarm ourselves, to be vulnerable. Often our best work comes from playing quietly in a corner of our workshops or kitchen tables. At other times it comes rushing headlong at us like a game of bullrush with nowhere to hide, just a force to tackle. It also comes through a three-way dialogue or exploration between maker, object and audience. In the gallery space, objects can engage directly with an audience in a conscious manner through performance and participation. Sharon Fitness’s work speaks to us and Sarah Read invites us to get up on our feet. Macarena Bernal’s interlocking links let us sit down and enjoy making our own jewellery. Bernal’s brightly coloured links are reminiscent of building blocks and toys of childhood. They invite us to be mechanical and build to our liking, allowing us choice and an expression of our own taste. Trading your wares with Katie Pascoe is an interactive process which creates an immediate and on-going dialogue. Pascoe asks us to give her something important or precious. In return, we can choose one of her jewels to take home. Pascoe, once she has a new range of objects, crafts these into new wares, ready for a future exchange. But what will we give? Will it truly be precious to us, and how do we feel about giving? In many cases, jewellery is a gift. To give to a stranger is more confronting, making us question our reasons for giving and how we feel about letting go of an object that has memories attached to it – memories that maybe only the giver knows. Are we happy for the object to abandon its history?
Capturing the Moment
We can capture moments via our experiences of them, and by immortalising them in print. Jennifer Laracy’s print of a squashed ring is one such moment. Captured by the click of a camera, the artist by chance has observed a moment that we can but speculate on. The ring is much like any another mass-produced ring – we see gold and diamonds, maybe only diamantes – an engagement ring, possibly. Was the ring thrown down in a fit of anger or sadness at a failed relationship? Was it a precious lost thing? It has been abandoned one way or another and crushed by a heavy weight, looking decided run-over. The way in which this ring can tell a story is overpowering – a lone object can such vocabulary! Nadine Smith’s Cross-Over takes two worlds and conjoins them to create an experience for the audience. Including medical paraphernalia and interspacing jewellery tools in the mix, we are temporarily confronted with a scenario that refuses to make sense: our languages for health and art need to adjust to one another. Smith remakes the paraphernalia into new, often very beautiful, objects that we covet. Her photographic work then cements the cacophony of information into something new and bold. Feedback in a literal sense underlies Salina Sly’s work. Playing with our sense of visual curiosity, we are drawn to this neckpiece to find that we are in fact experiencing an aural response. An immediate feedback to our presence.
Parody, is it good for us?
What is it about taking a risk, that sometimes we just go too far? It is out of these accidents, moments of chaos, that we discover where we are going or might venture. Nadene Carr’s bright shouting monuments are asking to be taken notice of – there is nothing shy or retiring about this jewellery – like the largest diamond on the finger in a room of large diamonds, they say ‘pick me’ even though you know they’re made of stuff found at hand and underfoot, that they’re objects that have had other, more utilitarian, purposes, that have turned into parodies of their former selves. Caroline Thomas doesn’t shout loudly with her work, but the sense of play and immediacy of material is very much at the surface of her necklaces. In particular, bench peg, which directly uses a jeweller’s everyday prop, the bench peg where we rest our work to steady it for all manner of activities to make a jewel. A jeweller has a special and intimate relationship with her/his tools, and we all have our favourite bench pegs – the ones that are just right, that don’t result in a multitude of sawblade breakages. Juliana Trolove is set on abandoning the rules of scale in relation to the jewel object. By creating her over-sized jewels, she is making us interact in an Alice-in-Wonderland manner toward her work. We need to abandon all preconceived notions of the size or the wearability of jewellery. Trolove risks divorcing the body from the work and invites us to find a new way to interact with her jewellery.
PLAYTHINGS gives you a ride on a merry-go-round. As you spin by, consider the jewellers. They are standing by now, their middle fingers in the air. Are they merely testing the wind?
1 August 2016
Is the object really necessary
(speech for Jemposium 2012 – Stella Chrysostomou)
Today, I am wearing a hearing aid. A hearing aid that doesn’t work; that has no function despite having movable parts. It’s made from silver; it’s a replica/a fake of an actual hearing aid. Why would I make this and what is it saying? I’ll come back to this particular work later.
Firstly, I would like to set forth the following question.
Is the object really necessary?
Necessity is a curious word. It makes us think of a roof over our heads, food on the table, shoes on our feet. But in fact what we need goes beyond these basic considerations to more complex emotional and intellectual sustenance; stimuli that enables us to function and develop.
As humanity has evolved we have become increasingly complex creatures that have an awareness of our selves and our environments. This awareness has led us to attach intellectual and emotional significance to the material.
