Melbourne has recently become the site of a radical jewellery practice that seeks to question the conventions of value, particularly in monetary form. This group sits within the marginal but globally diverse realm of contemporary jewellery.
The contemporary jewellery movement began in post-war Europe as a critique of preciousness. The aim was to liberate ornament from a purely monetary value. Rather than use only diamonds and gold, artists celebrated the preciousness of alternative materials, such as aluminium and plastic. While this was initially a way of giving value to labour, particularly creative innovation, recent jewellers have been more radical in questioning the basis of monetary value itself.
At Schmuck, the annual festival of ornament in Munich, the jeweller Stefan Heuser presented a work titled ‘The Difference Between Us’. It consisted of one hundred identical cast sterling rings. The only difference between them was the price, which ranged from $1 to $100 in dollar increments. While most rushed to buy the cheapest rings, a few chose prices for aesthetic reasons. Would you prefer a ring costing $49 or $88?
Ethical Metalsmiths from the United States promotes jewellery production that doesn’t involve environmentally damaging mining. In their ‘Radical Jewelry Makeover’ events, participants bring their unloved jewellery to be recycled into new original pieces. They receive a credit for their contribution, which goes toward purchasing a new piece. Money doesn’t have to change hands, just the bracelets.
Jewellery provides a way of deconstructing money as a material substance. In a recent survey of Latin American jewellery, Argentinean Elisa Gulminelli created a small sculpture that juxtaposed a mountain of pesos from the past with a tiny coin representing their current equivalent: today’s currency is tomorrow’s trash.
In New Zealand, Matthew Wilson has applied his Maori heritage to the fine weaving of metal. Alongside this, he has developed a striking technique of extracting the motifs of coins from their background. Out of mass manufactured articles, he has created individual works of art. There is something magical in the way he has liberated coinage from its heavy duty of exchange. His work brings into stark relief the enduring national symbols.
In Melbourne, a particular school of urban jewellery has evolved that seeks to make value out of nothing. This can involve collecting aged plastic from gutters, as Roseanne Bartley does in her Seeding the Cloud project, where she uses her Coburg neighbourhood to create an elegant necklace out of what the streets provide. Bartley is a New Zealand ex-pat who was originally taught bone-carving by a Maori in Auckland. She has specialised in using leftover materials, such as her series ‘Homage to Qwerty’ that made handsome jewels out of typewriter keys and strikers. She has been particularly interested in the sociology of jewellery as a way of connecting people together, even constructing human necklaces for a performance work. Seeding the Cloud employs the jeweller’s craft to create poetic expressions of place out of its detritus.
Caz Guiney, a colleague of Bartley’s, attracted controversy through a 2003 project that questioned of the notions of preciousness. Her project City Rings involved placing gold ornaments in secret locations around Melbourne’s CBD, a gold brooch on a rubbish bin, for example. This quickly became the topic of the day for talk radio, with accusations of government funding being thrown away on trash. Meanwhile, in an almost atavistic gold fever, prospectors scaled city buildings to find Guiney’s jewels. Guiney eventually had to call her project off to prevent law suits from those injured in the process. Since then, she has continued in a more modest way to plant jewellery in public urban spaces, short-circuiting the relationship between preciousness and private property.
More recently, the collective Part B has sprung up to realise jewellery ‘flash mob’ style events in the city. Last year, their exhibition titled ‘Burgled’ invited the public to come and steal works on display in a Melbourne lane. Another collective, Public Assembly, is located in the Camberwell Market and produces jewellery from curious vintage objects that visitors find in the nearby stalls. The resulting pieces can then be paid for by donation. For these collective jewellers, the worth is not in the materials themselves but the stories that people bring with them.
Of particular note is Vicki Mason’s Broaching Change Project, which is designed to introduce the idea of an Australian republic into everyday life by person-to-person contact. Mason has produced three beautifully made brooches based on the wattle, oregano and rose, as currencies of communal gardening. Despite their obvious value, she distributes these for free. The only proviso is that when someone notes how attractive these are, you are obliged to give them over, as long as they agree to do the same when it comes to them. Since the project started in early 2010, various hosts of these brooches have been contributing their comments about a garden-led republicanism.
This jewellery re-connects with ornament’s origins as a form of protection. In contrast with the pearls and diamonds that find a resting place on the bodies of the status-conscious wealthy—with little resale value—the power of amulets increases through circulation. ‘Southern Charms’, an exhibition opening next year at RMIT Gallery, includes charms newly designed by jewellers from Australia, New Zealand and Chile to bring luck to contemporary problems, such as school exams and environmental disaster.
It’s easy to dismiss much contemporary art as a means of constellating closed networks of cultural elites. Contemporary jewellery is even more vulnerable to this criticism through its association with status symbols like diamonds and pearls. But this is exactly where its power lies today, as a way of subverting fetishised forms of value.
Kevin Murray is an independent writer and curator and an adjunct professor at RMIT University. For links related to this article, see <www.craftunbound.net>.