The forest or the bush? Sources of enchantment in contemporary Australian jewellery
'The forest or the bush?: Sources of enchantment in contemporary Australian jewellery' JMGA Keynote Address, Adelaide (2008)
Once upon a time
A terrible famine has beset the land. A poor woodsman finds that he is unable to support his two children anymore. He makes the sad decision to abandon them deep in the woods. Brother and sister are on their own, surrounded by the dark forest and haunted by the sounds of mysterious creatures. On the third morning of their ordeal, starving and exhausted, they spy a snow white bird on a branch. It flies away and they follow, not knowing where they are going, but with desperate hope of salvation. Eventually the bird takes them to a clearing, where, lo and behold, they find a cottage made of bread and roofed with cakes. They try to look inside and discover that the windows are made from transparent sugar. Delirious with hunger, they can’t resist nibbling at the roof…
I hardly need continue this story. It would be a rare and rather deprived person in this room who had not been read the story of Hansel and Gretel as a child—whose young minds had not been stimulated by the wonder and fear of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
But we’re grown ups now. As a world, we’ve experienced our own version of abandonment in the woods. On September 11 2001, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York, killing 2,999 people, the world became a dark and ominous place, filled with potential terrorists. The new world order following the fall of the Berlin Wall was now riven in two by an even more violent force. We were abandoned to the threatening world of Al Queda, suicide bombers, and nasty dark hairy men who put Allah before human life.
So how have we fared in the forest of religious fundamentalism? Have we found a gingerbread house that offers deliverance from our plight?
One answer to this question comes from personal experience of the 9/11 tragedy. Residents in Manhattan were reported to have suffered great psychological trauma from their personal witness of the disaster. One couple found it particularly difficult to overcome their memories of the world falling apart around them. After many restless months, their lives are finally returned to normal with the advice of an old Navy friend. It’s simple, he says, ‘Do your job and read Harry Potter.’1
What an enticing, scrumptious and monumental gingerbread house it is! In the world of Harry Potter, justice defeats terror, adventure triumphs over security, and enchanted forest of Europe eclipses the barren desert sands of the Middle East. It was such a welcome antidote to the fears of September 11 that we would be forgiven for entertaining the fancy that the publisher had a hand in the conspiracy.
The Harry Potter juggernaut defies publishing history. JK Rowling has sold over 325 million copies of her books and the value of her brand alone is estimated at $14 billion, which is more than the GDP of Ethiopia. And there’s more. Once sated by Harry Potter, we have been blessed by a whole housing estate of gingerbread houses for our pleasure. We’ve had the cinematic revival of Lord of the Rings, the adult escape of Da Vinci Code, online game worlds such as the medieval WarCraft and countless fantasy films.
Enjoyable as it is, lurking in the back of our minds is a terrible thought. As we’ve been gorging on these fantasies, lapping up the magical feats of its heroes, are we actually being fattened up for a more terrible fate? Is the hyper-consumption encouraged by these fantasies of late capitalism blinding us to more sinister forces at play in the world, such as climate change or the unsustainable trade deficits in Western economies?
These are big questions. It might seem a little odd to be asking them at the beginning of a conference where we will be discussing jewellery, an especially diminutive art form. How does a solitary jeweller, sitting at the bench, filing a piece of metal, connect with the world of international politics and global terror? They would seem to be worlds apart. Or is the very distance what connects them together? Or is it the opposition between the innocent world of jewellery and the world of global politics outside that connects them together, like the office and the beach?
In this paper, I’d like to use the role of Harry Potter in the 21st century as a key to understand the meaning of that emerging form of local craft which we might call ‘jewellery of the forest’. I mean by this, jewellery that features flora and fauna of the northern woods, particularly associated with the world of fairy tales. I believe that the kind of jewellery being produced around and in response to this theme says a lot about our journey into the 21st century. It also has much to say about the broader dynamics in the jewellery scene in our corner of the world, both in Australia and New Zealand.
There are hazards in this inquiry. It is perilously easy to come to a quick judgement about the escapism that seems at play in promoting an exotic foreign landscape. To forestall a simplistic moralistic response to the jewellery of the forest, I propose to take a journey of discovery through one small nook of the jewellery scene in Australia.
So let’s embark on a journey. Let me take you along a route that features some quite picturesque jewellery glades in Melbourne. Let’s look at the variety of work that we can find there, both retail and gallery based. I promise not to abandon you in the midst of confusion or kitsch. Take some crumbs of doubt if you are suspicious of my intentions. Our quest is to find a common ground that brings out world together.
