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Our connection with jewellery is marked by an extreme concentration of value: jewellery signifies status and wealth, but also personal history, craft traditions and symbolism. Beyond Bling! is the third in the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Culture Juice series of popular culture exhibitions. Three hundred pieces from the state and private collections chart Australian and international jewellery design, why we wear jewellery and whether, sometimes, it wears us.

A jeweller’s work is often conceived around the human form.

“They’re like sculptures that happen to be wearable,” says curator Robert Cook. The body is implied in the aperture of a bangle or the lobe-caressing curve of an earring hook. Negotiations between wearer and jewellery fluctuate: where one necklace seems an extension of person, like a bejewelled prosthetic, others deputise their wearers. Enter the Python: Munich-based artist David Bielander’s metre-and-a-half-long articulated snake necklace. This reptilian bijou writhes with the gestures of its wearer. “It’s ultra-performative and demanding,” says Cook. “Its wearer requires confidence and strength.”

Cinnamon Lee Thorn, 2011, 925 sterling silver, 1.26 x 2.47cm, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Peter Fogarty Design Fund, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2011.

John Nixon’s rings and necklaces strip jewellery right back: jewellery interacts with gravity, he reasons. It’s fastened to the body. After that, all bets are off. Nixon eschewed gemstones for “bits of string, second-hand chains or tin cans.” Once finished in the studio, these everyday materials evince elegance and poise. “It’s about not trying too hard, but trying enough,” says Cook.

Beyond Bling! charts uniquely Australian jewellery making.

When English designer David Walker discovered that Perth’s summer clothing wouldn’t support his heavy designs, he produced lighter, more open pieces. Renowned Western Australian-born jeweller Helen Britton used plastic and non-precious materials found while beachcombing, “connecting Perth to the external world.”

‘Bling’ stampeded into common use with 1990s rap. It indicated self-aggrandisement, newness and spotlessness. “Bling was a crass bourgeois reboot,” says Cook. “But immediately it softened.” Like a diamond worn on the same hand for decades, it became personal. Cook’s curation works back from bling, towards “craftsmanship, materials, and the slow, intimate work of the maker.”

Beyond Bling!
Art Gallery of Western Australia
13 October – 14 January

This article was originally published in the September/October issue of Art Guide Australia.

Sheridan Coleman