Lecture by Ted Polhemus at the Koru2 International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium

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Published: 03.01.2007
Lecture by Ted Polhemus at the Koru2 International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium.
Ted Polhemus
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Instead of using ornament to secure us symbolically within our tribe, we use ornament by and large to set ourselves apart as separate, distinct individuals.
A conference about the idea of visual communication, ornament as a self presentation. Jewel as communication, as a visualization of a concept.

The following writing is the text of the catalogue for the Koru2 exhibition where all this ideas are explained.

The adorned ape
Our species - uniquely - has never been content to leave our bodies in their natural state. From the very earliest times our ancestors not only drew designs on their bodies with soot or pigments but devised all manner of curious ways of attaching all manner of curious objects onto their bodies. Recent, exciting excavations at the Blombos Cave on the coast of South Africa have unearthed a set of 41 perforated snail shells which, from their position, had clearly once been strung together in a necklace - dated to 73,000 BC, this is far older than anything found in Europe and (together with the carved ochre art objects found nearby) has revolutionised thinking about the origins and history of our species.

Although I said at the start that this drive to adorn the body is unique to our species, excavations in the Arcy-Sur-Cure region of France have found 35,000-year-old carved Neanderthal tooth pendants. During this period the last of the Neanderthals and the newly arrived Homo sapiens were living in the same parts of southern Europe and it was previously thought that the Neanderthals had simply copied the newcomers’ ornaments. But careful examination has revealed two completely distinct techniques: while our early ancestors in Europe (interestingly, as in the Blombos Cave) drilled a hole in their adornments, the Neanderthals carved out a circular grove in the top of the teeth from which a string or thong might be securely attached.

While these, the first pioneers of French fashion may have died out, our own ancestors thrived and with them so did ornament. No human society has ever been found which has no ornament (by which I mean simply some object worn on or attached to the human body). Such ornaments - as in the case of the snail shells and the animal teeth - might have been natural objects which were modified. Or, indeed, they might not have been modified at all: for surely, although they have not survived, even prior to 73,000 BC, our ancestors were no doubt sticking flowers or leaves in their hair or behind an ear. In their drive to find more and more ways of attaching objects to the body, cultures around the world devised techniques for piercing holes (and then sometimes enlarging these holes to astonishing size) in human flesh - techniques which (long denigrated as ‘primitive’ in the West) are now enjoying a phenomenal new popularity in our society and which offer exciting new possibilities for jewellery designers. At each stage of our species’ technological development - the shaping of flint, the forging of bronze and then iron, more recently, the development of plastics - ornament is one of the first (if not the first) occasions for showing off what this new technology is capable of. It is almost as if human technology has been consistently driven by the search for new styles of ornament.

It is commonly thought that it’s our sophisticated verbal language which sets our species apart from all other animals. But it could equally be said that it is our unique (the Neanderthals excepted) inclination to decorate, adorn and transform our bodies which makes us special. This observation seems trivial unless we appreciate the extent to which body decoration and adornment - like verbal language - are part of that ‘symbolic revolution’ which constitutes the true moment of our ancestors’ departure from the rest of the animal world. What holds us back from this realisation is a dogged presumption that the function of ornament is simply to ‘look nice’. The truth, however, is that just as no human society has ever been found which possess no adornment, equally, no human society has ever been found where such adornment is without meaning. Universally and throughout human history, the person who creates an ornament is engaging in a semiological activity. Many ornaments are never intended to be beautiful - a shaman’s black magic charm or a warrior’s grisly trophies of previous battles are specifically designed to be as horrific as possible. But all ornaments without exception are intended to convey some meaning; to have something to ‘say’.

