Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Article - Helen Britton

Radiation, Fascination and the Pleasures of Detail


During Helen Britton’s stay in Auckland, she will lead a studio workshop for jewellers.[i] In a first draft of the workshop brief, titled Detail Mania, Britton discusses the ‘very small space’ of jewellery and through a series of questions, draws attention to the numerous decisions, conscious or otherwise, the process of making concentrates into that ‘very small space.’ Britton’s final question asks, “What qualities exist in a piece of Jewellery that draw people in, fascinate them and make them want?”


Water Garden (Courtesy of Objectspace)

I am not sure how purposefully Britton wrote the word ‘fascinate,’ but I want to pick it up. Fascination seems a good word to attach to jewellery. I have explored the word before; on that occasion I discovered that Motorola had used the term fascinator to name an encryption/decryption device designed for secure voice applications.[ii]  The use suggested fascination as a kind of cloaking device, or perhaps as a translation machine. This time, I want to think about fascination in relation to the particularities of detail. To begin, some definitions:


To be fascinated is to be caught in an irresistible field.

To fascinate is to bewitch or place under a spell; it is the ability to deprive a victim of the power of escape, as a serpent does, particularly through the power of the gaze.

A fascinator, is a magician or an irresistibly attractive person, and a headscarf worn by women, either crotched or of a soft material.[iii]


The first thing that strikes me about fascination is that I am the one on whom fascination operates. When I say, “That person fascinates me” I acknowledge that they have power over me, that the fascinator’s influence is irresistible. Fascination is not a matter of how I feel about the fascinator, but rather a matter of their influence over me. It is not so much that I am looking at them but rather, that that they are seeing me. The reference to a woman’s headscarf suggests fascination as a kind of framing device, as isolating the thing it wraps.


Midnight Cowboy (Courtesy of Objectspace)

Georg Simmel, an early German sociologist, writes that each individual emanates, to a greater or lesser degree, what Simmel calls ‘human radioactivity.’ He writes:


One may speak of human radioactivity in the sense that every individual is surrounded by a larger or smaller sphere of significance radiating from him; and everybody else, who deals with him, is immersed in this sphere. It is an inextricable mixture of physiological and psychic elements; the sensuously observable influences which issue from an individual in the direction of his environment also are, in some fashion, the vehicles of a spiritual fulguration.[iv]


Simmel’s reading of relations between individuals is highly charged.  His talk of radiations and fulguration, lightening type rays, makes the individual’s sphere of significance an elemental concern. He seems to suggest a world populated by energy fields meeting, colliding, resisting and sometimes merging with each other. The irresistible field of the fascinator now seems a matter of ‘human radioactivity.’


Lonely Boy (Courtesy of Objectspace)

The ability to fascinate is not restricted to humans. Simmel goes on to discuss how the material qualities of a piece of jewellery create a sphere of significance that surrounds the piece. When an individual wears a piece of jewellery, the ‘radiations of adornment,’ which are the sensuous attention jewellery provokes, transfer to the wearer, adding to their human radiations and causing a consequent enlargement or intensification in that individual’s sphere of significance. For Simmel, ‘the personality, so to speak, is more when it is adorned.’[v]


If jewellery has the power to fascinate, and I think it does, we must acknowledge that jewellery extends outwards toward the world. In some sense, jewellery sees us and returns our gaze. Not only does it return our gaze, it is also capable of ensnaring us in its qualities. In her workshop brief, Britton asks what the qualities are that allow jewellery to make us want it. With her work, she suggests that the careful detailing of a piece provides it with the ability to fascinate.


Britton’s jewellery abounds in detail. Each piece is an accumulation of small decisions concerning construction, materials, pattern and ornament. Some works of contemporary jewellery engage my attention through the precise relationship of form to material. Only when I investigate a particular work closely, do I then discover the small details of construction that hold the piece together. Britton’s work on the other hand immediately overwhelms me with detailing.


Dry Valley (Courtesy of Objectspace)

The quantity of detail, along with its complexity, slows down seeing. When I take in the simple piece, I do so in a glance. The eye quickly reads surface qualities and form, building an image of the thing it sees without the need to draw close. The work makes itself available even at a distance, the flash of metal and the swelling of a curve perhaps sufficient to seduce me.


Viewing Britton’s work, however, takes time. From across a room, the abundance of detail in an individual piece makes a quick reading difficult and perhaps that immediate confusion, or the need for intimate inspection, pushes me away, but if I find intricacies attractive, the fascination has begun. Moving closer clarifies detail. The eye travels the work understanding its construction, discovering how the parts form a whole. In the looking, the details of the piece capture me. I stay too long and find myself fascinated by jewellery’s radiations.

 By Grant Thompson

[i] Helen Britton’s workshop Detail Mania will be held on the weekend of October 7-8. 2006 in the Jewellery Studio of the  Manuakau School of Visual Arts.

[ii] Jerry Proc, Crypto Machines. (http://webhome.idirect.com/~jproc/crypto/fascinator.html).

[iii] Grant Thompson, ‘Traditional Route 13:50:00,’ in, Cities and Eyes Bronnenboek. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005, p230.

[iv] Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press 1950, p339.

