The end of it all has already happened. A post-modern narrative on the jewellery of Lisa Walker
Article / Artists
André Gali. Photo by Lasse Fløde.
- André Gali
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The present article by André Gali is one of the texts at the book 0 + 0 = 0 by Lisa Walker.
Lisa Walker’s aesthetics definitely challenge the notion of the “author”. The objects Walker uses are already coded with social, economic, symbolic, personal and material meanings that can be drawn upon, developed or deconstructed and reconstructed, and value added.
The future, “as we know it,” is disappearing, and yet this future is simultaneously what the present is hedged against. The always-looming threat of extinction is growing stronger and more intense, and not the just extinction of us humans or our communities, but life, organic and inorganic, as well. Visions of environmental a financial catastrophe loom large on a shattering horizon. The current “critical” climate change propels everything into a state of emergency that cognitively both erases and conflates the present and its pendant, the future. Peter J. Amdam (2015) (I)
The idea that whatever is around you may be transformed into art merely by an artist’s gesture, as established by Marcel Duchamp when he proposed the “readymade” as an art object equally as valuable as anything else, has fuelled the idea that an object of art is not in itself separate from reality; it is the context that defines whether it should be interpreted as art. This implies that an ordinary object may gain some sort of art-value when placed in a gallery or museum. I think the readymade-cum-art – whether it is a found or bought object or, as so often in Lisa Walker´s case, a received object – involves a wonderfully magical gesture that places contemporary artists in the same category as the sorcerers of medieval times, although the magical transformation in the former case primarily happens in the mind of the onlooker. This is a gesture that also signifies a transgression between art and life.
The concept of transgression is thoroughly investigated in Jean Baudrillard’s book The Transparency of Evil (1993) (II) in which he describes a situation in which the previously separate domains of the economy, art, politics and sexuality collapse into each other. This is a typical trait of the postmodern era, which could be described as a dissolving of modern categories.
The readymade is thus connected to postmodernism in more ways than one; if anything can be art, than art is not distinct from anything. For Baudrillard this leads to a “conspiracy of art” in which art is kept artificially alive through the art institution – galleries, museums, curators, critics and the like. (III)
Postmodern mantras such as “the end of history”, “the end of art” and “the end of ideologies” – or similar statements such as “the death of the author” and “the death of the real” – come to mind. In fact Lisa Walker´s work can easily be discussed within the frame of postmodern thinking. Her recent show at Galerie Biro in Munich carried the charged title “The End” – in my mind it was clearly engaging in the discussions mentioned above. I wonder if the exhibition was meant as a statement about the current status of art jewellery.
If not the end of art jewellery, what could the title refer to?
If we consider what is written on Walker’s website, that she “makes pieces for the future”, it is tempting to go in another direction (which may be sort of postmodern, but what the heck). We could consider the title as summing up what all these various references and acts of nullification of material worth actually mean. No material seems more precious than any other, and skill doesn’t trump ideas. In fact the hierarchal structures of power that are at play in contemporary value systems seem to flatten out.
A point zero.
An effective end.
For Lisa Walker all kinds of objects can be transformed into jewellery. A laptop, a wooden toy plane, playmobil figures, sheep´s fur, a mannequin´s hand, a plastic tray, an African mask, gossip magazines, an apron, a shoe, a wine box, a photograph, toy snakes, a wooden spoon, plastic vampire teeth, leftover pieces of cut green jade, old cellphones, oboe reeds – these are just a few of the things you can encounter in Walker´s jewellery. They could be handmade, mass produced or recently 3D printed. Sometimes she reworks the original pieces substantially, sometimes they´re basically as they are with a pendant. Ready to wear.
The use of material is so diverse that classifying her work by material provides no meaning. Her chosen subjects come from so many different cultural settings that it is hard to pin down a coherent narrative in her work. She has no “style” or recurring iconography. In many ways her work may appear as an enigma when you encounter the pieces in a gallery or around somebody´s neck. We have to look at the structure of things, to the idea (concept and ideology) that makes all objects in the world potentially worthy of being turned into jewellery.
In his short but eminent article “Lisa Walker: Necklace”, renowned jewellery curator and critic Damian Skinner describes Walker’s artistic practice as play, or as a game: “How much or how little can you do to something to transform it into jewelry? What are the weirdest kind of objects you can use in a piece of jewelry and get away with it? What kind of intervention is going to be most successful?” (IV)
The concept of play may of course be discussed in relation to any art form. It is defined as “voluntary, somehow pleasurable, distinct temporally from other behavior, and distinct in having a make-believe or transcendental quality” by Professor of Anthropology Dr Edward Norbeek. (V)
The concept is centered on the idea that play is “not consciously utiIitarian” and stands in structural contrast to work. While work serves a rational purpose, play (and art) does not. However, play may serve a purpose on a structural level, by offering a space in which behaviour and thinking can be experimented with, and in which new meaning can be established.
It is tempting to describe Walker’s practice as an “endgame”, referring not so much to the game of chess as to Samuel Beckett’s play (VI), in which “endings and beginnings are intertwined”, suggesting that “existence is cyclical” (VII). In many ways, Beckett shows how the end of progress and history provides an absurd but fruitful situation for play. In Waiting for Godot (VIII), for example, the characters are engaged in irrational conversations and behaviour while waiting in the wilderness for Godot (thought by many to refer to the loss of God as a guiding principle in modernity). The structure of the play was described by literary critic Vivian Mercier as “nothing happens. Twice.”(IX) Although repetition is not a typical trait of Walker’s jewellery, the act of turning readymades into jewellery is a repetitive gesture and provides a space for the play of references, material and juxtapositions.