For our ancestors and for those tribal peoples who, against the odds, still survive today, the meaning of ornament was inevitably social in nature - a visual symbol of one’s culture, it’s values and beliefs and of one’s role within that socio-cultural system. Today, in our post-modern world, the importance of ornament as signifier - as adjective - is at least as great as it was for tribal peoples but what it has to ‘say’ is almost always very different. Our need is to find ornaments (a watch, a mobile phone, a pair of glasses as well as a bracelet, a brooch, a necklace, a belly-button piercing or a pair of earrings) which visually advertise that which is special, unique and distinctive about us as individuals. Instead of using ornament to secure us symbolically within our tribe, we use ornament by and large to set ourselves apart as separate, distinct individuals. It is not simply a matter of signifying that we are unique and ‘interesting’, but, ideally, of finding style adjectives - ornaments, decorations, accessories and garments - which, taken together as a ‘style statement,’ summarise precisely what kind of interesting people we are.

This emphasis on Me, Me, Me seems sadly isolationist. But far from being the cause of the problem, such individualistic style adjectives are actually our best hope of overcoming such isolation. For our grandparents, great grandparents, etc. (and right back to our ancestors sitting in the Blombos Cave stringing their snail-shell necklace), who you were - you’re identity - was largely defined and limited by the world you were born into. Your tribe, your class, your religion, your ethnic background, your nationality, your race, etc. all boxed you into a particular ‘People Like Us’. Today, however, most of us no longer want to be limited to and defined by the traditional socio-cultural and racial criteria of our birth. Nor are we willing to judge others by these criteria. This revolution is one of the greatest, proudest achievements of our age but it brings with it a huge problem: How do I find ‘People Like Me’ within this potentially infinite, ever-expanding global village?

The solution which is increasingly emerging is to translate our personal values, beliefs, visions and dreams into the language of style. We live today in a remarkable Supermarket of Style in which there is unprecedented choice. From this Supermarket of Style we sample and mix our own personal presentation of self - one which signifies ‘where we are at’. This is a personal, often idiosyncratic ‘style statement’ but it has the potential to ‘speak’ to others who have a similar worldview, values and dreams. For our ancestors, in the beginning was the group and from that group emerged a tribal style. For us, lost in the infinite global village, first we construct an individual, personal style and using this visual language we can, hopefully, reach out to establish social networks, partnerships and relationships.

The language of style expresses itself in our choice of home decor, garden, furniture, typeface, packaging, cuisine, holiday and so forth and so on. But owing to its mobility and intimacy, it is our appearance style - the clothes, accessories, hairstyle, make-up and ornaments which we choose to put on our body - which is our most powerful and important advertisement of self. And ornament (jewellery, call it what you will but I think ‘ornament’ is useful at a time of experimentation beyond the traditional forms and materials of jewellery design) is a particularly important component of appearance style. And increasingly so. It used to be that fashion designers dictated a ‘total look’ and that one’s choice of accessories and ornaments were simply ‘co-ordinated’ to fit within this. No more: the old dictatorships are dead and we are liberated to sample as eclectic and as contradictory a mix as suits us. At the same time, as more and more of our garments become basic, timeless design classics (jeans, t-shirt, jumper, little black dress) it falls increasingly to the added on ‘adjectives’ of our ornaments and accessories to give personal meaning to our style statements. As our need to escape the vast black hole of homogeneous, undifferentiated global culture grows - and with it our need to project and express ourselves - we have to extract more and more message from the medium of our appearance. Unconstrained from the practical matters of keeping us warm, protected from the elements and modestly concealed, our ornaments are increasingly required to fulfil their equally practical and even more important function of pure signification.

As long as human beings need to visually express themselves (and this is already at least 75,000 years and still counting) they will be stretching further and further the extraordinary symbolic capabilities of adornment. Ornament design always was and always will be a vital communication industry.

About the author

Ted Polhemus, born 1947. Anthropologist, lecturer, author and photographer was born in Neptune, New Jersey, USA. he lives in London since 1969, Great Britain. He worked as an archaeologist in Winchester, GB. Polhemus seeks an understanding of culture and its people; the expressive nature of the body holding a unique fascination.
With Antonio Altarriba before starting the lecture.
With Antonio Altarriba before starting the lecture

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During the lecture.
During the lecture

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During the lecture.
During the lecture

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During the lecture.
During the lecture

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