CHAINreaction: Handshakes at the Refinery. An Exhibition Review by Sarah McClintock

Published: 03.06.2021
Sarah McClintock
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A handshake is a sign of peace, in the offering of open hands you are showing that you bear no ill will. A give and take, there is no winner in a handshake. Instead, it is a mutual ritual, an exchange of power and expression of trust and respect.

HANDSHAKE is a mentoring and exhibition project with a continuing progressive programme that over the years has benefited a great number of NZ emerging jewellery artists.

The Handshake Project is a mentorship and exhibition project established and led by Wellington-based jeweller, tutor, curator, and writer Peter Deckers. For the last decade it has paired emerging jewellers with established makers to develop their practice and strengthen the community of contemporary jewellers in our country. Making can become a solitary endeavour, alone in the studio, the jeweller often works without a cohort. Handshake provides not only mentorship and guidance from established artists but also the comfort and support of peers in the other mentees. Rather than remaining segregated from each other, the project provides connection. CHAINreaction was an exhibition that was on display at Refinery ArtSpace in Nelson 27 March – 17 April 2021 that celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Handshake Project and the various makers, artists, and jewellers who have made Handshake the force it is today. 
What links the chains in CHAINreaction is an understanding of connection that is central to the Handshake project. The only requirement given to the 49 artists was that their chain measure at least 1.2 meters. Each piece, from the intimate to the insane, was then joined together in a singular chain. The connections were both sympathetic and jarring. An important distinction is that these are not described as a series of necklaces, but instead chains. Chains bring with them complicated meanings – they bind, restrain, support, and connect. They represent not only physical links but the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual relationships between people, places, and objects. These links are strong, but they are not always comfortable. The emotional weight of the chains that bind us to each other is most poignantly displayed in Amelia Rothwell’s tears for A mother (1942-2020), A friend (1972-2020), and Caroline ThomasIsambard, her interpretation of Victorian memorial jewellery and the weight of love and grief. Loss is guaranteed, and while there is pain, we cannot live without each other. 
Jewellery is also a repository for memory. Passed through generations and bought to commemorate important events, they act as talismans of the past and the people we care about. The labels that accompany the chains also reinforce this reading. Presented in the form of swinging specimen or archival tags they transform the chains into artefacts. They become important representations of the history of the project. In the adjoining room was an exhibition that detailed this history. Mind-mapped on the walls was text and images from each iteration of the project. Rather than a linear progression, people and ideas weave throughout the project to create a community that is bound together through complex strands of ideas, place, objects, and individuals. 

Exhibiting jewellery is a challenge. In its display in a gallery environment, it is being removed from that which gives it life - the body. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many of the works in the exhibition reference the human form. Katie Pascoe’s Feeling Brains, Mia Straka’s Many Manos hands, Peter Decker’s 4 CORNERS figures, Antonia Boyle's Screwed together bones, and Sandra Schmid’s Breath are each concerned with the physical and metaphorical potential of the human body as a vessel for knowledge, emotion, resilience, and connection.

The physical presentation of the chains in the gallery was as a continuous loop, you entered into the artwork and became immediately trapped within it. Many of the makers played with the form of the chain itself. As a series of rings connected in a continuous loop, it is a perfect metaphor for the Handshake project. Each individual maker enters the loop and connects to the other makers. They maintain their own autonomy and individuality, but now have the support of the community that surrounds them. Renee Bevan and Regan Gentry took this even further in their works through the inclusion of more makers. Both invited others to create a loop in their chain, either physically as in Bevan’s ongoing untitled chain or through the lending of material as in Gentry’s Joining Forces. By inviting others into the making process, these artists and the Handshake project, create a circle of influence. A circle has no visual hierarchy, therefore each part is equal. In Handshake, while there is a formal mentor and mentee relationship, growth, knowledge, and connection flow both ways. 
The context in which the links within CHAINreaction were created cannot be ignored. It is too soon to consider the influence that this COVID era will have on art, but that these chains were made in 2020 is central to our understanding of them. In Aotearoa we know we had it ‘easy’, with a government that locked down our borders and moving quickly, we were able to return to a ‘normal’ life fairly quickly. It meant that in March 2021, exactly one year after the country was locked down, a large group of jewellers were able to gather together to celebrate this exhibition and the Handshake project. While we feel lucky, we also live in a global community and this ongoing pandemic has made clear how essential our connections to each other are to our lives.

Nik Hanton. Chain: Kin is Kween, 2021. Textile, PLA. 360 cm Long

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About the author

Sarah McClintock
is the Curator and Collection Manager at The Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū in Nelson, NZ. She has a M.A. in Art History from Victoria University, Wellington and one of her primary curatorial interests is contemporary craft. She has published widely through art-form publications, magazines and is a contributing writer to Ceramics New Zealand.