A day trip
So let’s embark on a brief day trip through the city where I and a number of other people here live, Melbourne. While we will find features that are peculiar to Melbourne, I expect there are parallel scenes in other cities from our part of the world.
We emerge at the gateway to Melbourne, Flinders Street Station. It’s hardly the most picturesque place to start. We are forced to make our through an open sewer of cheap merchandise known as Swanston Street. From the bleary nostalgia of Young & Jacksons pub, we hurry past shops bursting with cheap pins made in China featuring characterless koalas or kangaroos. It’s strictly for tourist tragics, loud Americans in shorts and aimless Scandinavian backpackers. As locals we wouldn’t be seen dead in any of these shops. But for us now, it’s a sobering reminder of the disconnection between local nature and authenticity.
Finally, we reach Collins Street and make our escape on a tram to Fitzroy. Now we are in more comfortable surrounds, on a street were many of the new craft boutiques have opened. It is in boutique strips like Gertrude Street that we find refuge from the global warehouses of Bunnings, K-Mart and IKEA. Shopping here is a personal experience. Along Gertrude Street, we can enjoy direct contact with the origins of our purchases. The person in the shop is likely to be friends with the person who made its contents, if not the maker him or herself.
So we enter one of the pioneers of this strip, Little Salon, a shop selling fashion, jewellery and handmade objects. The shop was developed five years ago by jewellery designer Geniene Honey and has a distinctive woodlands feel. But it’s hardly a branch of the Wilderness Society. The interior is overtly veneered, featuring a moose head made from layers of laser-cut wood. It’s an idyllic forest scene of Bambi’s, Robbins and little girls. Honey’s jewellery itself is an assemblage of laser-cut wood and acrylic components. Her Walking Girl is taken from a children’s book and constructed from eight pieces, hand-painted and riveted.
Little Salon is doing pretty well for itself. To cope with demand, 200 of the Walking Girl are made at a time. Despite many references to nature, the world of Little Salon has more in common with the pages of children’s books than anything experienced in the greater outdoors.
Next we cross Brunswick Street and find Alice Euphemia, one of the most fashionable retail outlets displaying fashion and jewellery. The front window promotes work by Dell Stewart, whose jewellery features simple cartoon-like logs. These are crude two dimensional renderings as far away as possible from the naturalistic encounter with trees. They continue the vein of Little Salon, through in an even more reduced and flatter style.
Also in Alice Euphemia we find the series ‘lost in the woods’ by local designer Simon MacEwan. His brooches are quite elaborate devices reflecting the intricate worlds of children’s books. Here the creatures literally embody the world in which they live. MacEwan’s work is more elaborate in design, but deliberately flat and acrylic in construction.
We could continue further along Gertrude Street, but we are likely to continue the same vein. It is tempting to go further, to visit the intriguing jewellery outlets around in Brunswick Street, such as Studio Ingot and Pieces of Eight, but our time is limited.
We have discovered an enchanted street offering sanctuary from the world of global capital. Here is a ‘jewellery of the forest’ that is resolute in its artifice. It references the unreal world of fairy tales and is constructed from largely unnatural plastics. So how should we evaluate this kind of work? Is it the fleeting fashion of a young fashionable set? Or is it saying something more about how we locate ourselves in the world?
Let’s move now to a more established jewellery scene embedded in the small streets and lanes of Melbourne. What kind of ‘jewellery of the forest’ appears there?
The contemporary jewellery outlet e.g.etal was established by Ali Limb and Emma Goodsir nearly ten years ago. They have two galleries in the city—e.g.etal in Little Collins Street outlet exhibits more everyday wearable pieces and the Flinders Lane venue for more one-off pieces and special occasions such as wedding and engagements. e.g.etal has probably sustained the careers of more jewellers than any other outlet in Melbourne. What kind of jewellery of the forest do we find here?
According to e.g.etal co-owner Ali Limb, this trend is enduring. ‘I think the interest in fairy tales and fantasy creatures with jewellers is ongoing, perhaps because these are things that fuel all our imaginations but as makers of small intimate objects, (that can also potentially be worn), jewellers are fortunate enough to work in a medium that is suited to exploring these ideas and bring them to life.’ In e.g.etal, the jewellers are encouraged to consider themselves artists as well as designers.
