If ever I’ve been in Melbourne’s CBD and gripped by a raging depression there – the sight of the city’s lonesome downtown mall can do it to me, with its pavement guitarists dedicating themselves to another decade of distorted flamenco music and its trams carving through the strip like blind snails leaving trails down a moonlit driveway – I ascend to 4 Crossley Street, to Mari Funaki’s minuscule, near-ascetical Gallery Funaki, at what I suppose we Melbourne-folk would call the Tokyo-end of Bourke Street.
Gallery Funaki is the brainchild of Mari Funaki, who moved to Melbourne from Japan in 1979 and practised here, as a jeweller, sculptor and gallerist, until her death, this May, at the age of 59. She exhibited and sold the work of an international elite of contemporary jewellers in this tiny storefront gallery, including that of her own extraordinary practice. Visiting it always cheered and excited me, even if it also taught me a personal lesson (and a very small-town one, at that) in managing desire and its renunciation.
The exquisite and often spectacularly strange pieces of jewellery on show were pieces I coveted, though most often I wouldn’t – or, rather, couldn’t – buy them, but that didn’t stop me from looking. On three occasions I did buy from her: two Karl Fritsch rings and, years later, a steel brooch bought as a memento in some surreal days of grief after someone close to me had died. But most of my visits to Gallery Funaki were for the singular delights of ogling alone, because it wasn’t just the objects that fascinated but the sublime and startling way in which they were displayed.
Entering Gallery Funaki was like entering a glorious, fiercely accelerated future. The jewellery I saw there seemed to nod to the past – that artist knew about Pompeii’s unearthed trinkets; this one a hyper-parodic aesthetic, such as Liberace brought to the task of hammering Liszt from a Steinway; that one had idolised sleek, high-end, utopian architecture; another had passed an eye over some barely legal plastics experiments. However, after all these nostalgic detours, the pieces were engaged with something totally apart from history, something truly new, free of cliché and forged with wit and intelligence out of a reinvigorated memory-bank into a thrillingly original place.
Along the two opposing counters of the tiny gallery, you might see a show of a mere dozen rings, some admirably restrained, others not so, each piece resting, no, posturing, on a pea-sized throne of Blu-Tack wrought by Mari’s fingertips; each mouth-watering, multiform, pricey offering bedazzling on its duck-egg blue hump.
The current exhibit, curated by the delightful Katie Scott, who worked alongside Mari for five years and is the new director upon whom Mari bestowed the gallery, happens to show Karl Fritsch’s new collection of rings, each one secured atop a large dumpling of beige or olive plasticine. I urge you to visit, to witness what a master jeweller, a genius, can pull off with a DIY toolbox, a handful of cubic zirconia, carnelian, yellow diamonds and an operatic sense of drama.
On other days, the shelves crawled with Mari Funaki’s own memorable arthropod-like brooches, so long in the leg, so delicately executed and compelling in their blackness that you wished you had a baby on your hip to show them off to. Or, sometimes, the down-lights became “hooks”, from which Kiko Gianocca’s furred wool-ball necklaces, in the relaxed and comfortable shades of a koala’s pelt, hung like ceremonial garlands, waiting to be draped about the head of a North Fitzroy goddess.
And yet, for all the otherness of her gallery’s jewellery, Mari, herself, seemed shy. She was very thin, with an interesting curiosity playing about her face, and she was beautiful, dressed always with the striking simplicity and elegance befitting a cultured, artistic, Japanese woman. She was someone who respected you enough to acknowledge you as you entered the gallery but who then left you to look at the work without conversation, without pressure. Usually she would be at the rear of the room attending to business on her computer, but if you had questions or wanted to touch the works, she was right there, ready, with answers.
The Karl Fritsch ring I saw, and which my husband kindly bought after I bent his ear about it, was an extravagant wide-banded affair, heavy and clumsily faceted, as if a child had rolled out a strip of golden pasta, then marked it, studiously, with a cookie-cutter. I loved it immediately. As I slid it onto my thinnest finger, Mari said, “I’m amazed that that fits,” and while not insensitive to backhanded compliments, even I was genuinely surprised and pleased that it had gone on. Bewitched, I took it home and have prized it and the surprisingly small-enough finger it adorns ever since.
I knew how highly regarded Mari Funaki was as a jeweller and sculptor: her work resides in most state galleries in Australia and was twice awarded the Herbert Hofmann Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious jewellery prizes; her outdoor sculpture will soon be unveiled in the gardens of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra; and her eighth solo exhibition, of early and recent objects and sculpture, will show at Melbourne’s NGV at Federation Square from 6 August. I also knew that the jewellers she championed – Marian Hosking, Carlier Makigawa, Sally Marsland and Lisa Walker, Otto Kunzli, Warwick Freeman, Nel Linssen, Helen Britton and Simon Cottrell among them – were the biggest names in contemporary jewellery but it was while attending her memorial service in the Great Hall of the NGV last week and sitting amongst a very large crowd of people, most of whom were crying, that I understood how my own private pleasure in Mari Funaki’s gallery and work had been a tiny part of a large whole; I saw, in the attitudes of the people at that gathering, just how much this city had gained by having her choose to live and work within it.
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