More than anything, Walker’s jewellery pays homage to the do-it-yourself tradition established by the punk movement in the 1970s. In fact, Walker has a punk attitude to consumer society that runs through her oeuvre; she assembles objects – often with personal histories and origins – and puts them into the public realm with new, counter-cultural meaning. In early punk fashion, for example with the clothing of the Sex Pistols, everyday objects were adapted to pinpoint the subcultural aesthetics; for instance, safety pins were used as earrings and trashed clothes were held together with tape or safety pins – pointing towards an idea that everybody could dress fashionably regardless of money (for expensive materials) or mending skills.
Historically the British punk movement recalled many of the philosophies of the Situationists International, an “international organization of social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists, prominent in Europe from its formation in 1957 to its dissolution in 1972”. (X) Central among the members were the Karl Marx-influenced Guy Debord, well-known for his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle (XI), a book that was very influential for the aforementioned Baudrillard. It suggested that consumer society – or the society of the spectacle – was a bleak façade covering true reality. To get back to the real, artists and activists could shock the structures of consumer society through the use of methods such as détournement (meaning hijacking) and dérive (meaning drift). While détournement is a way of hijacking symbols of consumer culture and turning them against themselves (as Adbusters often do in their work), dérive is a revolutionary strategy to reuse public spaces in ways they were not intended to be used. In Walker’s work, both these strategies are set in play when she highjacks symbols of consumer society and adds meaning and substance. She may then place them in the conventional space of the art (jewellery) gallery as a fresh, poignant and possibly aesthetically challenging critique of that space and the history and culture belonging to it.
Walker tackles many questions concerning power relations and ownership in postmodern society in her work. As I wrote in my review of “The End” for Art Jewelry Forum (XII): “the exhibition . . . suggests an alternative system of economy: one that borrows, receives, reinterprets, passes on”. I was discussing the gift economy and how Walker deals with jewellery within a system in which she receives gifts but also passes them on to the viewers as “free” experiences. In this way I feel her works point to “a possible way out of the cold hands of corporate capitalism that threaten to short-circuit modernity, without succumbing to its opposite; that exit route finds its origin in the powerful concept of giving and in a kind of usership that disregards ownership” (XIII).
Walker’s way of engaging in the already-made objects, how she uses them to establish new meanings and systems of thinking, have similarities with what Stephen Wright describes in his essay “Toward a Lexicon of Usership” (XIV). Wright describes our current situation as “a broad usological turn across all sectors of society” in which (within network culture) “users have come to play a key role as producers of information, meaning and value, breaking down the long-standing opposition between consumption and production”.
Wright describes usership as opposing the concept of autonomy put forth by thinkers such as Theodor Adorno. In fact, usership is something that liberates art from the constraints of the art world and the disinterested look that Immanuel Kant put forth as the sublime trait of art, which makes it stand outside the reality of desire. Usership challenges the notion of the authoritative figure of the author, and enables anyone to form and formulate reality. “Hacking” is a term Wright uses to describe this kind of usership, thus directing our thoughts back to the Situationist International and their method of détournement.
I will not go further into Wright’s concept of usership here. I’ll just mention that on a larger social and economic scale, he implies that we’re experiencing a transition towards a new economy in which exchange and production are replaced by “pollination” and contribution. It is in this transition that his concept of usership is introduced, not just into the art world but into wider society.
Lisa Walker’s aesthetics definitely challenge the notion of the “author”, as we have mentioned. The objects Walker uses are already coded with social, economic, symbolic, personal and material meanings that can be drawn upon, developed or deconstructed and reconstructed, and value added. This act involves the transformation of a collective object into a singular object. Although this process draws on the meanings already implied by the object, it offers a particular interpretation and thus an alteration of those meanings. The works offer themselves to the wearer to be reused, reinterpreted and sent back into circulation, with their signs and symbols slightly altered, and with new stories to accompany them.
About the author
André Gali is head of critical theory and publications at Norwegian Crafts and series-editor of Documents on Contemporary Crafts. Gali is also Founding Partner and Senior Project Manager at the recently established Kunstforum Culture and Art Advisors. Before that he was founding editor of the Nordic art quarterly Kunstforum and the website www.kunstforum.as, founded in 2009. Gali was editor of Kunstforum until 2015. He holds a Master’s degree in theatre theory with a thesis entitled ‘Andy Warhol Superstar: On the Artist Myth, Media and Mechanical Theatricality’ (2005). Gali has worked as a freelance art critic, photographer, essayist, journalist and lecturer, and has published essays on art and economy, queer and feminist art practices, the gaze of the middle class, and contemporary art jewellery. Selected catalogues and books he has contributed to are: Fornebu Art and Architecture Destination (2017, FADE), Tone Vigeland: Jewelry – Object – Sculpture (2017, Arnoldsche Art Publishers) On Collecting (editor, 2017, Norwegian Crafts & Arnoldsche Art Publishers), Crafting Exhibitions (editor, 2015, Norwegian Crafts & Arnoldsche Art Publishers), Reinhold Ziegler: Cosmic Debris (2014, Arnoldsche Art Publishers), Aftermath of Art Jewellery (2013, Arnoldsche Art Publishers), Museum for Skills (editor, 2013, Norwegian Crafts) and Sigurd Bronger: Laboratorum Mechanum (2011, Arnoldsche Art Publishers). Gali has been on the board of the Norwegian Critic’s Association (2009-2011) and leader for the art section at the Norwegian Critic’s Association (2010-2012).
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