Jennifer Martin is a young jeweller from RMIT whose work combines retail and exhibition work. Her brooches evoke an enchantment similer to Simon MacEwan’s pieces, though her materials suggest other meanings. She has a series of work that draws on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the princess and the pea. The swan from this set is partly constructed by a shell, taken from an extensive personal beachcombing collection that Martin developed since she was a child.
It’s not just the subject that is important to Martin. The materials and how they are manipulated is intrinsic to the meaning of her work. As well as found objects, felt is an important material in her jewellery, which she connects with the self-made shamanism of Joseph Beuys. Martin adds depth to her work through repousse and engraving.
Martin has noted that her work often attracts a question about its Eurocentrism. Her response to this criticism identifies an essential Australian condition of always ‘looking to the other’. While evoking a similarly enchanted landscape as Gertrude Street work, for Martin the materials she works with play an important role in the meaning of the work.
At first glance, Anna Clynes’ work reminds us of the cut-out work from Gertrude Street. But on closer inspection, we notice that the materials and subject are quite different. Her works are made from recycled stainless steel and inlaid with silver. The references include flora from her rural surroundings.
Clynes seems the antithesis of Gertrude Street. Clynes tours extensively throughout Australia, from Northern Territory and north-western Australia parks to East Gippsland. Her studio is located in a wildlife shelter where she works four days a week. Clynes’ turn to the bush came during a residency in the Netherlands, in response to what was experienced as a frightening absence of wilderness. Her horizon now is pre-contact Australia; as she writes ‘The closer the landscape is to how it may have been before white settlement, the better.’2 The romantic ideal of authentic contact with nature marks a stark difference with the mediated world of Gertrude Street.
On a more Gothic note, we have the taxidermy jewellery of Julia deVille. By contrast with the sylvan worlds evoked thus far, deVille’s work is deliberately macabre. There’s irony in the use of death’s everyday harvest of mice and birds to create pieces at once mournful and precious.
Finally, we have Anna Davern’s Australiana jewellery drawn from secondhand materials like biscuit tins. Perhaps even more disturbing than deVille’s trophies, Davern brings us back to the dangerous world of craft kitsch.
Her previous series, Muster, featured kangaroo brooches cut from biscuit tins. The contrast between form and content provided a telling irony that helped counterbalance any easy recourse to kitsch.
Her recent series Interventions juxtaposes Australiana with imagery imported from England and America. For Davern, they are ‘part comment on cultural intervention, part humorous acknowledgement of the hybrid nature of contemporary Australian culture.’ In this context, Davern appears somewhere in between the fanciful worlds of Jennifer Martin and the authentic encounter of Anna Clynes.
So moving ‘up market’, we have noted a consistent thread of interest in the enchanted world of nature linking the young and professional scenes. When we look at the jewellers in e.g.etal, however, we find also layers of romance and irony used to frame nature. These layers of meaning are partly contained in the choice of materials, which is usually quite personal to the jeweller. Gertrude Street seems largely free from the value of authenticity that informs work found in the city.
Let’s take one final step up the ladder. The pinnacle of art jewellery in Melbourne can be found in Crossley Street, a tiny thoroughfare that contains bespoke tailors, art galleries and Funaki Gallery. Funaki Gallery provides jewellers with the opportunity to present their work for collection as well as private consumption. The austere modernism of the Funaki aesthetic appears at the opposite extreme to the fanciful worlds of Gertrude Street. But even here we find a kind of jewellery of the forest.
The artist closest to the forest is Marian Hosking. Hosking takes a diaristic approach to jewellery, using silver as a medium to bear impressions of the immediate world that she experiences. Her nature is not necessarily exotic. Like other artists interested in using materials at hand, she can draw from her immediate environment, such as the necklace made from angophora, a plant found in her Kew driveway.
But recently she has attempted something monumental which sits outside her normal practice as defining gesture. Hosking’s quest to reflect her natural world has reached its epic culmination in The Tall Tree Project (2005-2007). This work involved casting a silver ring around the girth of an enormous Gippsland Errinundra Shining Gum, 17.5 metres in diameter.
Hosking sought to honour this monumental organism using the microscopic language of metal. Her work enacts a transformation of scale from massive to minor, from organic to metallic, and from eye to hand. In this endeavour, Hosking brings a token of the sublime into a human scale. Her method accentuates tactility. She pushed strips of pink wax into the surface of the tree, which were then cast into silver strips and assembled according to a plan drawing.
