Condensed Love. Investigating the Psycho-Social Response of Object Design and Creative Making

Article  /  CriticalThinking
Published: 10.07.2024
Yinuo Yu
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Quarantine trapped me back into an oppressive family life. During a rare outing, I retrieved a ceramic piece I had spent a month making. On the way back from a heated argument with my mother about whether to politely reject scam calls, she dramatically left me in the middle of the crossroads and sped away. When I got home, I wanted to imitate my father's punching gesture, so I swung a chisel hammer and shattered it. It was not a relief. Half an hour later, I collected the largest pieces. Now it serves as a sharp candleholder.

Within both private and public survival scenes, I discussed how emotional connections are formed between memory-related objects and the conflict survivors, and how commemorative creative actions encouraged by memories and survival objects activate embodied narratives. Taking inspiration from this, I examined how personal challenges can be discussed through materials, the process of wearing and exhibiting.

This article is part of an ongoing research investigated and presented by Yinuo Yu, as part of their internship with Klimt02.
Both domestic and mass violence produce profound psychological consequences, including various aspects and levels of post-trauma-associated emotions, sensations, or activities, with widespread and lasting impacts on victims [1, 2]. Factors such as the multiplicity of social identities and shifts in power relations have unveiled increasingly complex forms and consequences of contemporary violence [3]. These issues, whether they involve physical and psychological harm, or social infringements in both domestic and public spheres, demand more detailed exploration and heightened awareness. However, it is concerning that the normalization and trivialization of attitudes towards violence in modern society are bringing difficulties for survivors to explain themselves [4, 5].

My upbringing was spent in fear, shame love and apathy, leaving me in survival mode; This has impacted my life as an adult. These emotions are also what drives me to work on this article. The frequent references to conflict and survival do not indicate increased fragility in modern humans; instead, they may suggest that a broader range of unidentified violence in contemporary society has been tolerated due to the collectivist paradigm [5]. In this article, the collectivist paradigm refers to the emphasis on group conformity, cohesion and interconnectivity on the individual and societal level, such as gender roles, cultural norms, political dynamics and power structures [6]. This article aims to share my understanding of the significance of objects and creative making in the context of complex psychological responses of survival. It explores several contemporary jewellery works by artists, designers, and researchers.

Disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology and cultural geography often emphasize the subjectivity of individuals and societies, attributing emotional value to objects [7]. This idea suggests that some objects possess a unique capability to link a person's multifaceted emotions with realistic circumstances. It examines how individuals interact with the objects and how their attitudes have shifted over time. These objects may witness the development of abstract emotions within the framework of complex events.

The book titled Vita by anthropologist Joao Biehl documented the survival patterns of marginalized groups, who are abandoned by family and society amidst the intricate backdrop`of social inequality in late 20th century Brazil [8]. It unwraps personal experiences and the persistence or disappearance of objects that consistently intertwined with the conditions of the individuals involved:

Next to Luiz, a young black man who called himself Andarilho (Wanderer) had made what looked like a sanctuary: bread crumbs, old magazines, and a violin of wooden sticks and cardboard.
"I keep all these things and I take care of them."
Why do you keep them?
"For remembrance."
Of what?
"Of how things were before."
And now?
"Now I have to redo everything, in my own way. To condense things so as to relive history with myself."

Quote from Vita: life in a zone of social abandonment by João Biehl

Objects and visual elements associated with conflicted experiences are regarded as carriers of memory. Artistic endeavours like Nina Lima and Loukia Richards, who reconstruct objects’ commemorative nature, transfer personal items and private memories to the public domain. The emergence of jewellery like these challenges dominant historical narratives and claims of ownership [9]. As highlighted by Zuzanna Dziuban on the research of post-conflict materialites, she emphasized that, "Surviving things can manifest and bring into the present marginalized or silenced aspects of the past.” [7]

Loukia Richards. Neckpiece: St. Barbara, 2020. Wool, textile, leather, plastic, silk, embroidery. Photo by: Christoph Ziegler
Statement: Token of faith
My grandfather kept a tiny St.Barbara icon in the pocket of his jacket while fighting in the Northern Epirus front during the Italian offensive against Greece in WW II (1940-41). St.Barbara might have reminded him of my grandmother who raised her glass at the family banquets to wish him well and was serving at Red Cross back home. The icon condensed memories, wishes and faith and gave him the strength to carry on.

