July 2012

Arts & Letters

‘Unexpected Pleasures’ at the National Gallery of Victoria

By Justin Clemens

‘Contemporary jewellery’ doesn’t simply mean jewellery that’s being made now. It’s also the name of a major international movement, beginning in the mid 1970s, in which jewellers started to experiment with the inherited limitations of their craft. Instead of churning out the diamond rings and golden tiaras, they started to rethink every aspect of jewellery – its material, size, colour, form, and relationship to the body and its environment. When you start to think seriously about the ubiquity and range of uses of jewellery, the implications are staggering. Has there ever been a culture that wasn’t obsessed with adornment?

Currently occupying the NGV’s new contemporary art space is a wild profusion of extraordinary works from this movement. Bolted down in specially designed viewing-cases or pinned to the walls, the pieces include multicoloured mixed-media brooches like bloated pink and green sea creatures, a necklace worn together with the dress from which it was made, and rings made from screws and nails. There are works fabricated from found materials: repurposed and rectified oxygen masks, milk bottles, and flotsam and jetsam washed up on a Thailand beach. At first, you might be taken aback by the unexpected use of materials and forms, but if you look closer – as you must, especially at the smaller pieces – the skill and ingenuity that went into them becomes clear.

Melbourne jeweller Susan Cohn has put together a significant retrospective of the contemporary jewellery movement, which is destined for London’s Design Museum in December, collecting over 200 works from around the globe. Proselytising in the best possible way, the show seeks not only to present little-seen or little-known works of contemporary jewellery, but to make a case for the creative impact and importance of jewellery itself, as a powerful art form. The exhibition catalogue shares this double ambition of seduction and education: its contents, from the punchy short essays by such luminaries as Deyan Sudjic, Peter Dormer, Liesbeth den Besten and Glenn Adamson, to the details of the works themselves, make a contribution to contemporary art and design criticism in general.

Unexpected Pleasures shows that jewellery – often considered too commercial to be art or too artistic to be truly commercial – is perhaps the art for our times. Jewellery is not just the production of precious objects, but a complex of social performances that implicates everybody. Crossing the high-tech with the handmade, industrial products with one-offs, and accessibility with snob-value, this exhibition presents contemporary jewellery at the height of its powers.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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