The result, displayed at Object Galleries, is both monumental and private at the same time. The ring takes up most of the circular space of the gallery, testifying to the size of the tree. But the exhibition affords visitors with the opportunity to closely inspect the fine grain of the cast silver. The tactile nature of this response is quite different to the more graphic qualities of other jewellery.
With Hosking we find a more modernist strategy which allows direct experience guide the making. Rather than rely on pre-fabricated imagery, Hosking has developed techniques for creating her own forms in response to nature. She has created her own distinctive way of working with silver through sawing and casting. Her work is not characterised by overt quotation. Hosking’s jewellery of the forest is the result of a modernist aversion to tradition and strong commitment to make things real.
The raw and the cooked
So what have we discovered in this journey? In this brief survey of one corner of the jewellery world we have uncovered a range of jewellery of the forest. This range is well represented by the beginning and end points—from the very constructed narratives of Geniene Honey to the raw works of Marian Hosking? Clearly they are coming from very different worlds.
One seeks a highly mediated nature that seems disconnected to the physical world in which she inhabits. The other aspires for an almost transparent relation to nature, in which its material presence can be seen to speak through the work. Their difference says something important about the broader ecology that jewellery inhabits.
Their difference can be partly attributed to the different audiences that they invoke. Honey’s creativity includes retailing and understanding what a Gertrude Street clientele will find appealing. On the other hand Hosking works within an academic context; she can afford to operate in a seeming more autonomous world of international jewellery, where her work appeals to a specialist collector audience spread throughout the globe.
No doubt their different audiences have some bearing on their different references. A local audience is more wary of Australian kitsch and seeks to distance itself from tourists. Whereas an international audience might find it strange to find an Australian jeweller using references to the northern hemisphere.
While these sociological differences are clearly at play, there is also a generational difference. Little Salon is part of a broader collective experience which brings the European forest to the local gallery and shop. It could be argued that as lifestyles become more urbanised and computer-mediated, there is less connection to the traditional romantic view of nature. Nature is more the source of form and pattern than direct experience. By contrast, Gallery Funaki supports largely independent artists working within a more traditional studio setting. It exists as an exception to popular trends.
Despite these differences, what we see are jewellers fabricating more than simple ornaments from glittering gems and metals. Here are jewellers interested to bring another world to our body—a world that is at odds with the daily concerns of urban existence.
Following out quest to understand the jewellery of the forest, we have found it resonate with more upmarket jewellery in the focus on nature and use of cut-out techniques. However, its resolute artificiality seems to sharply distinguish Gertrude Street jewellers from others. Let’s explore a little further to see how this work may fit into what’s happening now. In focusing exclusively on jewellery, we are in danger here of not seeing the wood for the trees. Our journey thus far has not been sufficient to understand the dynamics at play in the jewellery of the forest.
Let’s pull back and take a broader view of what’s happening in the arts.
Return to the forest
If we venture beyond the charmed circle of jewellery outlets, we quickly find other cultural outposts in Melbourne that seek to invoke a world emerging from an enchanted past.
Just beyond Fitzroy, there’s a shop in Clifton Hill that uses a specific historical association of the forest as a context for a wide variety of craft. Hercynia Silva, run by Viveka de Costa and Michael Conole, is named after seeming endless expanse of forest in Germania that blocked the advance of the Romans. Conole came across the name in Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory and felt that the name ‘evokes a forest with a powerful human past and it is the archaeological and ethnographic aura of this place that we felt hinted at our preoccupations.’ The shop contains an eclectic assortment of craft, including furniture, banjos and vintage jewellery, much of which is sourced from Blackwood found on a farm in Trentham.
Hercynia Silva reflects the very German nature of the forest in our cultural inheritance. In 1813, the Grimm Brothers set off to gather wisdom of the German folk and found a consistent reference to the forest. This became the central motif of Romantic nationalism, associated with German military defiance and oak-cults and general forest-mindedness (Waldbewusstsein).3 The rigours of life in the forest were seen to promote virtues of hardiness in the German character.
What’s particularly curious about Hercynia Silva is the construction of a German identity for selling work that might otherwise be associated with bush themes. What does the German forest offer that the bush cannot? Might it be something to do with German-ness itself?
We German-ness invoked beyond the forest in another new boutique craft outlet located improbably in the heart of Melbourne’s legal district. Wunderkammer is named after the cabinets of wondrous objects collected by gentlemen scholars from the Renaissance onwards. As well as featuring the curios and monstrosities normally found in traditional Wunderkammer, it also displays work by artists Chris Henschke and Donna Kendrigan. Their kinetic and animatronic optical art devices evoke a nineteenth-century wonder for the mechanics of illusion.
