The Implied Body Floortalk 2002
How can we read jewellery in the gallery? To understand jewellery we need a framework to hang it on. Jewellery has an intimate relationship with the body. In the gallery the implied body allows us to examine and interpret the works. To understand this we must first explore some basic issues. What is art? How do we observe art?
Why do we have art?
If we do not dig too deeply we can find a number of ways to answer this question. The old argument of "beauty" springs to mind. That is, the desire to have beautiful objects, sounds, words around us; to encapsulate ourselves from the wider world. Art we may say entertains us, stifles our boredom of the more mundane experiences of life. We could also argue that it is a way of expressing ourselves.
But all these answers have the same problem in that they do not define art. Are all the things that represent elements of beauty, or entertain us, are all these things art? Of course they are not. It could be beautiful and entertaining to jump from a plane with a parachute but it obviously is not art.
It is easy to discern what is not art. Block buster movies, pulp fiction, interior decorating and so on.
So what is art? We all have our views on this. Most of us consider the object to be art. However, the object is not the art. The object is the vehicle for art. Art is the thinking. The conversation between the artist and the viewer. Art is a language that can be read. Successful art uses a vocabulary and grammar that we are all familiar with to explore new ideas and to transport the viewer to a previously unknown conclusion.
What is it about art that makes it necessary to human existence?
Why do we look at art? Experience the arts? Why do we have literature, the visual arts, music? What is it about our human psyche that craves these things?
Without the arts life would be fairly dull. If we imagine a world without music or literature, without paintings or sculpture we imagine a void. The void that art fills may be a psychological or philosophical one. Art enables us to tap into a part of ourselves that is usually over- ridden by other demands. Art fulfills a longing within ourselves to step outside our everyday normal worldly restraints and can transport us to new experiences or understandings and make us think.
How do we observe art? How do we look at art that is different from the way we observe other visual forms? How can we differentiate between art and nature or other manmade objects?
A mystic views the world through a microscopic lens retaining and experiencing every detail. Most of us observe very little. We are relatively immune to our surroundings. They become common place. If you observe your environment in a concentrated manner it almost overpowers your senses. Study a leaf for a good five minutes. Observation reveals its perfect form and structure, its subtly of colour, the contours and the leaf's relationship to its environment. You begin to consider such things as its continuous transformation within its actual life span, as well as its evolutionary traits. We can experience nature and it can trigger a meaningful response but there is no direct communication between the object and the viewer.
If we look at manmade everyday objects, for example packaging, we begin to look beyond the obvious concerns of informing and branding- the familiarity of the packaging, you begin to experience the packaging in a fresh way. You notice the colour, the typography etc. Packaging can be visually interesting and evokes a sense of communication in that there is a message to be read. However this message is not a conversation but rather a instructional demand. "Buy me" is always the message of products.
Things we take for granted can be great sources of thought, beauty and intrigue so why do we have art?
There is a fundamental difference between art and other visual phenomena. We can experience natural and manmade objects, but art is primarily a communication. Art is a conversation between the artist and the viewer. It is between the minds of these two terminals that a current is created, and this is what we call art.
How do we look at art? How can we read art?
What happens? What do we do, when we are confronted by a painting, sculpture or jewellery in the gallery?
If we are unfamiliar with seeing jewellery in the context of the gallery it is helpful to consider how we read other forms of art. Just as a painting has a relationship with an actual or implied wall and sculpture has a relationship with an actual or implied circumambulating viewer, so jewellery has a relationship with an actual or implied body. The body or implied body is an integral part of a jewellery object. The implied body of jewellery in the gallery provides a framework for reading its meaning.
When we see paintings in the gallery we physically stand in front of them. We look at the paintings and decipher their meaning or intent. We allow ourselves to study aspects regarding the application of the paint, the colours, the context. We do not usually consider the wall- but the wall is an implicit part of the painting. The painting is a window to another place, space, or dimension. The wall is of the immediate realm. The placement of the painting on the wall is extremely important. Where and how it is hung denotes a great deal. If you were to hang a painting low to the floor or high, almost touching the gallery ceiling, it would change the context of that painting and alter your reaction to it. For example, the work "Orchis" by Caroline Rothwell , a work in the exhibition "Contingency of Vision" challenges our preconceptions regarding painting and 2-dimensional works. This work was displayed to us on the floor. We can not view this in the same manner as the wall of our consciousness has altered and we do not know where to put our feet.
With sculpture, we enter the space or environment, we walk around the sculpture. We attempt to observe the object from as many different angles as possible. We are interested in its form, its surface and its content. The size of the space and the positioning of the work in that space are extremely important. If we can not get around the sculptural work we feel cheated- that somehow our curiosity is not satisfied and that we are missing something. Of course, it may be the artists' intention to cheat us or to leave an important aspect of the work unrevealed. The point being , we need to see the whole of the object from as many different angles as possible to build up a collection of visual "stills" in our mind that enable us to register its form.
So as a painting has a wall and a sculpture a circumambulating viewer it is logical to infer that jewellery needs a body. In the gallery works are displayed predominately in cases and we read jewellery by reference to the body.
The brooch can have similar two-dimensional qualities to a painting but it is different in that it has an intimate relationship with the body not the wall. (Despite the fact that it may be pinned to the wall of a cabinet). We recognise that a brooch will be pinned to an article of clothing on the body and we can imagine the usual and obvious areas of the body where a brooch or badge resides. On our upper torso and sometimes on a hat. We do not usually place brooches on our backs. In fact brooches are designed to be worn over our hearts. Because the heart symbolises passion and what is dear to us, it is no coincidence that brooches appear here. It also should be noted that brooches and badges are placed in close proximity to the face; the general frame of reference for conversation and human interaction. This is interesting when we think about the purposes of badges or brooches. They are often signs representing political or ideological identity or signifiers of position, namebadges.
Where a brooch announces our intentions as a wearer, the ring postulates a relationship. The ring traditionally is a symbol of binding. The betrothed are bound to one another and this indicates a relationship of power. Rings also indicate the level of wealth of the wearer. In much of human history the rings worn by the aristocracy and ruling classes were large and contained precious stones. Often a large number were worn at any one time. This was an indication of their status, by recognising the idleness of their hands- that is the lack of manual work or for that matter work of any kind. You can view this as an advantage of their position or conversely a restraint. That by birth, they were bound by their position and the roles that this dictated, and were not free in either a practical or metaphorical sense.
In many ways the necklace is also about lack of freedoms and restraint. A necklace is worn around the throat and this conjures up images of strangulation. That a particular type of necklace is called a choker reinforces this thinking. The necklace is a symbol of restraint or restriction. The throat is the place of the breath and the voice. An obvious example is the wearing of neck bands by women of the Padaung in Burma. Worn as a symbol of beauty they elicit restraint, as neck is stretched, the chin is forced upwards and the voice is described as strangulated. If a woman commits adultery the bands are removed and there is a perception that the head will hang uselessly down. So while worn as a sign of prestige the bands also indicate a means of control. A necklace, especially one of considerable weight or length, can physically encumber the wearer and restrict freedom of movement. On a more symbolic or metaphorical level the cross or rosary reveals the control that religion has over the individual. While some necklaces do not physically restrain or restrict us they symbolise an intellectual or emotional restriction.
The crown is another symbol of the way in which an individual's concerns are outweighed by the concerns of a wider group. Positioned around the head the crown fits about the mind of the state. The monarchy is the ruling head. As a representative of the monarchy the individual has no personal freedom, no autonomy.
When we make or look at jewellery it is helpful to place such observations in the back of our minds. Observations such as these can help us to read the work and to address the artists/ jewellers' choice. Why do some jewellers predominately make brooches? Why are the mechanics of a necklace or a ring chosen in a particular piece of jewellery? What does this indicate about the jeweller and their intention?
As jewellers we must be aware of the relationship that jewellery has to the body. Often this is interpreted in a practical sense. There is an expectation that to be jewellery it must be wearable, and worn without difficulty. It is surprising how very little of contemporary jewellery questions the preconceptions of wearability. Jewellery can be worn, but uneasily so. If you wear a necklace or a ring that can restrain your movements than this says something about the intention of the maker. Too often contemporary jewellers do not consider the relationship that jeweller has with the body beyond the obvious.
How is jewellery displayed in the gallery?
The use of installation in conjunction with jewellery has become an ever- increasing area of interest in the field of contemporary jewellery and its representation in the gallery or similar forum. It often is unsuccessful. Either because there is a failure to address the dynamics between the objects, the jewellery and the environment, the installation or because, more fundamentally there is a failure to address and consider the reasons why jewellery is displayed in cabinets behind glass.
The initial reasons one may think of in relation to the use of the cabinet for display purposes are ones of security and safety. That the objects are small, often made of precious materials and easily transported make them temptations for theft. However this is not a meaningful reason to display jewellery behind glass as there are numerous inventive and ingenious ways in which to secure small works.
If we consider the cabinet to be a metaphor for the body we can begin to grasp some important ideas in regard to the role of the body and the jewellery. So, the cabinet is the body, the jewellery is adhered to it. Why the glass then? The glass represents not only a means of security or protection, more importantly it contains the level of intimacy that jewellery demands.
When a person wears a jewellery piece we are hesitant, or at least careful, in looking and even more so in touching the object. Because it is attached to the body we are aware of the wearer. By entering that personal space, through interaction with the jewellery, we are breaking a taboo. It is a rare person that does not have a sense of space. We could say that everyone walks about, especially in a public environment, with a glass case or shield that surrounds them and when that is infiltrated willingly or otherwise by another, an intimacy is either invited or repulsed.
The glass cabinet represents the body. The glass surface conjures up issues of intimacy making the viewer aware of this important aspect of jewellery. This implied body is fundamental to understanding jewellery.
Presenting jewellery outside the glass cabinet or box is fashionable in the field of contemporary jewellery. A number of exhibitions have addressed the possibilities of displaying work as installation. Some of these have been more successful than others. The fundamental problem is how to reconcile the impact of the installation to the impact of the jewellery. To place jewellery in an installation setting it must be done with extreme care. The concept behind the installation should have a well- developed relationship with the jeweller and vice versa. Above all the installation should add something that can not be expressed by the jewellery alone. Too often in contemporary jewellery the environment is ill conceived and this is apparent more so with installation works and undermines the implied body.
We can view jewellery as art when it meets the criteria and by increasing our understanding of the implied body we are able to read the work more competently.