[v] Ibid., p340

This article was commissioned on the occasion of Helen Britton's inaugural New Zealand exhibition at Objectspace titled Helen Britton: Urban Paradise Playground from 30th September 2006 - 21st October 2006. Published with kind permission from the author and Objectspace.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Article - Fran Allison


and the work of Fran Allison

To have your work associated with sentimentality could for many be considered an unforgivable insult. When I first approached Fran Allison with the proposition of writing a piece on the relationship of her practice to this highly loaded term she felt far from complimented. However through discussion Allison has come to the conclusion that the works she creates sit firmly within the territory of sentiment.

The reason for Allison’s change of heart is her new found understanding of the true definition of the term. Among other things it refers to personal experience expressed through feelings or emotion . This reading in itself is not distinctly different from popular perception, but the less then flattering connotations arise when sentiment becomes ‘cloying’. This subtle shift in perception changes sentiment from a straight forward expression of personal experience to a clinging, uncomfortable display. Allison believes that if the viewer, (including the academic), is made aware of the intended meaning of sentiment then they would be more open to an appreciation of work which references memory and nostalgia.

Allison believes that the negative associations many have towards sentiment and sentimentality is due to patriarchal conditioning. She considers there to be a distinct gender bias in the way individuals relate to the handmade which can be traced back to basic stereotypical differences between the sexes. The male system of response is considered to be logical, academic and orderly whereas the female becomes the antithesis; emotional, over-dramatic and unpredictable. Allison suggests that her work, which is very much entrenched in the arena of emotive response, becomes associated with this female response system and is therefore considered to lack depth. This is a reading she is very quick to dismiss. Because Allison’s practice is driven in many cases by a sense of nostalgia through the use of iconographic materials and symbols she believes she has the basic starting blocks to develop dialogues which critique readings related to the handmade and the domestic. By creating works which elicit emotional reactions Allison has provided access to ideas which more often then not work against stereotypical views of domestic craft and its association with sentimentality.

In her practice Allison has created a number of works which play on the relationship of domestic iconography to gender stereotypes. Her experimentation with the materiality of objects has led to an in depth understanding of how to reference issues while simultaneously questioning their relevance. In ‘pretty’ Allison combines all of the trappings of the ‘girly girl’ complex she has consistently rallied against. The neckpiece and brooch set feature all of the traditional associations, with shades of soft pink, delicate doily flowers and cushioned felt stems. Their overwhelming girlyness belies the distaste out of which they were conceived. Allison’s critique of the domestic does not stop at issues of femininity, her references to childhood nostalgia and the mother figure again question the way assumptions are made on face value. ‘Cheers’, a brooch made from the dislocated handles of two white china tea cups joined to form a love heart could be considered an analysis of the preconceptions we have about the happy home, the title relating a slightly forced over-optimistic joviality in the traditional call for thanks, which does little to reaffirm views that a women’s place is in the home. Both the ‘Bunnykins’ and ‘Running Bunny’ brooches rely on childhood associations that are both real and imagined. The children’s dinner sets these characters have been plucked from were designed to reinforce romantic notions of English country traditions which have no real application in an antipodean context. Childhood colonial conditioning imported from the motherland has dictated the way our memories have been shaped. These are not necessarily readings Allison has intended, but they clearly illustrate the breadth of interpretation that these seemingly innocuous works can illicit, and banish any preconception that her practice is an affirmation of antiquated domestic values.

Underlying much of Fran Allison’s work is an interest in ideas. Her practice, although very much about body adornment, is not solely based on an exploration of aesthetics. She is deeply aware of the impact iconographic materials and symbols have on the emotive responses of the viewer. Allison utilizes this consistently in an effort to draw attention to the gender biased readings of works experienced by makers exploring domestic themes in craft. Her willingness to embrace sentiment as an appropriate positioning for her practice does little to help break gender related stereotypes unless there is a greater understanding and acceptance of the true definition of this term. None of us can say we do not have feelings, that we have no emotions. The only obstacle left to us now is to concede that we are all susceptible to the lure of sentiment.

By Karl Chitham

'Running Bunny' Brooch, (Courtesy of the Artist)

'Cheers' Brooch, (Courtesy of the Artist)

Sentiment - The first in the Made To Order craft series appeared in ArtAll Magazine #77. This article has been published with kind permission from Artists Alliance.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Multitude - Urbis Article

This article appeared in Issue 52 of Urbis magazine:
The Multitude: Contemporary New Zealand Jewellery, curated by Karl Chitham and Caroline Billing for the 2009 Christchurch Arts Festival, was an open jewellery box of what's going on in new Aotearoa bling and trinketry. This show brought together the talents of top practitioners Fran Allison, Pauline Bern, Renee Bevan, Octavia Cook, Mary Curtis, Andrea Daly, Sharon Fitness, Warwick Freeman, Ross Malcolm, Shelley Norton, Alan Preston, Elfi Spiewack and Anna Wallis. The result was an Aladdin's cave of fascinating jewellery. The creative ingenuity and aesthetic intuition of these jewellers is breathtaking, especially in the way they combine the unlikeliest and often humblest of materials to create something exquisite. Gone are my preconceptions that the beuty of personal ornament is predicated on precious metals and polished stones, but also these carefully crafted pieces suggested playful and imaginative senses of humour. The display cases were innovative and simple. Cardboard and glass boxes were suspended from the half-lit cavern of the SoFA gallery basement in the Christchurch Arts Centre showed off the treasure they contained great style without distracting the eye. An exhibition that provides a complete design package is always a delight.
By Andrew Paul Wood