Here’s a revealing comment from an Apple executive. “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards. And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”
Our desire for objects is entrenched in our societal, as well as individual, psychologies.
From the clay pot to the credit card, objects reveal both monumental and ordinary aspects of our histories. Jewellery has a vital role in this story – as a means of exchange and wealth, as an indicator of status, and as a ritual item. The object is always close to us revealing itself.
In several of my projects I have investigated the idea of the object.
One of these projects was HOLE. In this exhibition there were no exhibits. The cabinet was empty, the drawers were locked and some of jewels were deliberately lost. With HOLE I was addressing ideas of absence and memory, but more interesting was the position of the missing object. A void was created which in turn subverted the conventional visual language with which we read art. Responses varied, but many felt cheated without some jewellery to coo over. I like to think that the objects denied their audience. The absence of the jewellery questioned the role of the physical object.
But what is jewellery’s role in our modern and future lives?
There is a question that keeps nagging at me. Why make another ring? Surely there are enough rings in the world. There is enough stuff to last several lifetimes – we are inundated with accessories and gadgets.
Despite the fact that the market still wishes to define itself with the status symbols of jewellery, that is no reason why we, as makers, need to play the same game. We have been relieved of the burden by the advent of a mass industry that churns out every criteria of jewellery we can imagine – traditional, ethnic, funky, cute, and urban-tribal. And society has a new jewel for its mass pleasure – the hand-held gadget.
Jewellery making for the sake of another ring, a pretty necklace and a pair of earrings to accentuate the curve of the neck is unnecessary. This is not a place that contemporary jewellers need to tread. If we make unthinkingly we fall into the traps of tradition which, although valid, do not challenge us.
I am curious about what we can do that not only stretches the possibilities of what jewellery looks like, but also how we approach the process of making and in turn extend dialogue. There are many examples of transgressive jewellery. By this I mean, it looks different, it breaks the rules; but ultimately follows existing patterns of thought and process.
It is but a flip-flop – a taking of the negative position. While the end object may seem radical, it does little to extend practice. We need to be inventive rather than transgressive.
Discomfort forces us to examine our behaviour – forces us to wonder whether we have become complacent. It is easy to fall into a pattern of making that works, it is easier to resist challenge at the risk of failure. We need to take risks for it is from chaos that we make our best discoveries.
Sometimes it can be the process rather than the result that sets that challenge.
LIKE was an experiment. The exhibition explored the translation of an object into words and words into objects. The writer had rules to which he had to adhere, as did the jewellers – they were restrained from following their conventional patterns of creating. Their individual habits were disturbed and ultimately their frustration subverted the experimental constraints.
Focal to LIKE was its attempt to refrain from being a show of objects, and rather an exploration into the process of making, and the mechanism of responsive thinking. But more importantly to me it revealed what happens to the creative process through disturbance and discomfort.
When an object expresses an idea, when it is a language, it asks us to communicate. Taking ideas and breaking them down into something that is thought provoking and not didactic is a challenge for conceptual art. A common failing of ideas-based practice is “telling a story”. Once the story is told there is nothing much else to think about. Successful work should keep resonating, not just for the viewer, but also for the maker.
While ideas can be stimulated by choice of material, by accident, by symbolism, by association, I believe that the more potent ideas are deliberate. The trick is how to let the wearer or the audience, join the dots and make the cerebral links to arrive at the idea themselves.
And to come back to my hearing aid. This useless item is part of the Bliss series. Bliss is concerned with apathy. Our society is one where empathy has been eroded by a highly competitive mechanism driven by marketing, false desire and a value system based on money and success. We are increasingly bombarded with branded and internet-savvy companies, with the influence of often-meaningless web-based dialogue and slick commercial politicking. We are told how to think and what to think in a seemingly “free” and “individualist” world. Despite 2011 being the Year of the Protester, we live in conservative times and without doubt art reflects society. Like other art forms, jewellery easily falls under the spell of these patterns of consumption and desirability. It is a danger to allow our egos to be purchased by being wanted.
Jewellery is nothing without it’s materials, but it is even less if the conversation it generates is bland. It is hoped that art raises questions that encourage deliberation and sometimes confusion. It is from the unexpected and not immediately understood that we can be intellectually stimulated and inadvertently altered. The object isn’t necessary, but what it can communicate is invaluable.
– February 2012
Other essays: click on the links to go to icebox.org.nz
Where’s the Jewels? : A Discussion of Absence and Memory, The Suter, May 2006
The Implied Body, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu, Nelson, October 2002
Jewellery in the Gallery , The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu, Nelson, July2002