Artists use the language of jewellery to explore ideas
Jewellery is one of the oldest human artforms on record. Some 80,000 years ago our distant ancestors were transforming shells and bones into strings of beads. And thousands of years before that Neanderthal people – our even more distant relations– were creating complex wearable pieces, including an elaborate jewel made from eagle talons found in a Croatian cave which is estimated to be 130,000 years old. Millenia later, the human urge to decorate our bodies is still going strong.
These days, jewellery continues to fulfil the traditional role of symbolising cultural affiliations and personal identity, whether it is made from raptor claws, gold, diamonds, or something considerably less rare or precious. And as the 22 artists in the Australian Design Centre (ADC) touring show Made/Worn: Australian Contemporary Jewellery demonstrate, jewels can now be made from literally anything: from paper and glass to wood and silk.
But all types of jewellery – both conventional and radical, ancient and contemporary – are linked by the constraints and possibilities of wearability and the perennial human desire to adorn our corporeal forms. Art Guide spoke to Liam Benson, Tiffany Parbs, Catherine Truman, and Zoe Veness – four of the artists in Made/Worn – about what drives them to use the body as a site and the traditions of jewellery to explore their ideas.
Although he is not a jeweller, body adornment is at the heart of Liam Benson’s practice. The Sydney-based artist is known for his drag performances and lush photographs infused with political critique.
“I love dressing up and everything that leads up to the moment of putting things on. Costume and adornment are physical manifestations of our identity, a decorative version of the most personal and significant elements of who we are,” he says. “My first headpiece was handed down to me from my Drag Mother… That headpiece still informs what I make today.”
In Made/Worn, Benson presents two glamorous headpieces, one featuring a glitter-spangled version of the Australian coat of arms. “The works play with and satirise national symbolism by giving them a camp/queer cultural transformation… There is value in the cultural practice of drag that extends beyond the queer community: sharing the process of listening, learning, change and growth as a community made up of unique individuals. The objects are vessels which contain this message, whether on or off the body,” he explains. “Perhaps a wearable object presented as an artwork allows people to imagine themselves wearing the adornments, which is their best entry point to playfully interrogating their own identity.”
Tiffany Parbs says that she was first captivated by the scale of jewellery “and how it held the viewer’s gaze and invited more intimate engagement with the work.” She began making accessible wearable objects such as rings, brooches and chains, but admits that she found it “incredibly restrictive.”
The Melbourne-based artist now strives “to expand existing definitions of jewellery and challenge preconceptions of the medium.” But she still works with the notion of wearability, albeit a very expanded one.
In the photograph that accompanies slope, her piece in Made/Worn, the artist’s head sticks up through a small slide, while children clamber all over her. It is part of a broader series, smother, which links wearability with the way that bodies become worn (as in worn out). “Slope,” Parbs explains, “is one of two pieces from smother commenting on the physical wear and tear of child-rearing, the ‘body as playground’ and children’s absorption of the parental body as an extension of their own.”
Although her mini-slide would be difficult to wear, wearability is still key to the work. Without the photograph documenting the work in situ on the body, and in use, slope would be “devoid of meaning and the object rendered static and inert,” Parbs says. “I find wearability interesting because it transforms an item from inert to animated through interaction with the body, changing meaning and context with the process of being worn.”
Catherine Truman, who is one of the founding members of Adelaide’s long running Gray Street jewellery workshop, says she has been described as a “medium agnostic.” As she explains, “If someone asks, I usually say I’m an artist, that I work with diverse mediums and forms including contemporary jewellery, objects, installation, digital image, film and text.”
Truman says she was initially drawn to jewellery because “I enjoyed the three-dimensional thinking, the intimate scale and the potency of the human body: both a subject and a surface. And it allowed me to indulge so totally in my obsession for detail.”
Her recent work has manifested in the context of residencies, collaborations, and research in the realm of biomedical science. As Truman puts it, she is “essentially trying to fathom how knowledge of anatomy is gathered and communicated.”
In Made/Worn Truman is showing a film with the relatively self-explanatory title of Preparation for Seeing: glove dissection. Although the hand in the film is wearing a latex glove, this ongoing project is not wearable at all. Nevertheless, as the artist explains, it taps into her decades-long practice as a maker of jewellery. “Jewellery is an intimate medium – so bound to the proximity to the body – the potent, politicised surfaces of a body,” Truman says. “In these films, played forward and reversed side by side, not only are there strong references to the importance of fine motor skills and dexterity in the practice of both contemporary jewellery and medical science, there is also a tension between the vulnerability of the human body and the trust we place in science.”
Although her intricately folded paper brooches and neckpieces look equally sculptural on and off the body, Zoe Veness says she does define herself as a contemporary jeweller. “My objects aren’t always wearable,” explains the Sydney-based artist, “but without at least the potential of wearability I’m kind of lost; sculptural value alone is not really enough for me.”
“Wearability is conceptually interesting as it speaks about relationships between objects and the body. I’m inspired by artists who subvert or play with the concept of daily-wear or aesthetically acceptable wear. With my neckpieces wearability is suggested by the looped form, but it’s not paramount that they are worn,” says Veness. “My work in Made/Worn is about jewellery. In many ways it’s about beauty; as elusive as this is.”
Veness sums up what links all of the artists in Made/Worn: Australian Contemporary Jewellery. As she puts it, “I refer to the language of jewellery to explore ideas.”