Their work might be classified as ‘old new media’, being interested in the invention of alternative modes for presenting the image while situated in a nostalgia for pre-digital mechanisms. While the architecture of the Wunderkammer may be far from the natural environment of the European forest, they are both sources of enchantment translated back to an urban centre like Melbourne.
We might go further, beyond German-ness itself, and look at the way the broader design scene has embraced enchantment. The exhibition Drips and Thickets by Alice Lang and Kirra Jamison at Blindside (5 - 28 April 2007) is a typical example of the kind of design emerging from Melbourne galleries, featuring the omnipresent owls. In the catalogue essay, Zoë De Luca invokes the neo-baroque:
Art Nouveau posters, wallpaper design, Baroque, Rococo and contemporary art, literature, myths and fairytales, are all duly recycled into her work and geared to evoke emotion and inspire imaginings.
This urban forest glories in excess and wonder. As expression of the baroque, it celebrates surface detail and suggestions of mystery.
On the international stage, this baroque turn in design is best exemplified by the Dutch designer Tord Boontje, who is seen as injecting an antidote to sterile Italian modernism. Baroque design today seems like our version of the Memphis push that emerged in the 1980s to overturn what seemed an overly serious attachment to nature in craft.
In Melbourne, this baroque turn is associated with experimentation and innovation in design practice. A good example in a much less nostalgic vein is the work of Dylan Martorell. Martorell’s practice defies simple classification. He is at once graphic artist, designer and performer. His t-shirt designs reflect the fantastic worlds of children’s illustration. A consistent motif is the elaborate forms that have become so popular with Australian designers of late—deer antlers. His dream-like productions resist any simple reduction to a single creative strategy or political message. Martorell creates psychedelic worlds meaningful in their own terms. We see strong association here with illustrations of children’s author Maurice Sendak.
So we can see a place for jewellery of the forest in a broader baroque trend in design. What are the ideas and values behind this trend? While the history of the baroque is associated in the West with the counter-reformation, its emergence in contemporary art and fashion seems relatively devoid of values. It seems more a fashion statement in defiance of earnestness. While as Australians we are often reluctant to identity big ideas in our work, there is often a hidden philosophical subtext at play.
If we move still further out, exploring the way enchantment is championed in other countries, we find a particular interpretation of its place in the world. Given the very German association of the forest in our imagination, there is a path that leads back to the origins of romanticism in the experiences associated with wild nature in regions such as the Black Forest. In contemporary German art, there has been the inevitable proclamation of a ‘new romanticism’. Such a movement seeks to counter the gritty realities of 21st century life and seek to renew the power of art as a source of relief from the soulless reality of global consumerism. A key reference here is the 2005 exhibition Ideal Worlds - New Romanticism in Contemporary Art at Shirn Gallery, Frankfurt. With allusions to Caspar David Friedrich, the catalogue essay outlines the context:
Sated with bad news, war reports, and devastating images of terror, people begin to search for places offering protection and refuge. The wish for ways out, for ideals, and for sheltering perspectives becomes more and more urgent—and ends up in the yearning for an ideal world.4
The sentiment here reflects the original emergence of romanticism in the nineteenth century, where artists disillusioned by revolutionary politics sought to transfer the theatre of struggle to the world of the imagination.
In her book, The Reenchantment of Art, the American art critic Suzie Gablik has given this a new-age twist in a quest for spiritual renewal that seeks to counter the sterility of modernism.5 Following a similar line, fantasy fiction writer Ursula le Guin heralds the re-discovery of fantasy fiction by adults as a victory against 'unconscious maturismo'.
Discouraged by critical prejudice, rigid segregation of books by age and genre, and unconscious maturismo, many people literally hadn't read any imaginative literature since childhood.6
Childhood here presents a challenge to a regimented world, where freedom of imagination is ground out of us by the mechanised and spiritless world of adult work. Through play and fantasy we can subvert the matrix.
