Sunday, June 7, 2009

what is contemporary jewellery

contemporary adj. 1. belonging to the same time; existing or occurring at the same time. 2. of the same age or date. 3. of the present time. 4. Colloq. In the most modern style; up-to-date…

Last week I went to a lecture at RMIT put on in conjunction with The Schmuck 2009 exhibition at RMIT Gallery. The lecture was called “What is Contemporary Jewellery".

I often ask myself this question.
My thoughts on this are varied, sometimes jumbled, but here is an attempt to sort through some ideas.


I think that good work declares itself instantly.
The very premise of Schmuck is to declare what is considered the best- internationally- in contemporary jewellery.
At the best of times, labels and accolades are mostly subjective. Often a result of current fashions in aesthetics and theory. A reflection of the times.
Intention and placement are always contemporary considerations. It is where you put something that will define how it will be seen.
I believe that it is this point which defines what is exceptional contemporary work.

Robert Baines in the lecture stated that jewellery is not exempt from building artefact. That the individual through research and commitment to personal ideologies creates work that is contemporary. Interpretation and innovation supports this. And skill is integral to this as well. He was interested in raising the discussion of how individuals collect specific materials and spend their practice exploring such. I always think that this is a reflection of how very interesting life is.


Years ago I studied Art History at Melbourne University. Perhaps one of the best subjects that I took while I was there was called Race, Class and Gender in Australian Colonial Art. It was taught by Dr Jeannette Horn.

Young woman at Aldridge Lodge 1848
Mary Morton, 1806-1895
watercolour on ivory 7 x 6 cm

Mary Morton Allport seated in bushland with grasstrees

It changed the way I thought about and approached art. All of a sudden I realized the importance of context. That things come from somewhere. And that they are informed and shaped by what surrounds them. I remember writing an essay on portrait miniatures in Colonial Tasmania. On a good day at the age that I was then, I would have said that that was possibly one of the most boring subjects that I could think of. After much reading and a shift in thinking, I became fascinated by the subject (and it also furthered my commitment to studying jewellery.) So what does this have to do with what is contemporary jewellery? These issues inform the creation of the ideology of what is contemporary jewellery, and the discussion of such necessitates an acknowledgment of these agendas as well.


My recollections take me also to researching art movements such as the Angry Penguins which originated in Melbourne. There was much discussion of students going to the National Gallery of Victoria to learn about art, here ideas were disseminated and explored. What is written about, exhibited and promoted in our culture becomes strong in identity and then it is circulated as important.

Apparently the National Gallery has an excellent collection of contemporary jewellery and has shown a commitment to acquiring significant works. When the National gallery re opened a couple of years ago after it’s refurbishment I was so excited as I loved going there and missed it. I was also very interested in seeing how the display of jewellery would feature in its permanent collections. After much time exploring (passing the beautiful displays of pre – Colombian, Egyptian, and Asian art) on the floor with the display of contemporary furniture, I came across one vitrine holding a display of contemporary jewellery, it was pushed up against a wall on the walkway through to the contemporary art section. I was so disappointed. That this was the best that the gallery could offer. I cannot remember the exact display, but I think that it held a selection of works by Otto Kunzli, Warwick Freeman, Marian Hoskings, Mascha Moje, among others. It was great to see the work of these jewellers as I admire them very much. But where was the other work? Where were the traces of individuals careers and work that showed their development and innovation? Where was the dialogue between what was shown and the space that housed it?
A year or so later I saw an interesting curated installation in the permanent contemporary art section and included in the selection was a gold cuff by Gerd Rothman. A very small shelf had been made to display it and it made a dynamic contribution to the whole installation, sitting strongly with large paintings and sculptures. I found the whole display incredibly inspiring and uplifting. In Melbourne I find the dialogue that the National Gallery has with contemporary jewellery to be a very quiet one, one that has moments of brilliance, but mostly it can be fitted neatly into one display vitrine.

of the moment

Contemporary jewellery is best defined as in the most modern style; up-to-date.
Jewellery that is ‘production’ jewellery often seems to be discussed with distaste. A compromise.
As a maker of wedding rings and the like ( meaning I make production jewellery) I have been wondering where I fit in within this discussion. And seem to be viewing a lot of it from a greater distance these days.

One of my favourite artists is Kiki Smith. I think that she sums up for me what contemporary jewellery is.

I trust my work. It's a collaboration with the material, and when it's viewed, it's a collaboration with the world. What your work is resides in between those different spaces.
Kiki Smith

maybe what is contemporary is also what is courageous.