What is contemporary jewellery?

8 06 2009

This was the title of the panel discussion held on 5th June 2009 in conjunction with ‘Schmuck 2009‘ exhibition at RMIT Gallery. On the panel were:

  • Wolfgang Losche – directory of SCHMUCK; Head of Department of Fairs and Exhibitions, Handwerkskammer fur Munchen und Oberbayern
  • Professor Robert Baines – Director of Research and Innovation in the RMIT School of Art; coordinator for postgraduate Gold & Silversmithing; internationally respected gold and silversmithing artist, researcher, academic and author; and ‘Living Treasure 2010‘; 2009 SCHMUCK finalist
  • Julia deVille – Melbourne-based jeweller, “inspired by the Memento Mori jewellery of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries and Victorian Mourning jewellery” (from her website); known especially for elements of taxidermy in her work; 2009 SCHMUCK finalist
  • Simon Cottrell – Melbourne-based jeweller, SCHMUCK finalist in 2001 and 2008

There was a good crowd – I’m not very good at estimating things such as this, but there may have been around 80 or more people – students, educators, makers, curators and other interested individuals.

Instead of giving a chronological run-down of the hour, I’ll cover a few of the highlights and interesting topics:

  • I learnt that SCHMUCK finalists are selected by one curator (this year 60 finalists from almost 600 applicants), who is different each year. Therefore, the work selected each year reflects not just the jewellery scene at the time, but inevitably also the personality and vision of the curator.
  • As a survey, particularly over the last ten or so years, Wolfgang felt that cultural or regional identities were becoming less and less obvious. There was a time when jewellery from Scandinavia or an Italian region was quite recognisable; but that with the immediacy of accessing images from around the world using the internet, ideas and aesthetics are becoming more ‘global’ in a sense, and less regionally specific.
  • When asked ‘what is jewellery?‘, Wolfgang good-naturedly responded that ‘a good answer is to visit the exhibition‘. This is quite a fair answer: there are 60 answers to that question in the exhibition. Though it is also fair to point out that one of the conditions of acceptance to the show is wearability, and there are some who argue that jewellery as an art form extends beyond this imposed definition – examples discussed included a ring made of ice which over the course of its exhibit melted into a puddle of water (I didn’t hear the artist’s name) and Roseanne Bartley’s performance works.
  • When the question is extended to ‘what is contemporary jewellery‘ it seems the answers are not so easy. Simon questioned the use of the term, as did Julia – both of whom have at times been told by others that their work doesn’t qualify as ‘contemporary jewellery’.
    Some see the use of the term as a means of modern makers divorcing from the goldsmiths tradition.
    This question made me think a lot – is the adjective ‘contemporary’ used to point to the art-value, the intent for the work to include an element of concept and intelligence, the intent for the work to be considered more worthy and more special than mass-produced Goldmark/Prouds/etc jewellery?
    I see it less as a desire to divorce from the traditions of the goldsmith, and more a desire to elevate the intent. Perhaps more pragmatically though, I also think it indicates that this jewellery is intended to be relevant, made in this time, perhaps referring to precedents but moving forward – after all, the dictionary does define ‘contemporary’ as “belonging to the same time; of the present time“.
  • Robert asked ‘what is jewellery and where is it going?‘ as an opening to his lament that the field is becoming ‘de-skilled‘ and that ‘anyone can go down to the bead-shop and make jewellery‘. He proposed that we are in another wave of the ‘democratising of jewellery‘; and was keen to generate a discussion about found- and collected-object work.
    Now, I admit that I sometimes get a bit lost when trying to follow Robert, but I think I can see the thread through his comments: that he is concerned traditional goldsmithing techniques are being discarded and no longer considered relevant in a world more interested in jewellery that looks like ‘anyone can do it’. Maybe?
  • Robert also challenged the selection of the three pieces awarded the Hoffman Prize. To which Wolfgang gave a considered and respectful explanation of the basis for each selection, including mentioning the strong technique and sensitivity of Sam Tho Duong’s neckpieces.
    In this discussion Simon highlighted that looking at the piece on a plinth is only part of the experience, and that handling and seeing the whole object, including the back, needs to be considered in determining the success of a piece (with particular reference to the brooch by winner Felix Lindner). An audience member expressed frustration at not being able to see the backs of pieces – I absolutely agree and this is something I’ve written about before.

It seemed to me that the attempt to define ‘contemporary jewellery‘ still eluded the collective crowd … but I’ll be thinking in through for some time yet. Anyone willing to share their experience of the discussion?

Update: between writing and publishing this post, Kevin Murray has also written about the discussion also here. I agree with him that an hour is not long enough, especially when it starts ten minutes late.

Update (9th June 2009): I have just found that Katherine Bowman also wrote a story titled ‘what is contemporary jewellery‘ yesterday – her discussion is a very good read and has many excellent ideas beautifully expressed.



2 responses

15 06 2009
Kevin Murray

Congratulations on the website Karen. It’s so important to have someone like yourself documenting all that goes on around jewellery in Melbourne – it certainly keeps you busy. It is good to read your own views particularly. Perhaps you can elaborate on how you view the issue of skill in contemporary jewellery – for a future post.

16 06 2009

Hi Kevin
Thank you for your kind compliment – the last few weeks certainly have been keeping me busy.
Given the passion with which both Robert and Johannes spoke of skill (which I interpreted as specifically ‘traditional’ skill) in jewellery and making, I have been giving it quite some thought lately. I am still sifting through my ideas and do intend to write more in a later post.
I hope to make it to the opening of the exhibition you’ve curated at Craft Victoria on Thursday night!

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