Interstices: the work of Helen Britton

Article  /  Artists   Essays   Curating
Published: 07.02.2017
Ted Snell Ted Snell
Ted Snell
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In a polarised world, we seek solace in the interstices, those allusive spaces between where possibility flourishes, where poetry is found. This is the territory of the artist, fuelled with an inquiring mind, intend on the deployment of accumulated knowledge. In this liminal zone, Helen Britton discovers the extraordinary in the everyday and re-focuses our understanding of what it means to be human./ Ted Snell

A text to understand Helen Britton's work. Published at her last catalogue edited on occasion of her exhibition Interstices at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.


Her studio is a Wunderkammer, a room of marvels where worlds collide, and meanings proliferate.  In this charged space of focused inquisitiveness, analytical investigation and passionate engagement she seeks out the exotic, the elemental and the esoteric with childlike wonder, determined to know more, to understand and to embrace what she encounters. She is driven by that sense of wonder when seeing reveals the unexpected and ignites the fuse of creative reinterpretation and intervention.  My objects are romantic, but also explorative and direct; collisions of elements from the chaos and order of lived experience. [1]
Releasing the emotional charge of this liminal zone is at the core of her practice. Richly populated by the imagination, fuelled by the experience of this world, in the studio Britton makes those synaptic leaps from what is, to what might be.  It is a space invaded by memories, shaped by encounters from the past and present, a space that is as much a fiction and a rich potpourri of conjecture, as a real space brimming with real things. 
Memories from childhood pervade the studio and are re-imagined there.  Her sense of wonder when confronted by the fabulous, when the annual Royal Agricultural Show brought the country to the city, when the carnival came to town.  A time when tantalising treats were offered in Show Bags full of promise - each a cornucopia of delight - and fear was artfully orchestrated in Side Show Alley.  There, the Ghost Train thrilled and terrified and the world was momentarily turned upside down. “The fear was genuine, but so was the fascination. Carefully kept trinkets from that distant past have become symbols of a primal contradiction, the allure of the unknown and ultimately unknowable[2].
These ideas coalesce within the studio, a space brimmed full of treasures, catalogued and collated, ready for reinvention, ripe for transfiguration. A place for play, serious play, where the relationships between objects, their histories, their materials and the contexts within which we relate to them are ‘played out’, then ‘playfully’ re-organised and ‘re-played’ in various scenarios and configurations. This sense of play is manifest in the final works, reminiscent of toys, reflecting a bright, joyous abundance in their boisterous assemblage of elements. Seriously playful they manifest both the optimism of childhood and the anxiety of lived experience.
Just as Gustav Mahler believed his symphonies … must be like the world. It must contain everything, so Britton embraces the bountiful gaze that accepts all possibilities, is open to all interpretations. And like Mahler her works are infused with that low rumble of imminent mortality. I see in these works all the effort, humour, joy and failure of our existence… We all live in hope and want luck, more than ever at this point in history … the sentiment that they convey reaches into the deepest abyss. [3]
As a consequence, the decision to wear her meticulously crafted objects implicates us in this narrative of humanity’s joys and quiet desperation.  It is not a neutral act to pin on one of Britton’s brooches or to place her ring on your finger or her necklace on your shoulders.  Her jewellery is an object of adornment, but with the inherent authority to question, probe and subvert. Adornment is political; it is a statement of membership, a proclamation of self, acceptance, and affirmation. It is an act of engagement with the world through an intimate relationship with the artist!
Significant art has always had that capacity to move us, to shift our thinking and to encourage us to dig deep into our souls. We are more self-aware, more empathetic and more attuned to our intimate and extended worlds by entering into Britton’s domain where objects and memories collide. As Harper Lee reminds us in To Kill a Mockingbird You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. And we can add to that until you wear the objects they have made!
In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs[4] the final stage is self-actualization, where we seek to realise our potential, self-fulfilment, personal growth and peak experiences. Once our biological and physiological needs are met, and our need for security and stability, love, and belonging, independence and respect have been attained we need to understand ourselves as participants in the theatre of existence.  As well as embellishing, enhancing and distinguishing the wearer these objects reinforce the sense of ourselves as characters interacting in a complex human drama. 
The terrain for this theatre of humanity is the body - her body, our bodies - landscapes formed by time and experience upon which each brooch, ring or necklace shapes new understandings and interpretations. Somewhere between, in that space orchestrated by Britton’s vision and our sense of who we are, is the point of re-activation and articulation of our relationship to the world.  Wearing a piece of Britton’s jewellery is the catalyst, the moment of opening up a new conversation, the point of frisson between one idea and its counter.  For Andrea Dinoto it is  … a means to express and share her deeply personal experiences of the world - its mysteries, confusions, and interrelated forms, both natural and man-made. [5]
Britton is herself ‘in between’, rooted in both Germany and Australia.  Her work is a meditation on her own history as she engages with artefacts and environments that act as powerful triggers. Both places are experienced physically and through memory, informed by her knowledge … of the vast and layered history reflected in the built environment [6], as she meticulously constructs her work from metals, glass, precious stones and found components.
In Germany …there is a mixture of a natural and constructed environment so intimately entwined that there is no possibility to discern any seams between the two. [7]  Germany’s weight of history stabilizes, while Australia generates a sense of urgency and of making do.  Australia’s history can only be borrowed from those that have lived here for millennia; it is a place that requires re-forming and re-imagining to make it your own.  George Seddon has described this process as taking ‘imaginative possession,' when individuals become rooted in a particular environment and make it their own. An environment becomes a landscape only when it is so regarded by people, and especially when they begin to shape it in accord with their taste and needs, [8] he explains, and on the liminal beaches, the space between ocean and land, Britton forges that connectivity.  
In Australia, Britton draws from the specificity of the Western Australian coastal environment and its openness as a space for reflection and inspiration. Over the past two decades she has created a small series of private works on regular visits to Western Australia, and her survey exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth, Western Australia, will be the first time they will all be shown together in the context of a new body of work that interprets this activity from the distance of her studio in Munich.  Worlds collide … from the chaos and order of lived experience. [9]
The studio is where ideas become form. I am building in a way a very private world, that accepts no compromises. My practice is accumulative, experimental and heterogeneous, faithful to my life experience. It is also a conscious dialogue with matter, form, and ideas [10]. A studio is a place of control and determination.  When so much in the world is uncontrollable and predetermined artists reassert their rights as innovators, arbiters and instigators.  Britton takes that responsibility seriously and materialises her ideas in the safe zone of the studio. Kunst ist schön, macht aber viel Arbeit[11] commented Karl Valentin, and in the studio, the beautiful is crystallised through hard work, with skill, clever manipulation and a deep respect for materials.  Whether wrought or found, traditional or unexpected, high or low, precious or not, the accumulated history of these materials is welded into new configurations, into fresh conjunctions to create beautiful art.
Making is fundamental to Britton’s practice.  How things go together reflects the rationale of their union, and it remains visible.   Each individual work is a machine for capturing ideas, processing relationships and combining the intangible in concrete form.  Each brooch is wrought from the blueprint of a complex process of research, conceptualisation, thinking and re-thinking. Their final form is the synthesis of memory, history, meaning and revelation. I play out the tensions and beautiful collisions of my practice in a small complex space [12], Britton comments, and in that liminal space of the studio new forms evolve, new interpretations emerge and possibilities expand endlessly.
Once they leave the studio all interpretations are open and each work becomes re-activated through our engagement as wearers / participants / viewers.  Examining these finely crafted objects we seek out the codes that resonate.  For some this requires a forensic investigate of the structure that holds the elements together, while for others it is detailed analysis of the component parts and their interconnections that provides meaning. We are open to their histories and each of us brings our own narratives to play as we enter into multifaceted dialogue. This is the moment of transfiguration!
Ted Snell
October 2016 