Nina Lima. Object: Scapular, 2019. Antique iron chain, iron wire, acrylic, acetate printing, steel screws 100 x 10 cm. Photo by: José Terra. From series: Blue Blood

It is discussed by psychological researchers Paula and Steven that the articulation of memory often falls into disputes over its truth and accuracy, accompanied by varying levels of emotional difficulties, which could influence or even obstruct the expression of time and actions by the conflict survivors [10, 11]. However, the concept of transformative remembering [12], based on one of the principles of psychoanalytic therapy, serves as a framework for revisiting the truth of the past with the use of fantasy. This framework enriches my understanding of the role of memory-related object in bridging the identities of the maker, experiencer and audience. It allows for a more inclusive process of recalling and sharing memories in a safer public space, facilitating understanding and interpretation. On the other hand, the emphasis on the understanding of narrative strategies gives possibilities to the use of contemporary jewellery, as a medium for reflecting upon personal memories, other than textual and oral recording.

365 Tags by Clodagh Molloy. Exhibition setup.

365 Tags by Clodagh Molloy is presented as an interactive installation that initiates discussions on the stigma surrounding mental health, through which each wearable tag documents a shared mental health story. Her work inspires my comprehension of this research, as the way she applied text on metal and enamel foregrounds a narrative approach centred on personal feelings. Her practice promotes visitor engagements, encouraging audiences to understand the emotions prior to stories, thus activating a deeper connection between individual experiences and the discussion on mental health. Although the personal memories carried by symbolic, abstract jewellery may not serve as solid evidence of objective reality, the act of sharing memories itself plays a role in creating, defending, and altering norms and values, as well as in shaping behaviours, customs, and living practices [13].
Nora Sarlak. Brooch: Scent of Nirvana, 2019. Cinnamon, turquoise, brass. 13 x 2.5 x 11.5 cm

Contemporary jewellery research and practice are particularly suited for examination during periods of vulnerability in times of uncertainty, as they convey touching beliefs in healing and a desire for protection in various aspects. The Scent of Nirvana by Nora Sarlak incorporates aromatic medicinal plants and gemstones with various healing properties and cultivates positive emotions through olfactory stimulation during wear [14]. Her work explores the possibilities of contemporary jewellery in the field of improving individual mental health status through the symbiotic relationship between the human body and wearable objects.

Bridget Catchpole. Neckpiece: Stages of Healing Core Sample 1, 2022. Sterling silver, Pacific Ocean plastic, beauty product packaging, glass, rubber, tinted eco-resin. 9.5 x 0.05 x 46.5 cm. Photo by: Kris Krüg. From series: Stages of Healing

The Stage of Healing series by Bridget Catchpole contextualizes the concepts of trauma and healing within the discussion of the natural environment, through which her approach aligns with the purpose of this article. Materials commonly regarded as waste, such as plastics, carry the metaphoric meaning of abandonment in her practice. However, she valued the materials and transformed them into therapeutic energies as part of her making process. She shares her belief that, “this concept could extend beyond the personal and enter the collective consciousness when we apply similar questions on a larger scale.” [15]
Sondra Sherman. Pendant: Sertraline 75mg, 12g Healing Stones, 2024. Aluminum, sterling, obsidian, moonstone, labradorite, tigers eye, apatite, turquoise, ruby fuchsite, rose quartz, red jasper, malachite, agate, epidote, suede. 8.5 x 14 x 0.7 cm. Photo by: Luna Perri

Sondra Sherman's piece, Sertraline 75mg, 12g Healing Stone, explores the beliefs associated with the healing and protective capabilities of jewellery, as well as its implications for psychological support. Her practice references superstitious behaviours' influence on fostering positive attitudes. By combining molecular diagrams of conventional psychopharmacology with healing gemstones, her approach provides a sensitive and open response to coping with unstable mindsets during challenging times.

The integration of these mediums may also provoke introspection and discussion about the complex interplay of beliefs, anxieties, and healing. For instance, the controversial nature of psychopharmacology's effectiveness and superstition, particularly within cross-cultural or cross-regional contexts, could be another form of difficulty accompanying anxieties in real-life challenges. 

Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, in his research on interrogative design, also discusses the dynamics between artists and marginalised communities. He explains that transitional artworks possess a ‘design-like’ property [16]. By incorporating Donald Winnicott’s transitional object theory, the creation of these artworks operates at the juncture of addressing internal psychological needs and interrogating external societal realities. This dual functionality serves to foster and facilitate the transformation of exclusion into inclusion.