These are noble motives, but they seem a long way from the crass consumerism of the Harry Potter machine. The English novelist A.S. Byatt dismissed Harry Potter novels as lacking genuine mystery and being more influenced by celebrity culture.7 Other literary critics have given this culture of re-enchantment their strong support. The Melbourne literary critic Peter Craven argued that the fantasy film Eragon should not be dismissed as commercial escapism—that these kinds of films returned us to our cultural roots. He writes:
Fantasy is about the triumph of the good and the dream of restoring order. Kids like fantasy because it carries them back to the Christian bedrock on which our civilisation is based or to the tremendously articulated forests of folklore that interpenetrated it and grew up around it.8
Certainly it is the common practice, at least in Western countries like Australia, of reading European fairy tales to children. This bedside education has introduced the adventurous space of the outside adult world through the eyes of the brothers Grimm.
The German poet Schiller wrote: ‘Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.’9 There is scholarship to reinforce the seriousness of these archetypal children’s stories.
Bruno Bettleheim devoted his book Uses of Enchantment to the appreciation of the function that fairy tales perform in enabling children to deal with the challenges of growing up. In Bettleheim’s reading, the forest symbolises the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through; where uncertainty is resolved about who one is; and where one begins to understand who one wants to be. He writes:
In many European fairy tales the brother who leaves soon finds himself in a deep, dark forest, where he feels lost, having given up the organization of his life which the parental home provided, and not yet having built up the inner structures which we develop only under the impact of life experiences we have to master more or less on our own.10
So, despite the foreignness of the European forest, its place in our imagination as a symbol of adventure is critical to our sense of self. Far from escapist, contemporary art that evokes this work is returning us to fundamental themes of selfhood.
It is tempting to end our journey here. We have here a comforting defence of the jewellery of the forest as part of a broader cultural push for re-enchantment, seeking to return to the universal verities of life, as encoded in the fictional world of German forests. But perhaps it’s a little too comforting. Does this mean that for those of us living at the bottom of the world we are destined to be forever living our imaginations in such a totally alien environment? Is like this our summer Christmas of fake snow and sweating Santa Claus, a pathetic failure to confront the singularity of our place on the other side of the world? While the forest might provide a rich source of stories that create a common base for our identities, does it also function to exclude those outside the Western tradition?
The other side of the argument identifies a deep conservatism in sources of enchantment such as the forest. Recent research has shown that part of the program of German Nazi sympathisers in Australian during the 1930s was to seek ways of locating the virtues of the German forest in the Australian native bush.11 On a literal level, Harry Potter celebrates the world of English aristocracy, particularly in the eccentric world of public schools.
In the context of Australian recent history, the art of enchantment can be seen as reinforcing a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ nation. In this crusade against political correctness, the government of John Howard sought to confirm aspirational consumerism and deny the responsibility of what might cause that world to question itself, such as global warming, indigenous Australia and global inequality.
It is clear that a political reading is not favourable to the jewellery of the forest. While such a theme might seem to have potential ecological overtones, its denial of local environment may be seen to enforce our consumer-mediated relationship to the world. But this theme does have other readings which focus more on its aesthetic energies.
The quest to incorporate the jewellery of the forest into a common story appears to have struck an obstacle. The doubt has been raised that this new fashion in body ornament might quietly be aligned with a Eurocentrism that excludes other cultures. Is there an alternative way of understanding this trend in a way that is not tied specifically to its content?
I proposed we now return to the craft context, though this time with a detour into a movement that to an extent appears the antithesis of jewellery of the forest. Using the force of dialectic, a move to its opposite can engender a better sense of its identity.
Opposed to the fantastic worlds of the forest, we find the contrary push to the found materials of the everyday. In the book Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious, I identified a strain of recent work that adopted a more realist method in commitment to found materials. As a creative modality, poor craft can be seen alongside other arts of necessity, such as poor theatre and the Dogma films of Lars von Trier. The artist tries to create work from what lies at hand, rather than prefabricated forms. It is ultimately a modernist quest to return to the originating spirit of its medium.
Australian jewellers contributed strongly to the 19 artists gathered in this story. It included the Gatherer Ari Athans, Fossickers Roseanne Bartley and Sally Marsland, Alchemists Stephen Gallagher and Mark Vaarwerk, Dissector Tiffany Parbs and Liberator Caz Guiney. There were strong differences in practice between these jewellers, from the technical experimentation of Mark Vaarwerk to the poetic conceptualism of Sally Marsland.
But while representing a vigorous and ongoing field of practice in Australia, ‘poor craft’ is certainly not characteristic of the entire scene. As we can see, it’s commitment to the everyday represents an antithesis to the kind of work that we have identified as the ‘jewellery of the forest’.
So using the economic metaphor of ‘poor craft’, can we see the jewellery of the forest in the broader context of a ‘rich craft’?
