I shouldn’t be writing this essay. The body as a theme in contemporary jewellery is essentially a feminist issue. All the artists and the curator of this exhibition are women. The patriarchal position of the writer is one that seeks to explain the work, rending its unnerving and rogue elements in rational form. In a feminist context, this is an obvious expression of phallocentrism, therefore to be resisted.
But the alternative seems worse. I could attempt my own kind of feminist discourse, employing a corporeal language à la Julia Kristeva. But no. This would be an exotic primitivist gesture that disavows my inevitable gender position.
I can only proceed. My concession is to say that I am not demanding of you that my text be read as an explanation of the works in this exhibition. My text is more like the otherwise neutral architecture of the gallery in which the exhibition takes place. These words attempt to shelter the artists from the business of the world outside while allowing some traffic of ideas inside and out. What happens inside is out of my hands.
So let’s do the historical stuff.
Contemporary jewellery as a modernist venture sought to define what distinguished itself from other art forms, such as sculpture and painting. A common response was to identify the body as the essential and unique element in jewellery. While most art worlds are created to occupy walls, floors or plinths, jewellery is designed primarily to fit on the body. Essentially, it should not be read in isolation as a small sculpture, but instead be evaluated in relation to this vertical tree of flesh clothed in skin. As the canvas of jewellery, the body then becomes a site of experimentation. In the 1980s, this involved an enlargement of jewellery to cover the whole body, such as the English David Poston’s life-size performance props and the Australian Rowena Gough’s Reptilia wearable paper sculpture.
The focus on the body opened up the discovery of new sites on which jewellery could be located. Beyond the wrist, finger, neck, ear and crown, artists could explore new spaces for ornament, such as teeth (Susan Cohn’s ornamented dental braces). These works raise the question of the relation between adornment and the body.
Now the theory…
The relationship between metal and flesh is a powerful dialectic. Skin is sensuous and responsive, compared to the cold inert elements such as gold, silver or aluminium. One is human, the other machine. According to this logic, jewellery exists to serve the body – to draw the gaze to it, to frame its features and to honour it as valuable. But in the longer term, the life of metal extends far beyond that of flesh. The wedding ring can exist long after the husband and wife have decomposed. According to this contrary logic, we are simply hosts for jewellery. We exist so that these vain glittering objects might be paraded through social events and admired. And when we die, a lucky few jewels can live on attached to someone else’s body, protected as a keepsake or reincarnated in the crucible to be remade as a new object.
As with any dialectic, zero-sum logic seeks some possibility of synthesis. How can metal and flesh merge? How can the process of corporeal corruption be revealed through the jewellery itself?
Zooming in to the local…
While the ‘body as canvas’ was a driving formal interest in contemporary jewellery, the body also featured strongly as content in feminist engagement. By contrast with the ideology of mateship, Australia was the country that explored most intensely the feminist dimension of contemporary jewellery, in particular the Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide. In the mid-1980s, Anne Brennan made a series of work reflecting the everyday experiences of women such as domestic duties, including necklaces of nappies on a line. Her work for Thoughts in Flesh (1984, JamFactory) referenced the female body, including pieces resembling intrauterine devices. The Ce Mal de L’Infini (1986, Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide) exhibition included objects to be clenched between teeth that prevented the speech, evoking the violence of silence. Other Gray Street members aestheticise flesh: Catherine Truman carves models of musculature onto work and Leslie Matthews casts pieces inspired by internal organs. Beyond Gray Street, the most striking jewellery encounter with the body has been Tiffany Parbs in Melbourne. Parbs invents new forms working only with the body itself.
Across the Tasman, feminism had a very different orientation. In New Zealand artists explored third-wave feminist concerns such as the domestic. In her Strain, Grate, Whisk, Scrub series (2000) Pauline Bern made ornament out of kitchen utensils as a way to bring jewellery into the back stage world that constitutes the maternal domain. This was parallel to the exploration of a settler aesthetic that never occurred in Australia.
Now comes the zeitgeist…
So what does it mean here in 2013 to re-visit the body as a site of contemporary jewellery? This century has seen the growth of ‘the relational turn’, which involves moving away from issues of individual experience such as the body. This seems an enlightened development beyond the individualist framework and towards a shared understanding of authorship. It’s hard to fathom today a welcoming return to the romance of the lone artist. But maybe there’s occasional need to question the collective, to go against what Nietzsche called our ‘herd nature’.
The exhibition at hand…
Embodied stretches the ‘body as canvas’ in two ways. First, relationally. Suse Scholem’s opening performance seeks to crowd-source a collective experience of jewellery and her Gestaltwerk creates jewellery out of the relation between two bodies, similar to Renee Bevan’s body assemblage photographs in New Zealand. Rachel Timmins walking jewellery performances disrupt the routines of everyday life, causing public to break their journeys and make sense of this jewellery on legs. As relational element, the body offers more anarchic possibilities than the more structure participatory forms of making in common.
Then there are works that transgress the boundary between jewellery and body. Tassia Ioannides sticker performances and works directly adorn the body. Selina Woulfe’s performances erase the distance between jewellery and the body. Like the Dutch jeweller Vera Siemund’s chalk necklace, Woulfe’s Delmira rubs off on the body. While Siemund’s is designed to stain clothes, Woulfe’s lipstick directly affects the skin. Silvergraft points us towards body piercing. But this is an extension of ear piercing, while Woulfe’s work evolves out of the brooch, which is conventionally attached to clothing. Its radical nature seems to be in circumventing this layer, evoking a nakedness more bare than nudity.
And the final authoritative judgement…
Embodied seems to move in two directions – outward in the collision of other bodies and inward in the inexorable isolation of personal body. The exhibition revives the ‘body as canvas’ only to break through to the other side. Rather than consign the body a singular modernist phase in contemporary jewellery, Embodied offers up the body as a cyclical reinvigoration of adornment, exposing new directions.
You may now view the exhibition.
Essay for the exhibition Embodied curated by Suse Scholem, 24 September 2014