Susan Cohn. Fourth leaf clover pin with list of ten request. Image by Dane Lovett

Within the context of conflict and survival, the benevolent counteractive energy embodied in contemporary jewellery cannot be overlooked. Australian jewellery designer and maker Susan Cohn suggested that “The Contemporary Jewellery Movement may be understood as a subculture formed in response to the post-war modernist displacement of makers.”[17].

Meaninglessness (2017-2019) is a performance-based jewellery project that Susan Cohn and David Pledger developed in response to Danish legislation enacted in 2016, which permitted authorities to confiscate cash and other valuables, including jewellery considered 'meaningless,' from refugees [18]. One of the notable actions of this project involved the making of brooches taken inspiration from the fourth leaf of clovers indicating good luck, and the giveaway to the audiences after the performative lecture. This project contributes to the ideas I am investigating as it explores activism as a method to examine the social and political significance of contemporary jewellery. Susan Cohn utilised the common act of gifting within the language of jewellery, to convey messages of hope for object survival, thereby critically addressing the neglect by the government towards the emotional value of jewellery.

In conclusion, this article explores various responses of objects and creative making within the context of contemporary violence and conflict. Within both private and public survival scenes, I discussed how emotional connections are formed between memory-related objects and the conflict survivors, and how commemorative creative actions inspired by memories and survival objects activate embodied narratives. Taken inspiration from this, I examined how traumatic memories can be discussed through materials activated by the process of wearing and exhibiting. By putting it specifically to address psychological issues, I investigated the healing and amuletic functions of contemporary jewellery. Finally, I discussed other possible methods to expand the investigation on the social significance of the contemporary jewellery practice. My focus situates on the review of how objects and art practices convey the will to live, the courage to narrate, and the meaning of reflection.

How else might we convey the inspirations of survival, to live with greater courage?

Reference list:
[1] Joyful Heart Foundation. (2021). Effects of domestic violence.
[2] Adrienne Stith Butler, Panzer, A. M., & Goldfrank, L. R. (2011). Understanding the Psychological Consequences of Traumatic Events, Disasters, and Terrorism.; National Academies Press (US).
[3] Gaither, S. E. (2018). The multiplicity of belonging: Pushing identity research beyond binary thinking. Self and Identity, 17(4), 443–454.
[4] Balice, G. (2014). Contribution of Media to the Normalization and Perpetuation of Domestic Violence.
[5] Frøja Storm-Mathisen. (2024). “Violence is completely normal”: Managing Violence Through Narrative Normalization. British Journal of Criminology.
[6] Nickerson, C. (2023, October 16). Understanding Collectivist Cultures - Simply Psychology.
[7] Dziuban, Z., & Stańczyk, E. (2020). Introduction: The Surviving Thing: Personal Objects in the Aftermath of Violence. Journal of Material Culture, 25(4), 381–390.
[8] João Guilherme Biehl, & Torben Eskerod. (2013). Vita : life in a zone of social abandonment. University Of California Press.
[9] Young, S. (2018). Geographies of loss. Témoigner. Entre Histoire et Mémoire.
[10] Reavey, P., & Brown, S. D. (2007). RETHINKING AGENCY IN MEMORY: SPACE AND EMBODIMENT IN MEMORIES OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE. Journal of Social Work Practice, 21(1), 5–21.
[11] Mol, A. (2002) The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
[12] The concept of transformative remembering shifts the focus to the plot transitions in the narrative structure of memory and the continually changing subject positions within the memory landscape, utilizing fantasy to comprehend the narrative authenticity of childhood memories. Haaken, J. (1999) Chapter One. heretical texts the courage to heal and the Incest Survivor Movement, De Gruyter.
[13] Weines, J. (2016, May 12). Local ecological knowledge as source material for historical research. Reflections on interdisciplinary collaboration, politics and history through the Fávllis network and the Porsanger Fjord.
[14] Sarlak, N. (2024) Medicinal Plants in Contemporary Jewelry.
[15] (2023). Art jewellery is a sculptural form that pivots around the body, though as an art piece, there is room to communicate other ideas, too. Interview with Bridget Catchpole by Klimt02.
[16] Wodiczko, K. (1999) Critical vehicles, MIT Press.
[17] Cohn, S (2009) Recording jewellery identity, body, survival.
[18] Meaninglessness trailer (2018), YouTube.

About the author

Yinuo Yu is a Chinese jewellery designer and maker currently working on Gadigal Land. They graduated from UNSW Art & Design and have been working across disciplines including metalsmithing, ceramics and screen-printing. Their works seek freedom and the will to survive from contradictory emotions through exploring personal identity, memory and interpersonal dynamics.

Instagram: problematicjeweller_