[1] Helen Britton, Munich 2016
[2] Helen Britton, Munich 2016
[3] Helen Britton: Unheimlich 2014
[4] Abraham Maslow,"A Theory of Human Motivation", Psychological Review, Vol 50(4), Jul 1943, 370-396.
[5] Andrea Dinoto, Helen Britton: Narratives of Creation, Metalsmith Magazine, Volume 34 Issue 3, pp45-51, 2014
[6] Helen Britton, accessed 30 October 2016
[7] Helen Britton, notes to Forest, 2011
[8] George Seddon, Searching for the Snowy: An environmental history, Allen & Unwin, 1994, p.xxxv.
[9] Helen Britton, Munich 2016
[10] Helen Britton, Munich 2016
[11] Karl Valentin
[12] Helen Britton, Munich 2016


About the author

Ted Snell was born in 1949, at Geraldton, Western Australia. After completing an Associateship in Art Teaching he travelled to England to undertake postgraduate study in Birmingham. He returned to Australia and began teaching part-time at WAIT (now Curtin University of Technology), where he was Professor of Contemporary Art and Dean of Art, John Curtin Gallery. In 2009 he was appointed as Director of the Cultural Precinct at the University of Western Australia.

Over the past two decades he has contributed to the national arts agenda through his role as Chair of the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, Chair of Artbank, Chair of the Asialink Visual Arts Advisory Committee and as a Board member of the National Association for the Visual Arts. He is currently Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.

He has been a commentator on the arts for ABC radio and television and is currently art reviewer for The Australian and a regular contributor to local and national journals. He has published several books and has curated numerous exhibitions, many of which document the visual culture of Western Australia. Ted Snell is also a visual artist and since 1968 he has shown his work in solo exhibitions in Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, and in numerous group exhibition. His work is represented in many public and private collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Artbank.