At this point in our journey, I call upon the magic of our own Lord of the Rings, that purveyor of the baroque who has forged the careers of so many young jewellers. I refer of course, to Robert Baines. It seems almost obscene to reduce Baines work to a rhetorical move. Yet this irreducibility is the critical element of his work in this context. Baines work contains a dizzying excess. His techniques are drawn from the rich history of ornamentation, including filigree and granulation. But rather than be captive to archaeology, Baines upsets the past with the intervention of the colour red. Baines describes red as his ‘what if’ colour.
Take as an example his Java le Grande. It is an extraordinary elaborate work that demonstrates Baines’ mastery of both technique and invention. Baines’ ring evokes the ornamental excess of the baroque empires that spread through the new world. Here is an opportunity to think what might have happened if Australia had been caught up in this sweep. Baines includes references to the mythology of the mahogany ship, the Portuguese vessel supposedly wrecked of the coast of Western Victoria.
Baines has attempted to reproduce the techniques that would be associated with an authentic relic of such a history. The beaded surface is produced with swaged wire in conformity with the 12th century treatise by Theophilius Presbyter. But Baines corrupts this near perfect adherence to history with the use of red car paint that is sprayed over the bracelet. There is an echo here of the way rust corrodes metal, but the bright signal red colour contradicts aging. Baines seems to be at pains to defy reality in his work.
The world that he engages with is not our immediate reality. His work inhabits alternative worlds—histories that never happened, lost classical realms, etc. While Baines is not dealing with forest themes itself, his work can be seen alongside the art of enchantment as a methodology for enhancing our reality, rather than reflecting it.
How rich and poor meet
Despite alternative schemes of communism and capitalism, it is difficult to foresee a world where differences between rich and poor would be levelled. Thus it is critical to imagine how a dialogue might exist between them that is characterised by mutual respect.
Between rich and poor craft we find a dialogue between baroque and modernist methodologies. The baroque seeks to build on what’s given to create an alternative reality that enriches this world. The modernist attempts to discover this world anew and open our eyes to the mysteries at hand. There are jewellers working at the extremes of this difference, such as the baroque Robert Baines and the modernist Marian Hosking. Some seek to combine techniques, such as Anna Davern who brings the imagery of foreign lands into the commonplace. The result of this is usually ironic.
I feel we are getting a little closer to home here. With the hope of accepting the alternative paths of rich and poor, baroque and modernist jewellery, we need to imagine a cultural scene like Australian jewellery as a dialogue between two opposing forces, rather than a singular thematic.
In the final stage of our journey, I propose a detour to land with whom we share our corner of the world, which of late has come to be identified so literally with the fantastic world of Lord of the Rings.
The New Zealand comparison
We are lucky to have Damian Skinner’s highly nuanced reading of the contemporary jewellery responses to the New Zealand Stone, Bone and Shell movement.12 His explication of Pakeha identity is not a crude reduction of culture to a singular experience. He has been able to develop an understanding of Pakeha as a context for presenting the individual creative interventions of jewellers like Warwick Freeman, Lisa Walker and Jason Hall.
The comparison between New Zealand and Australian sense of place is not as simple as paua shell versus deer antlers. It is a difference squared. It is an opposition of oppositions. The dialogue between complex and simple, rich and poor, cosmopolitan and local, in Australian jewellery, seeks a matching dialogue in New Zealand.
Damien Skinner argues that New Zealand jewellery is haunted by the experience of colonisation, with Pakeha themes reflecting a gothic fascination with the sinister aspects of settlement. It seems part of a broader challenge to find a place alongside a dominant Maori culture without being seen to take it over. Therefore many jewellers ostentatiously use inauthentic materials, such as Lisa Walker’s reference to sheep rather than kiwi, Warwick Freeman carving with corian rather than pounamu, and Jason Hall borrowing the designs of iron lacework rather than koru. It is especially interesting to see the role of Germany, particularly Munich, in creating this space for inauthenticity.
So here finally is a path back to our common ground, in which we might be able to situate the jewellery of the forest. New Zealand jewellery can be understood as a dialogue between inauthentic and indigenous materials. By contrast, in Australia our place is rendered into adornment within a dialogue between the real world and its other—the simple at hand and the complex in the imagination. Both Australian and New Zealand scenes reflect a dialogue between truth and fiction, though in Australia there isn’t as coherent a body of Indigenous jewellery to set the agenda for its non-Indigenous visitors.
