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.