There is an essential truth in this dialogue, or rather a necessary lie. This world is an encounter between thing and its shadow, the object and its name, each belonging to separate orders of reality. The appreciation of their inexorable difference is what Slavoj Zizek terms the ‘parallax view’. One cannot exist without the other, but nor can one be reduced to the other.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that ‘We have art so that we do not perish from the truth’. The great German philosopher of the forest, Martin Heidegger, responded that:
… order for the real to remain real, it must on the other hand simultaneously transfigure itself by going beyond itself, surpassing itself in the scintillation of what is created in art—and that means it has to advance against the truth. While truth and art are proper to the essence of reality with equal originality, they must diverge from one another and go counter to one another.13
In rich and poor craft, we find the versions of the dialogue between art and truth that Heidegger invokes. This dialogue has its specific realisation in the opposition between baroque and modernist paths in Australian jewellery. It is this dialogue through which contemporary Australian jewellery might be seen to engage with place—a dialogue between the place of our immediate world and the realm of dreams. It parallels the reformation split between Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity; one offering the transcendent power of distant Rome and the other enabling a spirit in the immediate everyday.
So we conclude with the challenges faced by each of the two houses in jewellery.
For those who work with enchanted landscapes, whether the forest, the jungle, Antarctica or the nostalgic past, there is the potential to add something extra. You offer free range for the imagination, and opportunity to extend technique and expression of materials. But overuse can be a bad thing. Without counterbalance, rich craft becomes decadent. You can become disconnected from our own world. A comfort zone eventually becomes a white fortress. Your challenge is to find a way back to reality.
And for those content with the humble cottage, there is the contrary challenge. Poor craft on its own does limit horizons and restrict the range of materials your might use. It closes the door on the fantastic world of dreams that are as essential to your experience of things as reality itself. Your challenge is to lift the world at hand beyond the mundane.
But while many are content to stay in their chosen realm, the gingerbread house or the humble cottage, we should not forget that it is possible to travel between these. The Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou has recently produced a series of work that features the myth of the lost child in the Australian bush—our more tragic version of the Hansel and Gretel story. While providing a realist counterbalance to the baroque forests taking over Melbourne, Papapetrou is careful to maintain the artificiality of her scenes. The dramatic lighting ensure that we are aware these works are deliberately staged for the camera. It would be interesting to think what kind of jewellery might combine this level of realism and artifice.
So this that distant path disappearing into the horizon, we can now relax with the sense of a common ongoing story in which to situate the jewellery of the forest. Like Hansel and Gretel, we hopefully emerge from our fabulous encounter with the forest and return back to the real challenges of putting bread on the table.
Thus all their troubles were ended, and they lived happily ever afterward.
My story is done. See! there runs a little mouse; anyone who catches it may make himself a large fur cap out of it.
Thanks greatly to the participating artists and jewellery outlets for their assistance in this paper.
1 Source: Harry Potter, September 11th and Me http://allday.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/07/29/296563.aspx
2 Personal email 11/1/2008
3 Michael Imort ‘A Sylvan people: Wilhelmine forestry and the forest as a symbol of Germandom’, in (ed. Thomas Lekan and Thomas Zeller) Germany’s Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005, p. 59
5 Suzi Gablik The Reenchantment of Art London: Thames & Hudson, 2002
6 Ursula Le Guin 'Imaginary friends' New Statesman www.newstatesman.com/20061218004 (18/12/2006)
7 AS Byatt ‘Harry Potter and the Childish Adult’ New York Times 7/7/2003 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A02E4D8113AF934A35754C0A9659C8B63
8 Peter Craven ‘Lands of make-believe’ The Age 14/12/2006 http://www.theage.com.au/news/film/lands-of-makebelieve/2006/12/14/1165685824921.html
9 Quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Schiller
10 Bruno Bettleheim The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1978, p. 93
11 Emily Turner-Graham “Never forget that you are a German”: Die Brücke, Deutschtum and National Socialism in interwar Australia University of Melbourne, unpublished doctoral thesis, 2006
12 See Damian Skinner ‘Claw of the uncanny: Identity politics in the jewellery of Warwick Freeman, Peter McKay, Lisa Walker and Jason Hall’ Craft Culture http://www.craftculture.org/World/dskinner1.htm
13 Martin Heidegger Nietzsche Vol1: The Will to Power as Art (trans. D.F. Krell) New York: Harper Collins, 1991 (orig. 1937), p. 216
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray